writers at work

Writers’ Routines Part III

Colum McCann sometimes prints out a chapter or two in large font, staples it together like a book, and takes it to Central Park.  He finds a quiet bench and pretends he’s reading a book by someone else.

Other times, when he’s re-reading a bit of dialogue or trying to tweak a character’s voice, he’ll reduce the computer font to eight-point Times New Roman. “It forces me to peer at the words and examine why they’re there. Changing the way the words look physically,” he says, “gives him more critical distance.”

The hardest moment often comes at the end of the project, when he’s emotionally spent and terrified that he’ll never be able to write another novel.  At such moments, he reminds himself of Samuel Beckett’s advice: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I am a creature of habit. As soon as I was able to establish my writing habits—which are to start work in the morning and write until hungry, then again in the afternoon until tired—I stuck to this routine most of the days of the week. Once I had learned to compose as I wrote—to make corrections as I went along with a crayon or marking pencil—I would average eight to twelve pages a morning. In time I learned that random breaks—walking around, having a smoke, saving the house from woodpeckers—were creatively helpful. They jogged the mind from its rut, resolved impasses, opened up unforeseen vistas. Since all of my books are closely related, thirty or forty pages into a new book, I would begin to have glimpses of where it was going, and what would follow. Ceremony in Lone Tree grew like a branch from a passage in The World in the Attic, The Field of Vision from War Games, and so on. The disadvantage of these links is that I was never encouraged to stop and take stock, or to consider what the public was reading. For better or for worse, I was on a time schedule I had invented, doing work I had assigned to myself. Recycling was part of the next step forward, or backward. The loop back before the step forward began with God’s Country and My People, a book of reappraisal before Fire Sermon and A Life. The multivoiced fiction of the fifties gave way to a relatively simple narration—the indulgently prodigal writer returning to beginnings.

I continue to work because I’m a writer. No cliché is truer than that which says that the writer does not feel fully alive when he isn’t writing. He doesn’t always feel fully alive writing, but he feels more alive… All that training has turned me into a person with a particular type of consciousness—one made up of a great deal of what I’d call fictive presence. Often it’s the voice I’m working with that dominates; at other times it’s one suggested by the events of the day. Whenever I take a walk, I become involved in this fashion. It happens almost every day, and it contributes to short stories, which I’ve been doing recently. I’ll see or hear something that will cause me on the instant to experiment with a “narrating voice.” A few sentences will get me started. The character and tone of this voice will establish the nature of a story.

I once thought I’d use a small tape recorder, but my thinking about the work at hand is closely tied to the physical act of writing—even when the writing proves to be illegible! I could never dictate a work of fiction.

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

“The more I worked, the more I understood that a writer never really stops writing. Leaving my basement didn’t end the process. I continued to write in my head. My relationship with the world was one of narrative, and I engaged life eagerly while simultaneously keeping a segment of my mind detached to notice sensory detail. My pockets filled with scraps of paper that held description of light and land, snippets of conversation, and observation of character. In my basement I organized the notes, typed them under various headings, and kept them close at hand.”

“As long as I am sitting at my desk with my imagination plugged into the world of my characters, I consider myself engaged in the act of writing. On a rare day, I’ll write several pages, while other days only a page. There are times that require four hours to squeeze out a mere paragraph. The toughest writing sessions are those when not a word spills forth.”

“I regard all of these times as equal to one another and valid to the act of writing. Two words are the same as two pages. I am writing simply by virtue of allowing my mind to enter the world of my characters. If I go three days without writing a word, I know that the eventual sentences will be that much stronger for the time spent in the company of my characters.”

“The only way I can create anything worthwhile is to concern myself solely with the moment, to maintain as much freedom as possible during the interaction between my mind and narrative. This has led me to write what I need to write, instead of what I want to write. My work, both fiction and nonfiction, is about my current emotional state, my past behavior, and my recent thoughts. The years of revision enable me to understand myself.”

Michael Ondaatje sometimes goes through an “anarchic” stage, cutting out characters or rearranging scenes. The Booker-prize winner author works in 8½-by-11-inch Muji brand lined notebooks.  After completing the first three or four drafts by hand, he cuts and pastes passages and whole chapters with scissors and tape.  Many of his notebook pages layer four deep.  “Some writers know what the last sentence is going to be before they begin,” he says. “I don’t even know what the second sentence is going to be.”  For Ondaatje, words come easily. The bulk of the work is arranging and rewriting sentences.

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk writes anywhere inspiration strikes—on airplanes, in hotel rooms, on a park bench. Writing by hand on graph-paper notebooks, he fills a page with prose and leaves the adjacent page blank for revisions, which he inserts with dialogue-like balloons.  He sends his notebooks to a typist who returns them as typed manuscripts. He then marks the pages up and sends them back to be retyped. The cycle continues three or four times.

“I like to use different parts of my brain,” says Richard Powers. While working in bed, he spoke his last three novels to a laptop computer with voice recognition software.  He then used a stylus pen to edit on a touch screen, rewriting sentences and highlighting words.  “It’s recovering storytelling by voice and recovering the use of the hand and all that tactile immediacy.”  Powers put in eight to nine hour days writing his most recent novel, Generosity.

“From the very beginning of my serious adult work, when I was a senior in college, my writing has emerged by a process over which I have almost no more conscious control than over the growth of my fingernails.  The best I can do is to live as if I were training for the Olympics.  I try to keep my mind, which is an organ of something called my body, in the best possible physical shape; if I do that, I find that it does my work for me.  I think artists of almost all sorts would say that—from great athletes and dancers to poets and composers.  There’s a huge amount of discipline and training and specific technique that can be learned; but ultimately it’s a matter of arriving each morning at the desk and finding that the cistern filled up in the night—or that it didn’t, which is mostly my fault.”

“I’m presently trying to finish a novel; and I’m beginning to have this sense here in the core of my brain, this sounding note that says that the next book may be a memoir, a play, or a short novel.  So my mind may be in here—I hope it is—working on that next thing, conceiving that next child.  But I very seldom sit down and think, I’m coming to the end of this story.  What do I want to do next, a play or a sonnet?  I can’t remember ever doing that.  I do know that I’m not good at writing two different kinds of things at once. I might be able to put a novel aside for a couple of days to write a book review or a very short poem that rushes in, but that’s about it.”

“I wish I had a little bit less of a one-track mind; but the creating, unconscious portion of my mind works best and most reliably when it’s allowed to do one thing.  A novelist friend of mine said one of my favorite things: The unconscious is like children and dogs.  It loves routine and hates surprises.  If you’ll think about that, there are probably no exceptions.  If you get your whole mind to where it’s supposed to be at nine o’clock tomorrow morning—or you name the hour—whatever the chore is, your chances are far better for doing the chore if you feed your mind when it expects to be fed and then let it do what you’ve told it to.”

By the time Reynolds Price starts, his unconscious has done a lot of cooking in the basement.  “Then,” he says, “the odors begin to pervade the ground floor; I think, Apparently I want to write this novel about a thirty-six-year-old man who runs away with a sixteen-year-old girl. Then I’ll probably go to the keyboard and begin making notes which are not at all detailed plans.  I never have elaborate outlines, not since A Long and Happy Life.  I just write endless letters to myself: What if he’s gray eyed and meets her in a music store in downtown Raleigh in April 1956?  They’re contingency studies, strategic extrapolations; and I may write those for x number of weeks, months, or years, depending on the complexity of the material and on what else I’m doing before I really get to concentrate on that particular job. Then I tend to get a first sentence.  It arrives almost invariably in bed, when I’ve got to turn the lights on and write it down on the bottom of a Kleenex box or something because I never think to have any real writing materials at hand.”

“Sometimes I’ll say, I’m going to begin it full time on my father’s birthday, or, I’m going to begin it on the anniversary of so-and-so. That might be six weeks ahead or three weeks ahead, and I pack in the complex carbohydrates and begin the physical and mental training.  And then that morning I cut the ribbons and go in and start it—the actual novel, no more plans or guesses.  In recent years I’ve written at the rate of somewhere between three to ten pages a day; and that will constitute a first draft—written six days a week, more or less all day and sometimes at night.  Then I’ll completely run the first draft back through my fingers on the keyboard.  Then I’ll print it out.  Then I start revising by hand on paper.  After x number of those cycles, I feel that it’s finished; it falls off the tree, and I ship it away.”

First drafts as early in the morning as possible, then second, then third (retyping, I work on a manual). Once the first draft is 80% completed I start on the second, so that there’s a conveyor belt of drafts in progress: this helps me to grasp the totality of the book. I accelerate towards the end, usually because I’m on or past my deadline.

Regarding how he survives spending so much of time alone: Rituals. Smoking–pipes, cigars, special brands, accessories, the whole bollocks. Coffee, tea, strange infusions–I have a stove on my desk. Fetishising typewriters, pens, etc. Overall, though, I have a healthy appetite for solitude. If you don’t, you have no business being a writer.

I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

Maybe a writer who grows up with computers would not feel this way, but then, I think, the writing will be different. Let’s put it this way: Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative. . . . To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.

I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled, and I’m incapable of having a schedule. . . . Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer who was enormously productive … told me that he started work every morning at a quarter to 8 and he quit at a quarter to 1, and that was it — that’s when he had lunch. . . . And I said, “Well, what happens if you’re called to lunch at a quarter to 1 and you’re in the middle of a sentence?” And he said, “Well, I just stop. I just go and have lunch and go back the next day.” And I thought, I couldn’t do that to save my life. I have a feeling … it’s started! How could I? … I can’t leave it! It’s not even that I can’t leave it because I’m afraid that it would go away… I simply can’t.

It’s as hard as stopping peeing in the middle of peeing — excuse the simple-minded example, but just in the same way that it’s very hard to stop peeing once you’ve started, it seems to me, once you’ve started writing, that day, if there’s anything there, how could you stop?

I move around a lot when I work—I just walk around—I move a lot, and I bring my work with me. It’s one of the reasons I like to work at home, because if you’re in a library, you can’t just walk around.

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

Except for certain routine chores, I never knew in the morning how the day was going to develop. I was like a hunter, hoping to catch sight of a rabbit. There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.

I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man—they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

To write Lowboy, which takes place in the New York City subway, Brooklyn-based novelist John Wray rode trains all over the city while pecking out a first draft on his laptop computer.  He mainly rode the F, C and B trains, though “there was a time when I was really into the G,” he says.  He often sat in a corner near the conductor’s booth with his headphones on.  He worked like this, often for six hours a day, for nearly a year.

Initially, he wrote on the train not for research purposes, but to cut himself off from distractions like email and phone calls.  Then the people and conversations he observed on the subway began to creep into the book, a novel about a paranoid schizophrenic teenager.  One of the characters, a heavy-set homeless woman, is based on a woman Wray used to see at the Stillwell Avenue stop in Brooklyn.  Bits of dialogue he overheard appear verbatim in the novel, including a strange conversation about how prospective homeowners should spend the night in a house before buying it in order to check the property for paranormal activity.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist