Kwame Anthony Appiah is intelligent and productive. You could spend a lifetime reading through the stuff he’s published, a hefty list that includes four novels.
Much of Appiah’s writing focuses on philosophical questions. His books include The Ethics of Identity and The Politics of Culture, the Politics of Identity.
Recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Remnick interviewed Appiah for The Paris Review. Remnick asked the Ghanian-born Appiah for insights into how he approaches writing and how he’s been so prolific over the years.
Appiah’s answers throw some light onto the art of writing. Below are some of the most helpful thoughts from Appiah for writers.
Where can we find writing ideas? How should we approach writing about a topic?
Kwame Anthony Appiah answers these questions and more below.
Kwame Anthony Appiah on writing
“Many of the things I’ve written were in response to someone saying something and my thinking, I don’t understand that.”
“If a question interests me, and I have to learn some biology to answer it, I will learn some biology. If I have to read some more novels to answer it, I will read some more novels…You should follow questions where they take you.”
“The genealogy of concepts is one way to get a grip on them.”
“Immerse yourself in the relevant bodies of knowledge. Then try to explain on paper what you think people are saying, getting it as clear as you can for yourself. Then try to write what you think. You don’t know what you think until you try to say what you think. Look at it. See if it makes sense on the page.”
“Most of what you write just comes out of you when you put your fingers on the keyboard. It’s not a process over which you have a great deal of conscious control. The initial stimulus for an essay or a chapter is usually an episode—real or fictional—or an argument or a claim I’ve been struck by. After so much writing, I now know what my take is on many questions, and so I’ve spent more time reading history and fiction looking for stories that make the abstract point come alive. Sometimes, though, the story is already there waiting for me in my own history.”
“I am tempted to explore times and places that I once knew well and that now seem a little strange to me.”
“Literature is produced by writers, yes, but also by communities that shape them.”
This article originally appeared on Medium.