SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.
I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóín. The face of Borges against a dark background — Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture. I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked — but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.
“I think 90% of my ideas evaporate because I have a terrible memory and because I seem to be committed to not scribble anything down,” says Junot Díaz. “As soon as I write it down, my mind rejects it.”
Juggling everything in his head has drawbacks, one of which is writing very slowly. He threw out two earlier versions of his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—the equivalent of about 600 pages—before the final version began to take shape.
He often listens to orchestral movie soundtracks as he writes, because he’s easily distracted by lyrics. When he needs to seal himself off from the world, he retreats into the bathroom and sits on the edge of the tub. “It drove my ex crazy. She would always know I was going to write because I would grab a notebook and run into the bathroom.”
I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.
Jeffrey Eugenides doesn’t start with an idea and outline it. “I don’t see how you can know what’s going to happen in a book or what the book is about beforehand. I plunge in headlong, and after a while I get worried that I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, so I begin to make a fuzzy outline, thinking about what might happen in the book or how I might structure it. And then that outline keeps getting revised. I’ll have it there, like a security blanket, but it’s provisional. Always you discover things and have ideas of how it might work out as you’re writing, and often the surprise of coming to these conclusions is what makes the book’s plot points surprising to the reader, too. If you can see on your first day what’s going to happen, the reader can likely guess as well. It’s the more complex ideas, the more difficult-to-foresee consequences of your story, that are more interesting to write about, and to read about as well.”
Eugenides says,“The Virgin Suicides was written in a slow, methodical fashion, sentence by sentence. Parts of my other books were written that way as well. There were small transitions in Middlesex, even though they were only three or four sentences long, where I had to spend a long time to get them to move. There are so many time shifts in the book, and it was difficult to give the right signposts so that the reader knew what was happening. I rewrite a lot. That’s why I don’t publish books very often. The fact that I’m working every day and publish so seldom shows that I’m reworking and rewriting a lot on the sentence level, and on the paragraph and structural levels, too.”
When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.
As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.
Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.
Amitav Ghosh’s first novel ended in failure. After working on the first draft for a year, he says, “It was terrible and I had to throw it all away.” He’s since written six novels, including Sea of Poppies and The Glass Palace, but the process is always fraught. “It never gets easier; it’s always hard, it’s always a test. I’ve reached a point in my life where if a sentence seems easy, I distrust it.”
Ghosh writes by hand and is particular about everything from his pen to the type of paper he writes on. He insists black ink Pelikan pens are the best, and buys white, lined paper from a French manufacturer. “If you work on paper so much, you get obsessive about even the spacing of the lines. I need them to be fairly widely spaced.”
Eventually, he transitions to his laptop and, working in the morning, revises what he wrote the day before. Every sentence that appears in his books has been through at least 20 revisions.
“The difficulty is the first page of the novel; afterwards one is pushed by an energy in what one has already written.”
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again… When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”
“An average day includes around two hours of writing, about six miles of dog walking (which also counts as writing), a lot of time on E-mail, a movie, some forensics shows, and CNN to see what I missed.”
Kazuo Ishiguro collects his notes in binders and writes a first draft by hand. He edits with a pencil, then types the revised version into a computer, where he further refines it, sometimes deleting chunks as large as 100 pages.
I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night … also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel) … but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I’m beginning to suspect the full moon. Also I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it’s an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me ‘unbalanced’ after that. Frankly I do feel that my mind is going. So another ‘ritual’ as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?
SUE MONK KIDD
When I’m working on a book, I write almost every day. If I’m really in the midst of the work, I’ll just write straight through the weekend. But I write all day long. I’m kind of slow and methodical and meticulous about the work. I’ll take a good long rest after the book tour, anyway. I believe we need a fallow time before we write again.
There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.
It’s not any different than a bedtime routine. Do you go to bed a different way every night? Is there a certain side you sleep on? I mean I brush my teeth, I wash my hands. Why would anybody wash their hands before they go to bed? I don’t know. And the pillows are supposed to be pointed a certain way. The open side of the pillowcase is supposed to be pointed in toward the other side of the bed. I don’t know why.
The beginning is mystifying. You don’t have your compass yet, and you don’t know which direction you’re going in, so there’s a lot of false starts, a lot of pages written in a sort of daydreamy state. There’s also a sort of lovely freedom in that: You’re finding things, you’re grasping at them, you’re sort of swimming around, and then slowly you start to drop anchor. Of course, once you’ve dropped anchor and stabilized, you’re also stuck, too. Then there are the questions of commitment: Do I really care about these characters, am I really invested in what happens to them? Is this plot that I’m trying to construct feasible?
We now settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype, so that what I still mean when I speak of a “normal” day (and lament that normal days are so rare) is a day of the Bookham pattern. For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend.
Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one (such as I found, during the holidays, in Arthur) who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, as I took it as Bookham on those (happily numerous) occasions when Mrs. Kirkpatrick was out; the Knock himself disdained this meal. For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. The ones I learned so to use at Bookham were Boswell, and a translation of Herodotus, and Lang’s History of English Literature. Tristram Shandy, Elia and the Anatomy of Melancholy are all good for the same purpose.
At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven. But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock.
Mystery writer Laura Lippman creates elaborate, color-coded plot charts, using index cards, sketchbook pages, colored ribbon and magic markers. The diagrams vary from book to book, but Ms. Lippman says she can tell a novel is off-track if her chart lacks symmetry.
She first used the technique on her ninth book, By A Spider’s Thread, which had two lines of action. She assigned a color to each point of view and made a chart with alternating blocks of color. For her novel To The Power of Three, which had seven different points of view, she bought seven different colors of ribbon and assigned a color to each character. Then she created a grid and strung colored ribbon representing each character between chapters where that character appeared, creating an intricate colored lattice.
“Every time I show people these things they seem to find them mildly disturbing,” Lippman says.
British novelist Hilary Mantel likes to write first thing in the morning, before she has uttered a word or had a sip of coffee..
Mantel is an obsessive note taker and always carries a notebook. Odd phrases, bits of dialogue and descriptions that come to her get tacked to a 7-foot-tall bulletin board in her kitchen; they remain there until she finds a place for them in her narrative. One day she was in a panic over how she would fit everything she needed to into her novel Wolf Hall. She took a shower—her usual head-clearing ritual. “I burst out of the shower crying ‘It’s two books!'” Mantel has now written the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies.
Writing before dawn began as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning. Many years later, after I stopped working at Random House, I just stayed at home for a couple of years. I discovered things about myself I had never thought about before. At first I didn’t know when I wanted to eat, because I had always eaten when it was lunchtime or dinnertime or breakfast time. Work and the children had driven all of my habits… I didn’t know the weekday sounds of my own house; it all made me feel a little giddy.
I was involved in writing Beloved at that time—this was in 1983—and eventually I realized that I was clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning. The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.
Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was—there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard–but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.