Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Writing

Anna Quindlen has a great oped on writing:

I hate to write. I have to force myself every day to sit down and begin. This is the first thing that I always tell students, who have absorbed the peculiar modern notion that if you are practiced at something you must find it effortless and pleasurable. Sometimes they ask how I continue, and I reply, glibly, "Because of contractual obligation." But I only manage because I live a humdrum life, in which the drama takes place mainly on the page.
The day begins with a period of mindless and repetitive activity. My one-hour power walk is nominally cardio, but it's actually composition—scenes, characters, even dialogue. (There must be people in my neighborhood park who think I'm a lunatic since occasionally I move my lips while composing on the fly.) One of the reasons I so fear the over-scheduling of today's children is that most creative thought happens when you are staring into the middle distance, doing nothing at all.
"Inspiration comes during work, not before it," Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, and for that to happen you must sit down in a chair. I don't believe in writer's block. It's not that sometimes you can't write, it's that you can't write well. Experience has told me that writing poorly sometimes leads to something better. Not writing at all leads only to reruns of "Law and Order." Which I love, but still.
When I am writing a novel, I have a totem that helps me to fall back into its world, like the old Hamilton wrist watch with the sepia face that I imagined on the wrist of my protagonist in "Blessings." Stephen Sondheim says that his writing utensils are unvarying: Blackwing pencils, yellow legal pads with precisely 32 lines, both so essential that he has laid in a lifetime supply. For my part, I need Sondheim in the background. It's not so much the music as the familiarity of it, like wallpaper in the workroom of my imagination.
My schedule, too, is set to music. I've heard endless stories of young mothers rising at 5 a.m. to fit in a few hours of writing before the children were up, but I can barely make coffee at 5 a.m. My productive hours are between 9 and 3, an elementary school schedule, once the only predictable part of my working day (unless one of the children got an ear infection and then all bets were off). If I go out for lunch and interrupt my rhythm, I'm sunk. I think that all of those lunches were what diminished Truman Capote's output.
Or maybe it's that he talked too much about his work. If you talk it, you won't write it; it's as though the words turn into vapor in the air. If you write other stuff, you won't write it either. One of my Barnard writing professors, B.J. Chute, used to tell us not to take jobs that included writing of any kind because there was no chance we would then go home at night and take up our own material. But she predated the Internet, which is more dangerous than a copywriting gig.
I'm convinced that there are only so many words per day in the human body: If you do some longish emails and a few tweets, you feel done.
Finally, how you start each day depends on how you finished the day before. I never knock off at the end of a chapter, or the end of a paragraph, or even the end of a sentence. I always stop in mid-sentence. Starting a new chapter or a new paragraph first thing in the morning might be too much to bear. But I can always manage to finish a sentence. And one sentence has a way of following another if everything else around me is routine enough.

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