Walter Mosley may be best known for writing mysteries—though his bestselling Easy Rawlins series are among the dozens of works across genres that he’s produced in the past 30 years. But the prolific author doesn’t believe there’s any mystery to writing—or any core requirements to become a writer.
“I think that, you know, because the university has to such a great degree tried to own writing—one, because they teach literature, and two, because they make so much money off writing programs—that you know, they come from a place where “well, we’re educators” and well, you know, maybe you are,” Mosley tells us during this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! “But writers aren’t educated. You know, writers are writers. You know, writers can be hanging out on the street corner in Atlanta. You know, writers are—prisons are filled with writers—people just writing their stories down.”
The poet Etheridge Knight was one such writer—formerly incarcerated and heroin-addicted—and one Mosley credits for inspiring his own career, which didn’t start in earnest until he was in his mid-30s.
“Etheridge [said], ‘When I became a poet, I was in the penitentiary. When I was in the penitentiary, I defined myself as a poet. And once I defined myself as a poet, I went to the library to figure out what it was I had become,’” recalls Mosley of the late poet. “And that’s kind of the freedom of writing, you know? Etheridge was right. He was free to write whenever he wanted to write and say whatever he wanted to say. And that’s the thing that I love about being a writer.
“I write about the world. You know, I write about the world I live in, the people I’ve known, where I wanted to go, what I hope for, what I don’t understand,” he later adds.
Mosley has a lot of insight to share about being a writer, much of which is now available to the masses via his recently launched 10-part MasterClass (which is currently offering a 2 for 1 special on memberships). And though he’s written well over 50 books since, he’s not of the commonly held belief that great writers are inherently avid readers. “I don’t necessarily equate writing and reading—I mean, I think they’re two completely different things,” he says. But Mosley clearly is an avid reader, also making a distinction between the power of books and narratives for the screen, despite having his own debut novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, adapted for film, and currently being a writer and executive producer on FX’s Snowfall (as well as having famously departed the writers’ room of Star Trek: Discovery last year after being censured for use of “the n-word”).
“I don’t find the fact of watching a movie, growing me intellectually or spiritually, the way reading a book will. Because you make up the book while you’re reading it; the film is telling you everything you should be looking at, what you should be thinking, how people sound, everything...I’m not trying to say it’s useless. But it’s not as, for me, as powerful as the written word.”
Hear more of the enigmatic Walter Mosley on Episode 12 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit: Unlocking the Mystery of Writing, With Walter Mosley, now available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. Also available is a transcript of this week’s episode.