Geeta Dayal: “Writers shouldn’t be afraid to take the difficult path”
Author and journalist Geeta Dayal wears her influences pretty clearly: with a background in cognitive neuroscience and art and journalism, she’s written for outlets such as Wired, The New York Times, Slate and Frieze. Not only that, but she’s the author of a great book on Brian Eno’s groundbreaking album Another Green World.
We asked her about the way she writes.
How do you write? Do you have a specific routine or approach you take?
When I’m writing a big piece about music — a big critical essay, for instance — I tend to be very analog. I don’t just rely on the Web for research. I have shelves full of music books; my apartment is like a library.
I collect rare books, records, and various archival materials. I sometimes consult friends who are curators or archivists — people who have access to material that extends beyond what’s already on YouTube, or whatever. That way, I can go deeper into the story than what’s already available online.
I do trawl YouTube, just like everyone else, and I sometimes consult Wikipedia for basic reference. But I don’t necessarily trust Wikipedia, especially with more obscure artists. When I’m researching something historical — let’s say, 1950s electronic music, where the main characters might not be alive — I try to talk to actual people who knew them. Friends, ancestors, collaborators.
If I’m talking to someone who is a relatively mainstream figure — let’s say, when I interviewed William Gibson for Wired — I try to ask unlikely questions. That way I can get a much longer, weirder interview. So I’ll talk to Gibson about, say, his thoughts on the history of recorded sound in the 20th century, rather than hassling him about when the Neuromancer movie is coming out. It’s more fun for me and it’s more fun for him.
When I interviewed Brian Eno for a Frieze article, I talked to him about his memories of Conny Plank, a trailblazing German producer and engineer who died in 1987. I wasn’t talking to Eno about himself; I was talking to him about his friend. He responded very well to that; he really opened up in a big way.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned over time that you wish you’d known when you started out?
Tune out what other people say or do and just focus on your own work. It’s nice to get positive attention, but you need to have a thick skin. If you worry too much about what other people think, you’ll never get anywhere. All of the best artists and writers I know are polarizing, in some way. Don’t be afraid to take the more difficult path, or to write about topics that might seem strange or obscure.
If someone asked you for tips on being a better writer, what would you tell them?
One piece of advice I would give is to try to see the broader arc when you’re building a story. Sometimes that arc doesn’t exist, but always be on the lookout for how the different puzzle pieces might fit together. It’s easy to get bogged down in details, in doing endless research. But at some point you just have to start writing; you have to get the ideas down.