Writing Through the Unknown: NYU’s Chuck Wachtel on Process

Last week Chuck Wachtel read an excerpt from his soon to be published novel, Yoke of Heaven, at the New School’s most recent fiction forum. In addition to teaching fiction workshops for NYU’s MFA program, Chuck Wachtel, who tells his students to call him “Chuck”, teaches “The Human Fact Part 1” for the Draper program each fall.

In the subsequent Q & A portion of the evening, Chuck was asked about process, specifically his approach to writing Yoke of Heaven. “I didn’t know I was writing a novel until I’d written a whole lot,” he said. The novel came from a “constellation of entries” in what he calls his “common book”—a notebook both small and bendable enough to fit in his pocket.

“I never know what form something is going to take,” he says. His common book was at first just a place for observations, a place to jot down things that struck him. He calls himself a “visual writer”, a translator turning images into words. To be a visual writer, he says, is no easy task. It takes time.

As the evening drew to a close, Chuck addressed the crowd of mostly New School MFA students along with some family and friends. He told them the most difficult but necessary charge as writers was this: they must keep despair at bay.

The writer, he explained, spends an enormous amount of time alone with her project. She must keep an optimism that gives time for things to grow, an optimism that looks forward to completion along the at times unclear road of process. A sense of humor helps too.

He leaves the crowd with some final words about staying optimistic. It’s about keeping a glass is half full kind of attitude. He jerks his head upward to indicate his balding head. It’s the kind of optimism, he says, where “I believe my hair is waiting in heaven along with my foreskin.”

-Vanassa S. Hamra