Don DeLillo’s Writing Process

I remember when I first started to consider colleges, somebody told me to think about where I wanted to end up in a few years.  If I were to live 15 minutes away from my campus then where would I want to live beyond my college years?  It occurred to me that I wanted to live in Washington DC.  That I had an interest in museums and politics.

In my freshmen year at Marymount University, I started to volunteer at the National Air and Space Museum.  Since then I’ve met Buzz Aldrin and a handful of other astronauts, pilots and surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen.  In my four years at Marymount, I’ve discovered personal histories and lessons that I never imagined embracing in my life.  This year’s National Book Festival came as a surprise, too.  The festival was September 21-22, but the day before the Library of Congress hosted as small event to award Don DeLillo a prize for American Fiction.

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The event’s idea was to bring undergraduate and graduate students to meet with Don DeLillo in a small intimate setting.  Don DeLillo happens to be an author who always fascinated me from his novels, White NoiseUnderworld, and Mao II even his more recent novels, Falling Man.  Therefore, when I was invited to the event with a handful of other students I could not contain my excitement.  I was going to meet Don DeLillo.  It felt unreal.  Within 2013, I had a chance to meet my favorite comic book writer, Gail Simone, and now this.  The year of the authors.  I had a chance to meet an author who intrigued me as a love of literature and an aspiring writer.

Don DeLillo published his first novel, Americana, in 1971 (which I plan to read soon).  The small event at the Library of Congress presented a chance for a handful of Marymount students to sit front and center and listen to Mr. DeLillo explain his writing process.  He said he understood on a “metaphysical level” that he was a writer and dedicated himself to the arts in the mid-1960s.  In about four years, he then published his first novel.

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In the aftermath of his first novel, DeLillo continued to publish more books.  He claimed to pay little attention to them.  When the floor opened to questions, he admitted not quite remembering a handful of titles until the 1980s when he slowed down his writing process (White Noise).  Around this time, DeLillo moved to Greece.  He began to understand sentences, paragraphs and what you put into it.  He spoke about how living in Greece altered his perspective of the English language.  This lead to him to looking at the alphabet as art.  He saw words, letters and their shapes more clearly and the symmetry of the page.   DeLillo explained he was “willing to sacrifice meaning for this sort of imagery.”  This became a second self-discovery in DeLillo’s writing career.  The first being the “metaphysical level” where he understood he was a writer then the second being that the alphabet is art.

When asked whether he planned his novels or not, DeLillo replied that he never plans ahead.  He approaches each of his novels, sentence by sentence then to look at structure in the way an architect builds.  For example, when writing Underworld, DeLillo started with the prologue.  He wrote for three weeks straight then decided it was all wrong.  DeLillo decided to leap into the future and work his way back and “that made the novel.”  In his novel, Point Omega, DeLillo explained how he discovered the novel was a similar structure to that of a three panel painting.  The structure started in black and white then it shifts to a desert that is full of color then it ends in black and white.  This occurred to him through the writing process of the specific novel, and not beforehand.

Don DeLillo’s suggestions to aspiring writers was to play between the largeness and smallness of a character.  It becomes important to understand the history of a character and novel.  There are many world opportunities that a novel can present, which is different from a short story or a poem.  He could speak in such detail about the little ordinary parts to his characters such as waking up one morning and shaving or how one sees themselves in the mirror at twenty-five compared to how they see themselves at fifty-five.  It is important to understand the character and the history of the novel.


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