André Aciman, a renowned Egyptian-born writer and distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, spent a week at Dartmouth this Spring and shared his experiences and insights on writing. Most recently, the Out of Egypt author interacted with graduate students over lunch at the Montgomery House, where he resided as a Montgomery Fellow.
While taking questions from the intimate gathering of graduate students, Aciman spoke of “cheating” as a writer by using empty bits of time. “When do I write? All the time. In between tasks I need to do, or when I’m travelling. Whenever I get the time, really. In other words, I cheat,” Aciman said with a laugh. During an earlier public reading in the Wren Room at the Dartmouth Baker Library, the writer has also light-heartedly joked that he essentially stole from people. “As a writer you cull from everywhere and everyone. You rob them clean,” he had said, speaking of where he finds inspiration for his work.
Asked how he decided to become a writer, Aciman recalled a moment from his childhood when he realized he was good at writing. “In the fourth grade I wrote a poem about the night. Now I am very embarrassed by it but then I got complimented by my grandmother, my teacher, and everyone, for taking an idea and putting it into verse. I enjoyed that!” he said with a smile. He went on to talk about his motivation behind writing, and what propels him in a piece. “I have to want something from what I’m writing. As a writer, you fall in love with your characters. They could be good or bad, or old and decrepit. Go on! Fall in love,” he exhorted.
He did, however, warn aspiring writers in the room, graduate students in the Creative Writing track of the Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program, that sometimes writing can get boring even to the writer. “And then you have to ask yourself what your reader is going to think,” Aciman said. “Actual writing is a miniscule part of the process. You have to give yourself time to purge all of the nonsense that gets in between.”
The writer also shared a story of how great writing can come from unexpected places. He spoke of a piece he wrote called Lavender, which first started out as a speech for the Colloquium of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Michigan. He was asked to write a “meditative” piece, and although he was reluctant, he agreed. After he delivered the speech in Michigan, a lady in the crowd asked him why he wrote it. He told her that it was because he likes the smell of lavender as it reminds him of the scent of his father’s aftershave and one of his happiest memories is drying laundry in a field of lavender. “Just because an old lady in a crowd told me I should include that, Lavender became the piece closest to my heart in everything that I have written,” Aciman said.
On the vein of people reading your writing, Aciman also advises that writers must work with their editors, as he did in the making of Call Me by Your Name, a movie that will be out this year based on the novel he has written of the same name. “Don’t be a pain. If the editors buy one manuscript and you’re a pain, they’ll never buy a second.” Aciman also makes a cameo appearance in the film, where he plays an old man. The film will be released in the United States on November 24, 2017.
Students asked Aciman about what he thought of working as a writer “part-time” while having another job. He talked of his own work as professor at the Graduate Center in the City University of New York, which he said added to his writerly pursuits unlike, for example, a job in the business world, where he had attempted to get into but gave up. “We all know the nine-to-five is a myth. If you’re going to have two vocations, they have to be close enough so they can straddle each other without cheating either one,” Aciman said.