Tom Engelhardt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Taking Back the Word: Conversation with Tom Engelhardt, Editor and Writer, April 23, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

Page 6 of 6

Conclusion: Thoughts on Writing

How would you advise students to prepare for the future in this kind of world, beyond reading the books in your series? Looking back at your own career, are there things that you did that you would recommend for them (a) if they want to understand the world, and (b) if they want to write about it in a way that would meet the high standards you clearly set in your series?

That's a hard question for me to answer. I'm very hesitant to give people advice.

As far as writing goes, and I say this to my students: Mozart 5, beautiful music; Picasso 9, gorgeous profiles; mathematicians by 15. But if you're a narrative writer of any sort of fiction or nonfiction, it's a late-flowering form. Although people think a lot about talent, my own feeling is that the major thing about writing is you've just got to write and write and write. The amazing thing is that if you write in a form for ten years, you're going to get immensely better. My basic advice to people is, go do it. That's my general advice, Go do it. You feel upset with the world, go out and just do something right in your neighborhood about it. That's usually what I write back to people. The bigger picture, I don't know. I hope it all works out, but just don't sit at home. If you sit at home, do something there.

But if you want to write, write.

No, I mean, really. For me, in the Vietnam period, I was so driven by what was happening that I felt it was my duty, even though I didn't know what I was doing half the time, I just felt it was my duty to write, and I did a lot of writing in those years for that reason. In a way that I often think people haven't been in the last twenty or thirty years, young people were just driven to write. I was just driven to write.

One of the fascinating things about this TomDispatch experience for me, as I was saying to you earlier, is that I feel possessed by a voice. I've never, actually, never had this experienced before in my life. If you called me and said, "Tom, I need you to do an op-ed on something," I'd spend the same five agonizing days doing a thousand words even if I've spent all my life thinking about the subject. At TomDispatch, I sit down; it's not that I don't work, I work endless hours on it, but I start at the beginning and I write to the end. Unlike in the rest of my life, I very seldom change the order of anything. It's really there. As I say, I'm not, in any normal sense, a spiritual person, but I feel like if I were in a different moment in history, I would believe that I had been possessed by a voice. Then the question would be, whose voice? I don't believe that, so I don't worry too much about it. I, nonetheless, have that feeling -- I sit down and it happens.

What is the ignition here? Is it the times and the clarity with which you see things once you begin putting all these pieces together? And also the fact that, clearly, you're resonating with an audience and you're getting feedback? Is it those two things?

I started writing to friends, so the tone that I chose was a very natural tone. A lot of blogs are personal in a sense that they're rather narcissistic, and I don't write much about myself. But the tone I chose to write in, and that I kept when it leapt larger, just naturally is a personal tone. The interesting thing is, this was set up at the Nation Institute by younger people, and the first thing they put up at the site was a little thing you click on that said, "Give Tom a piece of your mind." Now, this is out of another universe from mine. I lived with it for a couple months, and I said, "Please, get that off." But it still says you can write to me, and I get thirty, forty, fifty, sixty letters, maybe more, a day, sometimes. Often they're just encouraging; sometimes people tell me that I'm a miserable coward, and anti-American, and, "you can go back --" they can't say go back to Russia anymore, it's like you'd have to go to Mars.

There's a mother of a son who is in Baghdad now, she's really quite anti-war, she's very eloquent, she writes me every now and then; she lives in Texas. People I would have no normal contact with. It's very moving. People from all over the world. I had a taxi driver from Sidney write and say, "I just wanted to tell you that our press is even more conglomerated than yours, Murdoch owns it all, but I get home form my taxi driving at three in the morning and TomDispatch is there." So I get a sense of resonating with people. People write and argue with me.

I wrote recently about the offshore mini-gulag of penal camps that we're setting up. Everybody knows Guantanamo, but it's much more extensive than that, and almost unwritten about. One of those holding facilities is at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Some guy, maybe it was the PIO [public information officer] out at Bagram, wrote me. He probably googles up "Bagram" each day. He wrote me to say, "You and your friends, blah, blah, blah." But he wrote a thoughtful, argumentative letter. I wrote him back, and I said, "Well, first of all, I'm a one-man band ... " And he wrote me and he apologized, and he said, "Okay, I was wrong about your friends." We had a little back-and-forth argument about the American position in the world. And I thought, "Fascinating."

So, in conclusion, it sounds to be like you're finding a niche where you're editing on a broader scale.

Yes, it is some kind of mix of writing and editing. It's a very interesting place to me.

Tom, thank you very much for taking your time to be with us today, and sharing this fascinating intellectual odyssey that has led you to the worldwide web.

This was great fun, thank you.

Thank you very much. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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