Writer’s Desk: Philip Glass Drove a Cab

If you’re like most writers, you know that it almost never pays the bills. (The other writers know this, too, they just haven’t admitted it yet.) That means you need to keep working while writing. How do you do both? As usual, it’s whatever works for you. But flexibility is key.

Take composer Philip Glass. He had a couple day jobs that kept the lights on until he was in his 40s. He did some contracting work like plumbing and also building kitchens and putting in heating in SoHo lofts.

An even better fit, though, seemed to be his time as a cabbie. This is what he told Lolade Fadulu:

I would pick up a car, usually around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and I would drive till one or two in the morning, and I would get up early in the morning, actually to take my kids to school, because I had kids growing up in New York at the time. And sometimes I would stay up all through the night, write music, then take the kids to school. Then I would go to sleep around 8 or 9 o’clock and I would wake up around 4 o’clock and go back to the garage or wherever I was going. So I could combine a workday and a regular writing schedule at the same time.

It seems like there should be a good minimalist opera in him about driving the city at night. Or plumbing. Time will tell.

Writer’s Desk: Leave Out More Than You Put Down

One of the greatest writers of our time, John McPhee, had a lot to say about the writing process. A lot of it boils down to hard work, research, and edit, edit, edit.

Here’s a few tips:

Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.

If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.

I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.

And don’t forget:

Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.

Writer’s Desk: Read It Again

What looks like your best work ever at two in the morning can seem like dehydrated swill the next morning. It can be a letdown, but that second look is crucial, as is the third, and the fourth, and the…

In this discussion about his writing process on “The Stormthe article that became The Perfect Storm—Sebastian Junger talked about looking at your work with different eyes:

I try to edit my work in different states of mind. So I’ll go running on a really hot day and then read the 2,000 words I just wrote. Or if I’m upset, or really sleepy, or if I’m drunk, I’ll read this stuff. If you’re sleepy and you find yourself skipping over a paragraph because you’re bored by it and just want to get to the interesting part, it comes out. Those different states of mind are a really interesting filter.

Writer’s Desk: Get Your Tires Changed

It’s generally a bad idea to go to Facebook for—well, anything, really—but sometimes inspiration strikes.

Buzzfeed just wrote about a woman who, while waiting to get her tires changed, managed to knock out a few pages. The location (Tires, Tires, Tires) seemed to help:

Amy felt that that working at Tires Tires Tires was helping her word count, so she took her friend’s car in for an oil change, then her other car that was due for an oil change, then her sister’s car that also needed an oil change.

The moral of the story? Don’t assume that a tree-shaded cabin by a rustling brook is necessarily going to be your ideal writing.

Do what works. Wherever it works.

Writer’s Desk: Read in Cafes

You would think that the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (born March 6, 1927) was one of those people fated to be a writer. How else to explain his golden pen? But no, as a young man in the 1940s, he was just another Columbian law student. Fortunately for the rest of us, though, he decided to waste his free time on a different pursuit: reading.

From “How I Became a Writer“:

On free afternoons, instead of working to support myself, I read either in my room or in the cafés that permitted it. The books I read I obtained by chance and luck, and they depended more on chance than on any luck of mine, because the friends who could afford to buy them lent them to me for such limited periods that I stayed awake for nights on end in order to return them on time…

He discovered Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, and many other greats. Then came Kafka. And a challenge:

When I finished reading “The Metamorphosis,” I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise. The new day found me at the portable typewriter that Domingo Manuel Vega had lent me, trying to write something that would resemble Kafka’s tale of a poor bureaucrat turned into an enormous cockroach. In the days that followed I did not go to the university for fear the spell would be broken, and I continued, sweating drops of envy, until Eduardo Zalamea Borda published in his pages a disconsolate article lamenting the lack of memorable names among the new generation of Colombian writers, and the fact that he could detect nothing in the future that might remedy the situation. I do not know with what right I felt challenged, in the name of my generation, by the provocation in that piece, but I took up the story again in an attempt to prove him wrong…

Writer’s Desk: (Don’t Just) Write What You Know

Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) casts a little cold water on limiting your writing to what you’ve experienced personally:

I think the most famous piece of writing advice that there is is “write what you know,” and I think it’s—honestly, I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it’s the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is. It’s so simple and so obvious. It used to terrify me, this idea of “write what you know.” I was dreaming, I was in suburbia, in my house, dreaming of being of a writer, and I thought, what am I going to do with “write what you know”? What I know from childhood is I was on the couch, watching TV. So I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you. I should write a book called What’s Happening? and then I should write a book called Little House on the Prairie is on at 5 o’clock. . .

Writer’s Desk: Lie Truthfully

If writing isn’t truthful, readers can tell. That doesn’t mean it’s all pulled from real life. Writing is also about creating new realities. You have to make things up sometimes to get at the truth. It’s a contradiction that non-writers can have a hard time wrapping their heads around.

Here’s what Jamie Quatro told The Paris Review:

Fiction begins with small, lower-case truths, then translates them into a larger lie that ultimately reveals the largest truths. “None of it happened and all of it’s true,” said Ann Patchett’s mother.

And remember what Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story“:

Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.