Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Writing Habit: Sputtering to a start

Apocryphal or not, the lives of famous writers are chock-full of stories about how they readied themselves for work.

Alexander Dumas began each day eating an apple under the Arc de Triomphe at 7 a.m.

Gunter Grass was up by 9 a.m. for a long breakfast that included reading and music.  Afterwards, he started writing, taking a break for coffee in the afternoon, and finished around 7 p.m.  He claimed he needed daylight to work effectively.

Anthony Trollope?  As Joan Acocella writes in The New YorkerEvery day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him.  He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour.  If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next.  The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service.  Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week.  Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years.

Thomas Hardy wrote from 6 p.m. to midnight; Elmore Leonard from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Isaac Asimov from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Charles Dickens was famous for taking leg-numbing, four-hour walks just to get the juices flowing.

John Cheever wore his only suit of clothing each morning as he rode the elevator down to the windowless basement where he worked.  Once there, he would strip to his underwear, hang up his suit, and start writing.  He only put his clothes back on for lunch and at quitting time, when he would ride the elevator back upstairs to his apartment.

As for me, the routine is somewhat less glamorous, but more fully-dressed.

I'm not one of those scruffy-bearded gadabouts who can write anything, anywhere, anytime.  I don't carry a sweat-stained notebook in my pocket, impulsively whipping it out to jot down a chapter or two.  My flashes of inspiration are usually written entirely on Post-it notes.  No sitting around coffee houses gazing into the navel of espresso for me.

No, I'm a very structured, habitual writer.  I confine myself to a set of very specific parameters.  Step outside of those borders and I melt into uselessness.

On a good writing day, I will slap off the alarm clock at 4:02 a.m.  I'll lie there in the dark for a minute or two, breathing myself into consciousness and then, with sudden resolution, flap back the covers, put both feet on the ground, and pad out of the room as quietly as I can so I don't disturb my wife.  (On a bad writing day, my sleep-fogged brain will convince my all-too-willing body to just....grab....forty more....winkszzzzzz.....)

In the kitchen, I fill a sports bottle with ice water, then head downstairs to the basement.  On a bad writing day, I will stop in my office to check my e-mail and will be distracted for an hour (which usually means I'll run out of time, essentially distracting myself out of writing a single word).  On a good writing day, I will avoid the Internet like the bubonic plague that it is, and beeline straight for the TV room/library/mini-gymnasium, where I turn on the television, watch something I've TiVo'ed on Turner Classic Movies, and flail on the elliptical for 45 minutes.

Sweaty, tingly, and clear-headed, I'm then ready for writing.

But wait, one more necessary step in the routine: I head back upstairs and warm up some coffee.  Once I have my steaming mug o' Faulkner, it's back down to the basement where I take Kingsley Amis' advice:  "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair."  I pull up iTunes on my computer, select my Classical Music playlist, and start the random symphonies flowing into my office (always classical, never vocal--too distracting).

If I've been wise, I'll have pulled up the Fobbit file the night before so that it is the only thing I see when I look at my computer monitor.

I sip the coffee.  I stare at the screen.  I crack my knuckles.  I sip some more coffee.  I check iTunes to see if that's Mozart or Chopin I'm hearing right now.  I stare at the screen.  I think, think, think....I wait, wait, wait....

Welcome to the glamorous life of a writer.

The words don't always come easy.  In fact, they hardly ever flow like a faucet.  They sputter and stutter and have a hard time making it all the way from my prefrontal cortex to my fingertips.  Inevitably, when I do get something going, and the words are rolling like marbles, I'll be roadblocked by a distraction (the cat jumps onto the desk, I hear my wife moving around upstairs, the lukewarm coffee needs to be reheated, "Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky?  Hmmm....").  And then it's back to thinking, thinking, waiting, waiting....

Perhaps the biggest roadblock I set for myself is the time constraint.  Monday through Friday, I'll be racing the clock, heart ticking like a stopwatch second-hand.  If I've gotten out of bed by 4:05, worked out for 45 minutes, and--allowing for the post-elliptical pee and the time it takes to microwave the coffee--gotten to my computer by 5:15, I'll have about 90 minutes left to produce 1,000 words before I must get ready for my "real" job at the office.  Allowing for another 45 minutes of staring into space and sipping the coffee, I really only have 45 minutes of actual tappity-tap-tap-tapping at the keyboard.  When I'm "in the zone," I roll out the words and the whole of my head is filled with tick-tick-tick.  If I'm really chugging ahead at full steam on a scene, I'll start cutting into my pre-work routine (shaving minutes off my shower, only brushing the upper row of teeth, eating one bowl of cereal instead of two, etc.).  The office can wait; the novel can't.  On those days, if you happen to be walking along Harrison Avenue in Butte, Montana, and you see me come barreling past, pushing the speed limit, you'll know it was a good writing day.

Otherwise, you'll see me idling at the stop light, staring vacantly out the window, thinking about how tomorrow is a new day, a fresh start on the page, a clean slate on which I can write big letters in chalk: "1,000 words or bust!"

As long as I don't ignore that 4 a.m. alarm.


  1. Not sure how I found your blog- one site leads to another on the Internet, but like it. I now have 45 minutes of actual writing time. Such a glamorous life, right. Or 'productive' I should say. Best wishes on your novel.

  2. Reading about your method makes me feel like I'm not alone. I think most of us do this. It helps to hear it from others, though.