Re:Thinking with Adam Grant
How Celeste Ng Writes Fiery Prose
October 11, 2022
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Thanks to Workhuman for sponsoring this episode.
Welcome back to ReThinking. I'm Adam Grant, and I'm excited to bring you today's conversation with acclaimed novelist, Celeste Ng. Her debut book, Everything I Never Told You, won a slew of awards. Her next book, Little Fires Everywhere, was the Goodreads Choice Winner for fiction, has spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and was adapted into a hit Hulu series. Her third novel, Our Missing Hearts, just hit the shelves.
[00:00:36] Adam Grant:
No spoilers, but I'll say it's masterful. A rare combination of a gripping plot, compelling characters, and a powerful message. I'm not surprised cuz I've known Celeste for a long time. We've been friends since college. We met in one of her very first writing gigs, and from day one it was clear she was gonna be a star. She was a remarkably insightful observer and riveting storyteller. I know you'll enjoy learning from her writing process, not just as a vehicle for communicating, but as a tool for thinking.
[00:01:08] Celeste Ng:
Hi Adam. How are you? It's been a really long time. It's nice to see you.
[00:01:12] Adam Grant:
Same. It's been too long. I feel like two introverts coming together for a podcast is some kind of poetic justice.
[00:01:20] Celeste Ng:
It is. Although, I also feel like the podcast is a good medium for introverts because you have time to think about what you're saying. You are mostly being heard and not seen, and you know, you… You have time to think, which I feel, like, is what introverts really want and need. And it's like, it's intimate. It's one-on-one.
[00:01:41] Adam Grant:
I am all on board for that. Um, so I'd actually love to start with something that I've never asked you before. Okay, which is, when did you first think you wanted to be a writer?
[00:01:51] Celeste Ng:
Um, I wanted to be a writer from a really young age. I was a really early reader. My parents love books. My sister loved books, so they were reading to me all the time and stories were just kind of how I made sense of the world. And so I was reading stories very early. I was writing little stories, I was writing little plays, and I was making my cousins perform them when we went to visit my cousins, uh, which they will never let me live down. But I didn't think that writing was a job that you could have, because we didn't know any writers. My parents were scientists and everybody that we knew was, you know, either in the sciences or, you know, like teacher, a doctor, right? And so it really wasn't until I would say well into college that I started taking writing seriously. And it wasn't until, I think even well after you and I met, uh, working at Let's Go, that I even kind of gave myself permission to put writing in the front. When we met, I was still planning to go into publishing and in fact, that's what I did. That's how we, we met in the first place.
[00:02:58] Adam Grant:
I feel like we should give some context here. How would you describe, Let's Go?
[00:03:01] Celeste Ng:
So Adam, you and I met when we were both working for this organization called Let's Go, which was a travel guide company that was student-run. So all of the editors and the managers and also all of the researchers who went traveling to write the travel guides were all Harvard students. And so there were people who wanted to do it because they liked travel. There were people who wanted do it because they liked writing or editing, which was me. And then there were people who liked doing it because they were interested in organizations, which I feel like is how you got there. I think the office was, uh, chaotic in a good, like Muppet kind of way? Like backstage of the Muppet Show is kind of like, do you not feel like that?
[00:03:48] Adam Grant:
[Laughter] It's such a good description. I'm picturing one researcher who I guess would've been Animal who instead of renting an apartment that summer, and he, he slept under his desk with a machete and showered at the gym.
[00:04:01] Celeste Ng:
It was a weird and kind of wonderful thing.
[00:04:04] Adam Grant:
I guess one of the things that's interesting is I knew you loved writing, and i was very clear that you wanted to be involved in the publishing industry, but you were writing non-fiction.
[00:04:14] Celeste Ng:
[00:04:14] Adam Grant:
[00:04:16] Celeste Ng:
Editing non-fiction. Yeah. In particular.
[00:04:17] Adam Grant:
I was curious about how writing and editing a travel guide shaped who you've become as a novelist.
[00:04:24] Celeste Ng:
That's interesting. I mean, I, I honestly, I was in the job because I thought that I wanted to go into publishing and write on the side because again, even at that point in time, I didn't think that writing was a job you could have. Um, ‘cause I didn't know anybody who'd done that. And I didn't take any creative writing classes at Harvard until senior year, because I didn't, that didn't feel like a path that was open to me. So I was really there to get publishing and editing experience. So, herding cats was what I was there to learn how to do.
And then we graduated and I went to work at a textbook publishing company and I realized pretty quickly that wasn't what I wanted to do. And, um, one of my TAs, um, who was a PhD student at the time, was like, “You’re always saying you wanna do something. And then write on the side.” She's like, “What if you take writing from the side and you put it in the front?”
[00:05:17] Celeste Ng:
And that was this revolutionary idea to me. So, for a long time, I think that the Lets Go experience almost felt like it was, it was like a little detour. But I think one of the things that it taught me is it taught me to kind of embrace the kind of randomness and messiness of human experience. Like you'd get these stories from your researchers or your, you know, your book editors telling you about the weird things that had happened, and that was always the most interesting stuff to me.
I mean, a travel guide is always gonna contain a certain amount of, “Here's the subway stop to get off at, and here's this.” But they would meet people and they would have weird experiences or conversations, or they'd find little nooks and crannies. And that was always the most interesting thing. Like you are always looking for a story and a human connection to wherever you go. You know, you can only look at so many statues before you start going, “Well, who is this guy? Why are there so many statues of him? What's the deal? What do people here think about those statues?” And that's where you get into the human-ness. And that for me, I feel like has really fed my writing.
[00:06:18] Adam Grant:
That is exactly what I was curious about because I think one of the things that is so clear in your writing, I've seen it in all three of your novels now, is you notice things that no one else does. Uh, you have this incredible eye for tiny details that I think the average person would just overlook because they seem mundane and you have the ability to make them interesting and evocative. I don't think, by the way, this is unique to, to writing.
I, a few years ago I met Jerry Seinfeld and I asked him, if you could pick one skill to teach someone to make them a good comedian, what would it be? And he said, “Well, mine is, I just noticed things that other people don’t. Like, I, it really bothered me when I walked in this door. That somebody held the door for me. Like, did you think I couldn't walk through the door on my own volition? Like you had to touch it to, to show that you were concerned about me? Like, what is this?” And all of a sudden I realized all of Seinfeld right, is noticing and laughing about those tiny details.
[00:07:17] Celeste Ng:
I have to tell you that I have been waiting for you to work a Seinfeld reference into this.
[00:07:21] Adam Grant:
You didn't have to wait long.
[00:07:22] Celeste Ng:
I didn't. I was gonna say, I'm kind of amazed that it took this long. It's, you know, it's been, what, Like eight minutes? Something like that.
[00:07:28] Adam Grant:
[00:07:30] Celeste Ng:
I think that's right though. One of the things that I love just is noticing stuff, and it's for better or for worse, it's, it's one of my, my quirks. And if you go on a walk with me, or you spend any time with me, you will probably be treated to a plethora of just little things that I notice that are really not relevant to whatever it is that we're actually doing. But that's sort of how my brain works.
If you walk around with a toddler, and I am, I realize as I dive into this, comparing myself to a toddler, but the toddler toddlers are always like, “Oh my God, look at that. Wow, look at this. Hey, look at that. Hey, there's a crack in the sidewalk. Oh, look at this. Hey, that grass is really tall. Did you know grass could get that tall? I think it's taller than me.” You know, this constant stream of observations that I think for, for most of us as adults, we learn to, um, tamp down for, for lack of a better term. You, you can't be commenting on that all the time. And one of the joys of being a writer is that I get to indulge that noticing aspect. I get to write it down and then ideally I get to take some of those things that I notice and try and find a little bit of meaning in them. Um, it's rare for adults, I think, to get a moment to slow down and notice. We’re, we have to move faster because there are things we have to do. And I like it when any kind of art, music, visual art, poetry, novels can stop you and go, “Hey, look at this for a minute.”
[00:09:03] Adam Grant:
One of the things that I think is unusual about you, compared to other people who have that noticing skill, is they have a hard time raising their attentional filters. Like I know a lot of people who are very good at noticing, who can't stop noticing. They can't turn it off. And they end up being incredibly creative, curious minds, uh, with less to show for their time than they hoped in a lot of cases, right? And here you are kind of lowering the filters, noticing these things, but then raising them and saying, “I'm gonna write a story and it's gonna move people.” Do you have habits or strategies for navigating that tension? Is there a tension there?
[00:09:43] Celeste Ng:
Oh, there's definitely a tension there. I mean, I don't know. I'm glad it seems like I turn off the filters cuz I think that I notice a lot more things than are really useful to me. But what, what you're really talking about is editing to, to go back to sort of where we met. You notice all kinds of stuff that's, that's like your rough draft, right? That's all the raw material. And then in any project that you're working on, you have to select. And so for me, that is a process of editing. I do it myself and then I run it past other writers. I run it past my agent and my editor, and they help me figure out, okay, these things? Not actually that interesting. Not important, not relevant to what you're saying. These ones? These are the things that you need to pay attention to. And so for me, it's, it's an iterative process essentially. You go through the first one and then you make a you winnow, and then you make another cut, and you make another cut. And hopefully what you end up with is ultimately sort of the one thing that feels like it's important.
[00:10:39] Adam Grant:
So I wanna talk about the writing process, um, but I can't leave this, this topic of noticing tiny things without asking you about your miniature objects.
[00:10:48] Celeste Ng:
I know. So you actually, I mean, you knew about my, my miniaturist past, well before I think many people did. Uh, I think people are just starting to find out about it now because I, um, I was made to join Instagram, but they didn't tell me what I needed to put on Instagram, so I decided I would put my miniatures on Instagram.
So I used to work as a miniaturist. Um, I think when we met, I was doing that as like a sideline, like that's how I was earning extra money. This was in the early days of the internet. And then I would sell them on my website around eBay, like one inch scale miniatures of food. And I think you're right. I think there's a connection. Just to do that, you have to look really closely at something. You have to really kind of study: what’s its shape, what's its texture, what color is it, is it shiny? Is it, you know, is is it smooth? And that process of paying attention, I feel like has ended up serving me well, both in miniatures for fun and in fiction for my job. It's all about sort of focusing your attention and, and really trying to see something clearly.
[00:11:47] Adam Grant:
So many of the writers that I know… writing is, it's not their identity. They, they write to serve a larger purpose. They're trying to communicate their ideas, uh, which is so common in the nonfiction world. One of the things that I think is fascinating about you is you write to write. I mean, you also have ideas that you're conveying, um, and you have stories to tell, but writing, I think for you, is an end in and of itself, not just a means to other ends. Is that a fair description?
[00:12:15] Celeste Ng:
I think that is fair, and it's interesting to think about writing because it's something I think most people have to do in their lives, right? But for many people, it's a tool. And then for other people, and I'm, I'm, you know, realizing that I'm one of them, it is sort of a vocation, like you said. I write because that is how I make sense out of the world. And so, in a sense, writing is what is allowing me to make meaning or to figure out what's going on.
I, I always write from a place of not understanding versus I think some of what you're talking about where, especially in the non-fiction world, you research, you learn about something, you understand it, and then you write about it. Right? To share that, for me, it's almost, it's almost the reverse. There's something that's confusing me. I'm like, “Why would somebody do that? How did you get yourself into the situation? Why are you like this?” And writing for me is my way of figuring out what that is. And so by the end, when I've finished writing, then I have figured out what it is it, it can't go the other way for me. And I think that's one of the big differences between my process and sort of what you're describing.
[00:13:18] Adam Grant:
I think it is and it isn't. So on the one hand, I, I strongly agree. I think that a lot of people see writing as a vehicle for communicating ideas. But it's also a tool for crystallizing ideas.
[00:13:29] Celeste Ng:
[00:13:30] Adam Grant:
So often I find that what's fuzzy in my head becomes clear on the page. And that when I try to write down, you know, an inkling, it could become an insight, or in some cases, I'll see the gap in my knowledge or my logic, or when I'm trying to spell something out in writing, I have to articulate my assumptions. I have to address counterarguments, and I guess I think a lot about the observation of how can I know what I think until I see what I say.
[00:13:55] Celeste Ng:
[00:13:55] Adam Grant:
Or until I see what I write. And I think we, we do enact our way into our thoughts through writing. And I guess one of the things that makes me curious about is I meet a lot of people who say, “I'm not a writer”, and therefore they don't write. And it's kind of like saying, “Well, I'm not a public speaker on stage, so therefore I don't talk”, right? It’s like, wait, you're, you're missing the point that writing is a tool for thinking, and if you wanna be a better thinker, you should write more often. It sharpens your reasoning. What do you make of that?
[00:14:26] Celeste Ng:
I think that's exactly right. I mean, um, when I was teaching undergrads at the University of Michigan, where we met again, actually met, go there, um, I was really working to try to teach my students and I also feel like I should apologize to my students cuz I was like, “Oh, I, you, you deserve more. I feel like now I know much more and I could teach you much better, but at the time you got like 25, 26 year old me.”
But one of the things that I did try to teach them that I, I really do stand by is that writing is a way of thinking and that many of us, when we go to high school, you're taught to do it like you know, you should have your whole ideas, and then you basically just dictate them to yourself and write 'em down on the piece of paper.
Whereas I think it's much more what you said. You articulate something on the page and it crystallizes something that you hadn't been able to say. Or you write down what you think you know, and then you read it over and you go, “Well, but wait, what about this?” And you start to make it more complex. And so that was one thing that I really tried to teach them that, you know, they would write a draft and they'd be like, “I'm done.” And I'm like, “No, no, no. This is your thinking through, right? This is where you're starting to think.” Um, so I, I, I really agree with you on that. I really think that writing is, it's odd because it is both the skill you are trying to get, and in order to get it, you have to do it. Right? It's this thing that you learn to do. By doing it.
[00:15:53] Adam Grant:
Which is a paradox. I think I, I've watched a lot of people get away with… Well, let, let, let's put it this way. I, I've seen too many people get away with faulty logic because they’re charismatic speakers. And one of the things I love about putting ideas on a page is, is it forces ideas to live or die more on their merits, right? As opposed to how they're presented. And I think so often you find that, that somebody who's a captivating talker, uh, struggles to articulate their insight on the page. And that doesn't mean they can't write. For me, it means that their unclear writing is a sign of unclear thinking, and they should stop using their charisma as a crutch, and, you know, force themselves to articulate ideas in a medium that doesn't benefit from, you know, their elocution or whatever skill is allowing them to be persuasive interpersonally.
[00:16:47] Celeste Ng:
Yeah, I think that's true because, you know, personal charm is real. Right? And like you said, if you write things down on the page, you take one of those variables out of the equation, you take away the variable of whatever your personal charisma or your, you know, your dramatic reading, whatever it is, your flare. And the, uh, you know, you can still certainly do a lot of pyrotechnics with your prose, but in some ways it, it takes away that layer of performance. And the other thing is that I think unlike something that is heard, like a speech, what's on the page is experienced at the reader's own pace. You can read it, and then they can read it again. Right? And they can read it again. And if they keep reading it and they're like, “I don't think you're saying what you think, you're saying.” They caught you. Right? And so in a way, like you say it, it kind of separates what you're saying from the act of saying it. It separates it from time and it has to hold up on its own.
[00:17:44] Adam Grant:
I love how you just proved your own point by saying pyrotechnics with your prose. It's a great example of the very technique you're illustrating. Touche.
[00:17:52] Celeste Ng:
It it, You know, this is one of the fun things about being a word person is sometimes you can throw words like pyrotechnics into conversation, and generally people won't bat an eye. You don't get to do that very often.
[00:18:05] Adam Grant:
Can we do a lightning round?
[00:18:07] Celeste Ng:
I’m ready for the lightning round.
[00:18:08] Adam Grant:
Okay. First question. Uh, Vonnegut said that every sentence should advance plot or reveal character. Agree or disagree?
[00:18:16] Celeste Ng:
I think he's right, but I think those categories are very broad, and so sometimes, you know, you have a sentence that is there kind of just for decoration and beauty, but in a way that's, that's telling you something about the plot and the character.
[00:18:30] Adam Grant:
Okay, but when Tolkien's on page 72 of rolling hill descriptions, it's excessive.
[00:18:36] Celeste Ng:
Of the songs… the songs maybe, we'll, we'll, we'll say Tolkien maybe could have used a little bit of editing. I will admit that I, when I read the Lord of the Rings, um, I did read the songs, but I don't remember the songs, right?
And there's another famous saying who says, you should just leave out the parts that people skip. I think that's a good role to have, right? Is that what, “Why is it in there?” It should be doing something. Maybe the songs brought Tolkien a lot of joy. I dunno.
[00:19:05] Adam Grant:
Great. Okay, second question. Should writers kill their darlings?
[00:19:09] Celeste Ng:
I think it goes back to the first question. If the darling is not doing anything, you don't have to kill it. Just put it in a different file. This is my trick. I have a, what I call a cut file, which is just a big Word document, and I just throw everything in there because it's the verbal equivalent of hoarding.
You're like, “I never, you never know when you might need this six inches of string.” I almost never go back to what's in there, but it makes me more comfortable. And then you can look at the document and go, “Oh, I did not need that after all.”
[00:19:37] Adam Grant:
I feel the same way. Darlings are why you write. That doesn't mean they belong in the place you put them. And so save your darlings. You might find a spot for them one day.
[00:19:45] Celeste Ng:
If you cut everything that you love, that is your darling, then you have nothing, or else you have a piece that you hate. And neither of those things is good. So what you really have to do is make sure your darlings are all kind of pointing in the same direction, and that's the direction you wanna go.
[00:19:59] Adam Grant:
Excellent. Okay, next question. Uh, what did having Little Fires Everywhere made into a TV show teach you about writing?
[00:20:09] Celeste Ng:
It taught me that writing a novel and writing a TV show are two really different things with, with no judgment attached, but just that they're different-- they're very different forms of writing. It's almost like two different languages.
So when I was writing a novel, you know, it was a very solitary process and it was just me and I could kind of decide all the things. There were no practical limitations to what I could put into this story.
And writing for TV I realized is really collaborative. There's a group of writers and they're all having input, and this is a good thing. Um, they're all hopefully making the show richer. There are then the actors who come in. There’s the set builders. All of the different people are all kind of adding in their voices to what it is. And so the end product is not any one person's baby. And that's not a bad thing again, but it means that it has to communicate differently. And so I just got a much deeper understanding of how storytelling works differently in different media.
[00:21:08] Adam Grant:
[00:21:09] Celeste Ng:
I'm bad at them.
[00:21:11] Adam Grant:
I disagree. I think your titles are so thought-provoking, and they always have big imagery in them. Everything I Never Told You. They’re little fires, and they’re everywhere!
[00:21:21] Celeste Ng:
[00:21:21] Adam Grant:
And now our hearts are missing.
[00:21:24] Celeste Ng:
Um, I mean, I love other people's titles. I am bad at figuring out my own. And, um, we had a joke in my cohort in grad school that I could never title stories, and I needed other people to title them for me. And so all the, all of my stories were titled by other people.
The way that I came around with these titles was really that I didn't have them until I had written the entire book, almost. And then I, um, I would give the draft to a friend or to my agent and they'd go, “Okay, great. The story's almost there.” And I had to go through the book and find a phrase that felt like it could encapsulate the book. And that's how I found all of these titles.
[00:22:00] Adam Grant:
I don't think you're incapable of titling. It's that it's really hard to title your own work because you're too close to it. Right? Psychologists talk about what's called psychological distance: when, when you're in the weeds of your own work you can't see. You see a bunch of trees, but you can't quite picture the whole forest. And when you finish the book, you've finished planting all the trees and now the forest reveals itself.
[00:22:21] Celeste Ng:
You have a context. You can see the larger shape.
[00:22:23] Adam Grant:
Uh, one other lightning question. Uh, we've known each other for more than half of our lives.
[00:22:28] Celeste Ng:
I guess that's right.
[00:22:30] Adam Grant:
I think I've seen you once in the last 15 years.
[00:22:33] Celeste Ng:
It might be twice. I do remember coming to Ann Arbor. Oh, but that's more than 15 years ago. You're right. Okay. It might be in the past 15 years.
[00:22:42] Adam Grant:
So given that history, um, but also the distance, what is something you think I should rethink?
[00:22:49] Celeste Ng:
Okay. I have something.
[00:22:51] Adam Grant:
I knew you would.
[00:22:51] Celeste Ng:
It is not at all important, but it is something that, it's not that I think you should change your mind about it, but I think you should go back and think about it more. So, I don't know if you'll remember this. Um, before I came to Michigan for grad school, you very kindly hosted me and my now-husband at the, the house where you stayed with your housemates while we were looking for an apartment, and at a certain point it, it was revealed that I had not seen one of your very favorite movies at the time: Love, Actually.
[00:23:19] Adam Grant:
[00:23:19] Celeste Ng:
So I have a very clear memory of sitting with you and your housemates in your living room, watching Love, Actually. So there's a very famous scene in Love, Actually where, um, this Keira Knightley and her husband's best friend, it turns out, is in love with her. And he comes to her door and he stands outside, and he has these, um, like signs and he lifts off the signs to tell her that he loves her.
[00:23:44] Adam Grant:
[00:23:45] Celeste Ng:
And so he tells her this--
[00:23:46] Adam Grant:
[00:23:47] Celeste Ng:
It is a bad, It is, it is bad. But also I, I, I feel, I feel for him.
[00:23:51] Adam Grant:
I do too. It's such an ambivalent scene.
[00:23:53] Celeste Ng:
Okay, so we finished the movie. You turned it off and you turned to me and you were like, “Why do you think she ran back, and she kissed him goodbye? I don't understand why she did that. I'm so confused about this. Why did she do this?”
And, and we talked about it. I don't really remember what I. But I feel like that is a moment that you now, you know, 20 odd years later ish, I feel like if you go back and you watch the movie again for science, um, I wonder if you would see that moment differently in your life and from this moment. Because in my mind it was very clear to, I understood why she did that, and I couldn't explain it clearly.
[00:24:37] Adam Grant:
So interesting. I'm gonna have to re-watch it now. Uh, you did an MFA in creative writing, if I remember correctly?
[00:24:43] Celeste Ng:
[00:24:45] Adam Grant:
What surprised you that you learned being trained in the formal skill of writing that you didn't know going in?
[00:24:51] Celeste Ng:
I think one of the things that surprised me, related to what we were talking about, is that how much of writing is reading. And that writing, you know, it wasn't just that I needed to be sat down and made to write a lot of stories, although I was, and that helped a lot, but I learned so much from reading things that I wouldn't ordinarily have picked up. You know, books that I was assigned, or books that my friends or people in my cohort recommended and I went, “I've never heard of that. Let me go read it.”
Um, that was as much of the educational experience as being in the class, and that is said with no disrespect to my amazing teachers in the classes where I really learned a lot, but that I learned so much from other writers and I learned partly by imitating and then partly by shaping myself against other people. Not to say, you know, I don't like what you do, but I was like, “Oh, you're writing about that, but that's, that's not what's drawing me. What is drawing me?” And I had to figure that out.
And I really started to think of writing as something almost collaborative in that way. You don't always work with someone else on the page, but you're almost always in conversation with something when you're writing, or someone. And in that sense, it is a collaboration. You're speaking to someone or you're trying to explain someone to someone else. There's always another party in there that's, that's kind of part of that circuitry.
[00:26:15] Adam Grant:
When you talk about imitating, I think about, uh, Malcolm Gladwell literally learning to write by typing out William F. Buckley novels and getting a feel for the, the arc of a, a story.
[00:26:26] Celeste Ng:
[00:26:26] Adam Grant:
By, by owning the words in a way, I, I imagine you didn't do it that literally, did you?
[00:26:32] Celeste Ng:
I didn't do it that literally. No. But I know a lot of writers who do that, who, um, you know, Malcolm Gladwell's not alone in kind of typing sentences that he loves and admires. I, I know a lot of writers who have done that, um, in one way or another. Even as simple as there's a poem you love or a passage you love and you copied into your notebook to keep it for later.
There is something about retracing the rhythm of those words that you know, this, this will be fodder for future neuroscientists, but I don't know if you are kind of engraving a neural pathway. I don't know what it is that you're doing. But, something about the act of going over those words again, whether you're rereading them over, whether you're copying them, whether you're typing them out, um, it kind of teaches, you almost like the rhythm. It, like it's learning how to improvise on the piano, kind of like that. Um, so for me, when I was imitating. It was more that I would read a book or a story that kind of blew my mind and I would go, “Well, I didn't know you were allowed to do that. I wanna do that.” You know, and then I would try to do that. And of course, what came out even when I was trying to imitate, would be very different. But it was my way of kind of feeling out what I wanted to do.
[00:27:45] Adam Grant:
It's fascinating how you called that tracing, because it, it makes me think immediately of learning to draw: where the first thing that you do, if you're trying to learn a new technique as an artist, is to trace someone else's work. And that's part of building your skill. We're not taught to do that as writers.
[00:28:00] Celeste Ng:
No, and I, you know, when you said tracing, it reminded me also of being taught to write cursive. You, you learn to write cursive in school.
[00:28:06] Adam Grant:
Unfortunately, I think I can only do the letters in my name now.
[00:28:10] Celeste Ng:
Well, I realize, I don't really write cursive anymore, but I remember, in I would say about second or third grade, having to trace. Here's the letter A. Trace these, and then it would go to just dots and it would go to just the lines, and you'd have to kind of create them on your own. And we're, I, I don't think most kids are taught to do that. At least my son is not.
So you're right. There is something about, again, just kind of following in the footsteps or in the pen marks of someone else that I think is an important part of figuring out. You're like, “I don't want my line to go there. I wanted to go a different way.” But that's, you've learned something there too.
[00:28:42] Adam Grant:
So tracing seems like a beginner skill in a way. If you move to the intermediate level I think the next phase, at least for me as a writer, and I'm not the kind of writer that you are in any way, shape, or form, but, one of the things that, that I found enormously helpful was to internalize the style and taste of other writers, and then think through how would they tell this story? Where would they begin? What would the reveal be for them?
And you know, that, that gave me, it felt like it gave me more degrees of freedom. To say, “Oh, now I could think of telling the same story seven different ways.” Or “Maybe now I'm actually not focusing on the right character at all or the right story at all because I've internalized the point of view of a particular writer I admire. Um, and now I can imagine a possibility I wouldn't have seen before.” Did, did you go through a phase like that as well?
[00:29:31] Celeste Ng:
Yeah, I think I did and thought of it as almost reverse engineering what writers that I loved were doing. So, for example, um, when I started writing, um, when I was writing my first novel, Everything I Never Told You, I eventually realized that I wanted to tell it in this omniscient point of view because I realized that this book was gonna be about secrets and nobody in the family knew everything. But somebody had to know these things and that person was gonna be the narrator. That was gonna be the person who was gonna help the reader put it together. And I was really scared because I did not know how to do that.
And so what I did was I went to my bookshelf and I pulled down some books that I love. So I pulled down Oliver Twist by Dickens. I pulled down the God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I pulled down Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. You know, all these books that were told in that point of view. And I looked at their first few pages to go, “Okay, how did they do this? How did they create that voice? How did they structure the book? How did you know-- just can I look at all of these examples and distill from that any kind of guideline about how to put it together?”
And that's been, I feel like one of, one of the ways that I learn from other writers now very concretely, is I go, “Ooh, you're doing something cool. How did you do that? Let me study it.” And then maybe I can start to use those principles that this other writer has taught me for my own purposes.
[00:30:49] Adam Grant:
How do you read differently as a novelist? Do you, when you, when you engage with a book, you know, beyond just saying, I wanna learn a technique, um, what do you see now that you, you've written three novels that you didn't see before?
[00:31:05] Celeste Ng:
It's hard to turn off the writer part of my brain and just be a reader. In fact, I know that a book has really hooked me if I'm not thinking at all about any of the stylistic choices that the writer has made. Um, and it's rare, but it's a huge compliment. Like, Oh, this book is doing something.” And I'll tell my husband, like, “I was not thinking about any of the writer stuff at all.” And he'll immediately take the book from me and go read it.
Um, I think. I'm getting better at sort of just seeing how books are put together. And so when I'm reading, there's a little part of my mind that's always registering that people that I know and love who really get music, my, my son is one of them they can kind of hear things in music that I can't. And I imagine this might be what the experience of listening to music might be like for them. They're appreciating it and enjoying it in similar ways that I am with my no musical knowledge, but there might maybe also be hearing ike, “Ooh, there's an interesting chord progression.” Or “Ooh, it changed to a minor key.” Or, “Oh, you modulated, you know?” Or, “Ooh, the rhythm changed here.”
You know, things that I can't hear, but they're aware of, and I imagine, I hope for them, it adds a different level of understanding to the piece, and that's sort of what reading is for me. Ideally, those two things are running in parallel. I'm enjoying it on the story level and the readerly level, but then I'm also enjoying it on a writerly level as I'm going, “Ooh, interesting move that you made here. Ooh, we've switched into the second person.” Or, “Oh, I didn't even notice. When did you do that?” I'll go back and look and then I start kind of reverse engineering again and figuring out how they did it.
[00:32:38] Adam Grant:
This actually speaks to some recent research. I think the paper was called “Emotionally Numb,” and it was about the trade-offs between expertise and enjoyment. Hmm. It turned out that the more you learned about movies or photography or wine, the less you enjoyed them. Because they started to become critics instead of fans.
[00:32:57] Celeste Ng:
[00:32:58] Adam Grant:
And Celeste, it sounds like you've learned to avoid that.
[00:33:01] Celeste Ng:
I think so. Yeah. I, I can see that. Because in a way you're always thinking about it in a technical level, right? And I feel like maybe one of the keys is to try and hold onto that joy and that discovery. And one nice thing about being a writer is that people are always doing new stuff. There's always new ideas and there's always sort of new things out there that are gonna catch you. And so you can always, there's always space to be surprised and I feel like when you were surprised, that's when you learn something. Um, and that's one of the joys for me. I mean, that's why I still read. Even as I have become a writer, because there's cool new stuff out there, and I, I kind of wanna see it. So I'm, I'm gonna keep that in mind and, and keep trying to hold onto that, that toddler excitement. Oh my God, there's a crack in the sidewalk. I've never seen a crack in the sidewalk before. Right? But that's--
[00:33:49] Adam Grant:
Am I gonna fall in? What does this mean?
[00:33:52] Celeste Ng:
Right? Why is there a crack in the sidewalk? Like, who put it there? Will it ever be there? Right. All the questions that toddlers ask you, where you're like, “I, I don't know, honey, let's go. It's a crack in the sidewalk.” In some ways, like, I get to indulge myself as a writer and say, “That's part of my job is to get to linger in these very small kind of unimportant details.” To keep the curiosity alive.
[00:34:18] Adam Grant:
Well, you, of course, you, you managed to anticipate exactly what the research showed, which is that the problem that experts ran into was they end up kind of trapped into a cognitive structure.
[00:34:28] Celeste Ng:
[00:34:29] Adam Grant:
That they're then applying to analyze the, the art or the experience. And it turns out that if you give even a newcomer, um, that cognitive structure, they enjoy it less too. But the good news is that one of their studies, I thought this was hilarious, um, the, the lead into it was, experts can feel. It's possible for experts to feel something. They're not always emotionally numb!
[00:34:51] Celeste Ng:
Good news experts! We have good news for you.
[00:34:53] Adam Grant:
You might be human after all. But basically if, if you got them to detach from their cognitive structure, um, they could engage and get into the flow of the experience itself. And it, it actually made me wonder if there ought to be a requirement when book reviewers or movie critics engage that they just experience it first and then they read or watch it a second time with their evaluative hat on.
[00:35:18] Celeste Ng:
[00:35:19] Adam Grant:
[00:35:19] Celeste Ng:
No flashlight pen, no tape recorders, no smartphone, anything. Just, I think there's something to that. I mean, it was something that I, I was thinking about actually in, in writing my last novel because one of the things I realized I was interested in is art. You know, what does it do? Can it do anything for us? And one of the things that I realized that it does, at least for me is it often, um, it surprises me. It forces me out of my kind of daily routine to kind of do a double take or at least a mental double take. And in that sense, I guess this is what you're saying is it breaks me out of whatever kind of cognitive structure I've been in.
And there's this whole other thing that I'm like, “Well, this doesn't fit in any of the drawers in the cabinet that I've built in my brain. So what do I do with this? That's interesting.” I did a lot of research for the book on, um, on street art and something called Guerilla Art, which is kind of like art that, uh, is not a museum. It just kind of pops up in places you don't expect yet, and it's not maybe, uh, officially sanctioned. But part of the reason that I think it's really effective is that it catches your eye. You weren't expecting to run into, um, a giant snowball on the sidewalk in the middle of June, and yet there it is, and now you're gonna engage with it.
And I'm thinking of Andy Goldsworthy, uh, who is a landscape artist among other things. But one of his art projects was to make giant snowballs and freeze them, and then put them on, like, the corners of like London streets and then just watch what happened. And it's kind of hard to go about your daily business if you're walking along and then there's like an eight-foot giant snowball in front of you. And it sounds like that's, that's the kind of very physical equivalent of what you're talking about. You need something that will shake you out of that structure that you're in.
[00:37:05] Adam Grant:
Yes, exactly. Yes. I have nothing to add. No further questions, your honor.
[00:37:10] Celeste Ng:
[00:37:12] Adam Grant:
[00:37:12] Celeste Ng:
Just get a giant snowball.
[00:37:14] Adam Grant:
So one of the things I am curious about, um, is a shift that I noticed from book two to book three. I don't wanna give away any spoilers, and it's very hard to talk about your books without giving away spoilers. Um, I, I think they're all beautifully written and moving, um, in all the ways that I would expect. Our Missing Hearts is my favorite. And it's my favorite, I think, for a bunch of reasons. But the clearest one I can articulate so far since I've only read it recently is I think my favorite fiction not only transports me into an interesting mind, but into a world I've never experienced before. And this felt like a turn compared to Everything I Never Told You and also Little Fires Everywhere. We're in a different world, or at least a dystopian America that doesn't exist yet.
[00:38:06] Celeste Ng:
Yeah, it's, it's, I, I like to think of it as sort of our world with like, the volume kind of turned up to 11. You know, the… nothing in the book is completely made up, out of whole cloth, but I wanted it to be, uh, a more enhanced, let's say, version of our world. Because in some ways that makes the contrast clearer. You can see more clearly what's at stake for these characters.
And so in the, the world of the novel, um, there's a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment, and the government is allowed to take away the children of people who they feel are being un-American. Now, that's not exactly what's happening now, but you can see probably some of the parallels in our world. And you're right, that was a new step for me in, um, in doing kind of this level of world-building. Um, my last novel, Little Fires Everywhere, I cheated a little bit in setting it in my hometown, which is a place that I knew.
[00:39:05] Adam Grant:
[00:39:05] Celeste Ng:
So it was easier to build that world in some ways and in this world, I had to think a lot about what is, what, what's it like? Do people still have cell phones? What are the rules of the world? What's daily life like?
And that, that was a stretch. And then I realized that one of the things that would make it less scary to do that was that a lot of the things in the book are still the same. They're still-- I'm really interested, even within this sort of semi-dystopian world, I'm really interested in the story of this family. And that's something that I, I realized was carrying through. I'm really interested in this, the questions about what parents and children can, can say and not say to each other. And that was kind of my root into this, this different world.
[00:39:47] Adam Grant:
I thought it was fascinating and it, it felt like, um, if I were gonna, you know, typecast it, I would say it felt like Celeste Ng meets Margaret Atwood in a way. In a way that I, I hadn't seen in your writing before. What, what motivated you to, to make that shift?
[00:40:05] Celeste Ng:
I mean, uh, the, the truth is that it, it came about accidentally and, and almost a little bit against my will. This was in about October of 2016. And like many of us, fairly soon thereafter, I was then very preoccupied with what was going on off the page, um, with the 2016 presidential election, and all of the things that, that kind of brought up to the surface. It, it started to feel like we were living in a dystopia and that kind of started to, to bleed into the book.
Um, I was having a really hard time writing a, a realistic story about this mother and son when all in the back of my mind I was thinking if this book is set in 2015, then in two years from now, their world is gonna be completely different. And so it, it felt almost disingenuous to not acknowledge some of those fears and those terrible things that were happening in the world on the page.
And that's kind of how I ended up turning towards the, as you put it, the Margaret Atwood kind of side of things. I wanted to explore particularly the questions that I was wrestling with myself on the page, the questions of like, if it feels like the world is, is, is rapidly falling apart how do I try to raise a, a child in this world? How am I supposed to say them? “Okay, go. Go and, and try and learn and make the world a better place cuz it's pretty bad right now.” Um, you wanna hold onto hope that something can change for them. Right?
[00:41:35] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I, uh, I, I mean, it, it just raises so many interesting questions, but it made me think a lot about the future of democracy and also about individual families that are being affected in ways that I was just unaware of. Mission accomplished.
I wanted to ask you about procrastination and writer's block, because your, your ability to get things done early as a novelist, as a creative person, is the envy of many, many people in many fields. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about your habits and, um, what, what works there?
[00:42:10] Celeste Ng:
Let me do this in two parts. So my habits are mostly to try and treat writing like a job with a big but. Because I have a school-aged child, my writing day mostly revolves around his school day, and so starting from when he was in daycare and then nursery school and so on, when he goes to school, I go to my desk, and I try to get writing done. So that usually means I will be at my desk somewhere between eight-thirty and nine. And I will be trying to engage with the project in whatever form it's in, editing, drafting, whatever. Um, and I'll go as long as I can until it's time for him to come home. So in that sense, treating writing like a job has been really beneficial for me.
The but that I mentioned, the caveat, is that I found for myself that sometimes trying to force the work to get done ends up being counterproductive for me, and this is gonna be different for everybody, but some people I think can power through and they'll find a nugget of something they like. For me, if I write five pages and they're terrible, I will end up feeling worse and I'll go into a tailspin. What I've learned from -- so this is the, the but-- is that if the writing is not happening, it might be a bad day. If the writing is not happening for several days, it usually means that it's not that I'm blocked, it's that I need to think more.
And so what it means for me is that I need new stuff coming in. I need to go back to that sense of surprise or curiosity. There's something missing that I don't have. And so this is when I will go for a walk because there's nothing like a walk for serendipity. This is when I will read books on subjects that I wouldn't ordinarily have read. So, you know, like science non-fiction or like history books or anything new. Um, this is when I'll go and do something that has nothing to do with writing. Which might be knitting a sweater, might be making miniatures. And so that's, that's sort of what my work habit is. It's try and really be conscientious and buckle down and do it every day and be consistent, but then when that doesn't work, be flexible enough to go off and do something else and know that their work will come back.
[00:44:17] Adam Grant:
That, that tracks so closely with what psychologists find about procrastination.
[00:44:22] Celeste Ng:
[00:44:22] Adam Grant:
I mean that, that so much of it is, is not driven by, you know, a lack of motivation.
[00:44:29] Celeste Ng:
[00:44:29] Adam Grant:
But a lack of clarity. The reason there's so rarely teacher’s block or plumber’s block is, is, you know, writing is one of those areas where there's, there's just often so much ambiguity about what you're trying to say.
[00:44:44] Celeste Ng:
The idea that, you know, in this analogy, if your field, your brain is the field and your work or your ideas, are the plants growing from it, at a certain time the field becomes depleted, and it does need some time to recharge itself. And thinking of it as that sort of recharge time of the time that maybe you needed to have that fallow time like sleeping in order for your brain to be processing cuz it's thinking time.
[00:45:09] Adam Grant:
Yeah. It's like if, if, if you're the plants, you don't go around and saying, you, you don't go around saying this plant is defective. Like, no, this plant needs nutrients, needs its soil. It's getting light and water, right?
[00:45:22] Celeste Ng:
It’s not getting enough sun. It’s not what's wrong with the plant, but like, oh, “Do—Are you not getting enough sun? Are you not getting enough water? Are you getting too much water? Maybe you don't have enough nitrogen. Maybe you need to be pruned.”
Whatever it is that your plant needs. In a way, I think sometimes if you know it's not that the idea is bad or that we are stupid, but that there's something missing that needs to be added in here, or there's just time that needs to happen, right? Sometimes what you just really need is, it's not time for that thing to grow yet. It's gotta take a while.
[00:45:51] Adam Grant:
Well, I don't wanna take any more whiles here. This, this discussion has been, as always, thought-provoking and fun. And I think you're gonna get some people who don't currently write to start writing and help some people who do write, write more clearly and enthusiastically
[00:46:09] Celeste Ng:
Also yay. I'm all in favor of people writing to tell their stories. And whatever happens with this story is, I think the writing of it is the part that, that matters.
[00:46:18] Adam Grant:
Well thank you Celeste. I hope to see you at least once in the next 15 years.
[00:46:22] Celeste Ng:
That would be great. And you know, it is always a joy to get to talk to you, so thank you so much for having me on.
[00:46:31] Adam Grant:
I love this idea of doing pyrotechnics with your prose. You don't have to be a writer to appreciate it. The impact of what you say always depends on how you say it. It's true that actions speak louder than words, but choosing your words carefully is an action, and there's no better tool for refining those words than frequent writing.
[00:46:54] Adam Grant:
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by the TED Audio Collective. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winick, Michelle Quint, BanBang Cheng, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo and mixed by Sarah Bruguiere. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Layton Brown.
[00:47:15] Adam Grant:
Also big thanks to Josh and Marissa Shandell for their title wizardry with ReThinking. I'm such a fan of how the colon in Re:Thinking carries a double meaning. It looks like an email subject line saying the show is about thinking, and it also clearly suggests that it's about rethinking. And now I am clearly overthinking.
[00:47:37] Celeste Ng:
I'll follow your lead and I'm happy to talk about whatever.
[00:47:39] Adam Grant:
Be careful what you wish for.
[00:47:41] Celeste Ng:
I know we've known each other a long time, so.
[00:47:44] Adam Grant:
It has been a long time. I, I could not think of a single embarrassing story about you though. It's, it's a little disappointing.
[00:47:50] Celeste Ng:Really?
[00:47:50] Adam Grant:
Yeah. You, I know last time we saw each other—
[00:47:52] Celeste Ng:
You must've forgotten.
[00:47:53] Adam Grant:
No, you had a lot on me. Or maybe just search your email.
[00:47:56] Celeste Ng:
Yeah, maybe. I'm trying to, I, I do. I feel like I do know embarrassing stories about you, but I don't think I've told them publicly so…