geoff dyer on writing

A while ago I randomly stumbled over a book by Geoff Dyer which continues to delight me, to the point where I eventually wondered who is this dude? and figured I’d see if I could find a video of him on YouTube.

In the beginning he tells the story of how he signed a contract with a publisher to write a book about tennis, which then (to the great surprise of not just Geoff, but also the publishing company which had already paid him for the tennis book) turned out to be a book about film director Andrei Tarkosky.

I always write this same note when I’m writing any book. I write a note to myself: “Remember, write the book that only you could write.” And, in a sense, it doesn’t matter to me how peculiar this book might end up being. In fact, the more peculiar, the better.

On hating proposals and the joy of letting writing take you to a place you’d never have ended up if you’d outline it properly in advance.

I hate writing proposals. I find it so boring because I never know what the book is going to turn out to be. I much prefer to just write the book and then hope that when I finish it, someone will take pity on me and publish it.


Doing a proposal, which I’m incapable of doing anyway, would just kill the enjoyment of writing the book. I’m interested to see what’s going to appear, you know, and I don’t want that adventure, that journey, to be spoiled.

On writing biographies that are more a reflection of himself, or the reaction the person stirrs up within himself, rather than a factual retelling of the person’s life, and his dislike for doing the donkey work that goes into writing traditional biographies:

I really couldn’t bear to do such a thing; it would be so boring to me. Although I am my own ideal research assistant, I don’t have the desire to delve deep into archives and all that stuff. Furthermore, I increasingly dislike writing pieces that solely convey information and facts. Of course, that’s the primary obligation of a biography, and while you can incorporate other creative elements, that foundation is something I have less and less appetite for.

Sometimes, this is misinterpreted as me being contemptuous of more straightforward, factual writing. On the contrary, I feel a great indebtedness to those who do the meticulous groundwork, as it allows me to focus on my own style. Hand in hand with the instruction to write only the book I could write is the feeling that I have no desire to duplicate information already available in other books.

For instance, with certain subjects like D.H. Lawrence or the First World War, where all the necessary information can be found elsewhere, it liberates me to explore unique aspects in my own work. There’s a complementary relationship with more traditional biographies, for which I hold the highest admiration.

On how he got into writing, and how it is an extension of the life he was already living:

At an earlier stage of one’s life, there are all sorts of things you want to be. Of course, everybody wanted to be a footballer at one point. There are all sorts of other lives I could have led if things worked out differently. One fortunate thing that happened to me is that everything else fell through. I think writing has always been a nice safety net for those who have messed up everything else. It’s what’s left, your last chance, the last throw of the dice, you know. It’s there waiting for you at any age, practically. The writing I got into was a natural extension of that life of being a student. If you ask me what I wanted to be after a certain age, I just couldn’t imagine any life better than being a student. You could just read books, drink beer, and see films. It’s a great life, so I’ve remained a perpetual student.

Dyer’s book Out of Sheer Rage is written in an unique style I’ve not encountered before, with a sense of truly creative self-deprecating humor, but also depth and truth, that many writers can probably relate to.

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