Writing was never work for me. It had been the same for as long as I could remember: turn on the radio to a classical music station, light a cigarette or cigar, open the bottle. The typer did the rest…
Open the bottle, turn on the radio, have a smoke. Or find your own routine. Do what you need to do to let the words flow.
As they say, if you love your work, you never have to work a day in your life.
Even in fiction, when we’re writing, we are often reliving something something we already experienced. A thought, a view, a conversation, a stab of pain or shiver of beauty.
Part of the reason writers do that is simple: Fuel for the engine. But sometimes we write about an experience in order to go through it again, to remember what it felt like, get it down on paper, and let it some extent, live forever.
James Dickey won a National Book Award for his poetry collection Buckdancer’s Choice. That was years before he hit the big time with Deliverance. To some degree, poetry remained his first and last love.
Later, in the 1985 collection How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, he offered some advice for aspiring, or even veteran poets. It begins with simplicity:
As for me, I like the sun, the source of all living things, and on certain days very good-feeling, too. ‘Start with the sun,’ D. H. Lawrence said, ‘and everything will slowly, slowly happen.’ Good advice. And a lot will happen…
Start by writing what’s in front of you. If you can capture that, it’s an amazing start.
Sometimes it is self-consciousness that stems the flow. Often it is the result of misapprehensions about writing, or it arises from an embarrassment of scruples; the beginner may be waiting for the divine fire which he has heard to glow unmistakably, and may believe that it can only be lighted by a fortuitous spark from above. The particular point to be noted just here is that this difficulty is anterior to any problems about story structure or plot building, and that unless the writer can be helped past it there is very likely to be no need for technical instruction at all…
You have to keep your audience in mind at all times, of course. But if you don’t listen to your own voice first, there won’t be any audience for you to worry about.
My high school girlfriend gave me a copy of Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk — this collection of her beautiful portraits of writers — and that’s how I wanted to live. Wake up, get your coffee, look outside, ruminate and sit down at your mahogany desk like Philip Roth. That’s fucking rad. That’s the life…
Many of us can relate. We know that dream.
But then we also come to discover that, well, it’s a dream:
In reality, there’s no mahogany desk. There’s only a conference room table, and you’re lying on the floor underneath it, scrawling something in mangled Italian on the back of an old lunch order for the Vinny Vedecci sketch. You can’t sit there and wait for inspiration. You think on the fly. You get the work done. You spend every day, every hour you have, trying to make the thing better…
Sometimes, as on-the-fly and unattractive as real writing is, it can be more satisfying in the end.
The writer would suggest subject after subject only to be told that the idea had already been reserved for another writer or that Shawn wasn’t interested in it. This is the moment, as the story goes, when John McPhee finally just said, “Oranges.”
That was it. That’s all it took:
According to the version he told in an interview with the Paris Review decades later, “That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges. Oh yes! Oh yes! [Shawn] says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”
McPhee came back with 40,000 words on oranges for the magazine. He later turned it into a book. Title? Oranges.
One of the more eye-opening bits at the just-closed David Bowie Is exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum—besides that clip from Labyrinth, his tattered Union Jack coat, and all the cultural ephemera that inspired him—is the part focusing on his recurring fascination with automatic and cut-up writing.
The technique wasn’t new by the time Bowie started using it in the 1970s. The likes of William S. Burroughs had already been randomly cutting up strips of words and threading them together to create curious curlicues of randomized verbiage. Inspiration out of chaos.
Roberts described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He’d then cross out material that didn’t fit to create lines of lyrics.
Roberts had an idea for a computer program that could help speed up the process. The result was a Mac program called The Verbasizer:
It allowed for different input methods including simply typing in words and then arranged them in columns which could be restricted to nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Each column could be weighted and have multiple words if desired. With a push of a button lyrics would then be created.
So what you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topic and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other.
This approach isn’t exactly a killer app for writing. But if you’re stuck for inspiration and feel you need a little kickstart, try randomizing things. If you can’t immediately see a method to the madness, go looking for it.
Jon Favreau—the other one, not the actor/director/occasional Tony Stark wingman—spent years as President Obama’s director of speechwriting. He distilled much of what he learned in that highly precise and pressurized job into “Five Rules of Storytelling.” They are:
The story is more important than the words
Keep it simple
Always address the arguments against your position during your presentation, not after
Empathy is key
There is no persuasion without inspiration
Not all of these may be applicable to those of us not writing for the world stage, but Favreau’s rules are solid reminders to keep thinking about what you’re writing, how you’re going to get to your point, and what is the best way there. That applies whether you’re writing a murder mystery or white paper on fiscal policy.
Art is infinitely adaptable; it accommodates activism naturally. When used to describe specific works today, however, “necessary” constrains more than it celebrates. If we can access only the essential, we may start to crave the extraneous…
When applied to bad art with good politics, “necessary” allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult. When applied to good art with good, or even ambivalent, politics, it renders aesthetic achievement irrelevant. Not only is that depressing, it also nullifies the political argument in favor of art in the first place: Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?
All our work is ultimately temporary; data corrupts, ink fades, paper crumbles. We don’t need to write for posterity.
But looking past the present helps sharpen that focus on the work itself. Worry about being true and hitting the right note, not being “necessary.”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.