The Pasta Machine: Four Questions with Frank Bruni

Interviews

Frank Bruni has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including more than twenty-five years at The New York Times, the last ten of them as a nationally renowned op-ed columnist who appeared frequently as a television commentator. (His archive of columns, starting with the most recent, can be found here.) He was also a White House correspondent for the Times, its Rome bureau chief and, for five years, its chief restaurant critic. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Beauty of Dusk, which reached #5 on both the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction lists. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write his popular weekly newsletter for the Times (you can sign up here) and to produce occasional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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

That your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: “I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!” And then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume. 

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

I’m a pasta machine. I can pump out nothing edible unless I’ve put in lots of flour, eggs and water, by which I mean reporting, reading, thinking. I make only noodles – no rice – and only so many kinds of those. I can’t do David Remnick’s erudite agnolotti or David Sedaris’s inimitable farfalle. But my orecchiette aren’t bad. 

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

When you hit a wall, when you’re feeling blocked, step away from the computer. Take a run. Rub the dog’s belly. Read 50 pages of a novel. Watch a stupid situation comedy. Let your brain relax. Let it reboot. No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end. 

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