The rewards of discipline: Four Questions with Matt Schudel

Matt Schudel

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

To search for the emotional core, or the emotional truth, of a story. Particularly when you are writing about people, there should be an animating purpose, a one-sentence core emotional truth (sometimes not explicitly stated in a story) around which everything else revolves. This is not the same as a nut graf, but it’s more of a Rosebud moment. The best stories are built on a foundation of facts, but the best stories connect with readers through their emotional resonance.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise to me as a writer is that deadlines can be a good thing. Samuel Johnson said, in another context, that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The same could be said for the kind of writing most journalists have to do.

I want to state, right off, that I hate deadlines. But without them, I tend to dither away my time, not getting anything down on the page (or computer screen). I often say that I can’t think unless my fingers are attached to a keyboard, and there are times – especially on deadline — when a kind of flow kicks in, and the story drives itself.

It is pointless and self-indulgent to wait for “inspiration” to strike. Inspiration comes from the practice of writing itself, from “applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair,” as an annoyed editor once told me.

Discipline is its own reward. Just write down anything, even seemingly random words, and soon those words will coalesce into thoughts, ideas, sentences, paragraphs and, if you’re lucky, a story.  

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m hesitant to assign a metaphor to myself. So, at the risk of sounding a little crazy or arrogant, let’s say jazz improviser.

In an earlier journalistic life, I was a jazz critic, and to this day I often listen to instrumental jazz when writing. In some ways, musicians such as Bill Evans, Clifford Brown, Stan Getz and John Coltrane have filtered into my approach as a writer as much as, or more than, other writers have.

Classic jazz is all about the discipline of structure pushing against the freedom of improvisation. In a typical jazz tune, you begin with established chords, harmony and melody – the song’s grammar, so to speak. Then, as the song goes along, the musician will improvise off the melody and harmonic structure to create something new. The framework of the original tune is still there as a guide, but in different players’ hands, the improvisations can go in any direction. There are an infinite number of ways to develop a solo – it can be slow, fast, contemplative, humorous, furious – and *all of them are right.*

When working at the highest level, a soloist is inspired by the musicians around him, as they work together to create a spontaneous work of art.
It’s about being alive to the art of possibility. In jazz, you have to understand the harmony and the rhythm – the basic framework of your art – but then make it your own. The music takes you where it needs you to go.

The same can be true of writing. Keep your tools sharpened, including grammar, vocabulary and — especially for a journalist – your storehouse of facts and quotations. Be attentive. Have an idea of where you want to go.

Then put it all together on the keyboard, sort of like a pianist who blends all those years of practicing scales with the inspiration of the moment. When it’s done right, it sounds exciting, surprising, a little daring – and somehow exactly right.

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I once heard an interview with the British rock performer and songwriter Nick Lowe, in which he described his style of songwriting: “Bash it now, and tart it up later.”This is the musical equivalent of your advice to get words down on paper (or on a computer screen), even if they’re almost random or seemingly irrelevant, then trusting that your thoughts will give them shape, coalescing into a readable sentence, a coherent paragraph and, with any luck, a memorable piece of writing.I think this advice touches on two major elements in producing nonfiction writing: Don’t wait for inspiration; just get to work. Then, once you have some ideas fleshed out, concentrate on editing and polishing those initial thoughts into something persuasive, powerful and emotionally true. It’s the craftsman approach to writing, rather than the stroke-of-genius approach. The genius, if there is any, comes out in the end, after sweating through the initial struggle to get words on paper, then editing them into a finished work. 

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida. In addition to writing obituaries, he has been a feature writer, magazine writer, jazz critic and art critic. He has won more than 30 regional and national writing awards and is the co-author, with photographer Flip Schulke, of a biography of Muhammad Ali’s years in Miami.

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