Novelist and Visiting Prof. Andre Aciman Shares His Creative Process

By Lisa Reade, Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

Visiting Professor Andre Aciman Don/ co-photo Editor Visiting Professor Andre Aciman

For visiting Professor of English Andre Aciman, the most productive bursts of creative energy emerge from those moments familiar to every writer: when a deadline is looming overhead and all ideas stagnate in a puddle of directionless torpor.

 Aciman, who has been writing fiction for over fifteen years, still struggles with the seemingly contradictory task of the novelist – creating everything out of nothing. But it is precisely this nothingness, this question of where to go, that lends urgency to his task and forces him to embark on a new path each time he sets out to write.

 “The hardest projects for me have been those where I had no subject, no idea where I want to go, and I have a deadline,” he said. “At that point, what happens is the real creative process begins. You’ve got to look into yourself. You’ve got to look for stuff and you’ve got to piece it together. And it’s very hard because you have no idea where you’re going to go with this thing, it’s all abstract. But those are the best things I have written, where I had no idea where I was going to go with it.”

 This blind instinct for language seems to have followed him around the world.

 Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and lived there with his family until the age of 14, when they were exiled from the country and moved to Rome. He remembers Alexandria as a cosmopolitan city; at home he spoke mainly French, and at school he had to learn some Arabic. In Italy, he naturally acquired Italian, although he says he is not as comfortable lecturing in the language as he is with French and English.

 In 1969, Aciman’s family moved again to New York City, where he attended college and launched his writing career. Since then, he has written three novels, including his memoir, “Out of Egypt,” as well as a number of essays for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Paris Review.

 He also has substantial experience in the academic world. After getting his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University, Aciman went on to teach at Princeton University and Bard College. He then moved on to New York University and Yeshiva University, where he taught creative writing. Currently he teaches Comparative Literature at the Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York, but is spending the year at Wesleyan as a Distinguished Writer.

Still, despite years spent teaching and engaging in writing, Aciman says his process itself has not grown easier. Each time he sits down to write, Aciman says he asks himself a series of questions: “What does it even mean, to look inside you? You say, this has been my life, I always do this thing wrong, and you say, well why do I do this thing wrong? Maybe I should write about this, and see why am I suffering, why am I unhappy about this? And you begin to squeeze, you know, blood from the stone. That’s what writing is for me. Not the easy stuff. It’s the difficult stuff that really matters.”

Aciman says he still prefers a kind of literary ambling, rather than a straight beeline toward his target. “The last thing I want to do is to write about real things,” he said. “I am not interested in reality and in real human beings and their real day-to-day problems—I just want to say to them, hold still, and I’m just going to unpack, see what’s inside.”

  • Jose Goldbaum, Toronto, Canada

    Dear Prffessor Aciman, I read with interest your article published in the New York Times on June 9/09 "The Exodus Obama Forgot to Mention". Very intersting and well written. It would have been interesting to know how many Christians / Bahais and perhaps other non Muslims have also been forced out of Muslim countries same as Jews.

    I would love to hear from you.

    Thanks and best regards.
    Jose Goldbaum