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: Discover Something

In February 1963, Esquire published “Ten Thousand Words a Minute” by Norman Mailer. Ostensibly a piece about the Sonny Liston–Floyd Patterson heavyweight fight in Chicago, Mailer as usual flailed all over the place, subject-wise, from the Mafia to America and back again.

Along the way, he delivered this:

Writing is of use to the psyche only if the writer discovers something he did not know he knew in the act itself of writing. That is why a few men will go through hell in order to keep writing—Joyce and Proust, for example. Being a writer can save one from insanity or cancer; being a bad writer can drive one smack into the center of the plague.

Mailer’s medical advice does not seem entirely sound. However, his declaration that writing is only worthwhile to the writer if it results in them learning something new is absolutely correct.

Why else bother?

Writer’s Desk: Keep Your Day Job

Oscar Wilde made this point in this letter from 1890, right around the time he was achieving success:

The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.

It’s great to not have a day job in some ways. Your whole day can be spent writing, nobody keeps track of your coffee breaks. And so on. But sometimes it can be nice to write for the thing itself, and not because the electricity bill is due.

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: Put on the Clown Suit

Dave Eggers—who turned 48 last week—once gave a fantastic description of writing fiction:

It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody. You’re the guy in costume, and everybody’s supposed to forget that and go along with you.

The best advice in such a situation feels like it has to be: Go with it. Suit up, fool everybody, and plow through until it feels feels absolutely normal.

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: Solitary but Productive

Philip Roth spent about a half of a century writing. In the process, he produced one of the greatest and weirdest bodies of work in American letters. How did he do it? Sitting down and plugging away, for one:

The day-by-day repertoire of oscillating dualities that any talent withstands — and tremendous solitude, too. And the silence: 50 years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool, eking out, when all went well, my minimum daily allowance of usable prose…

Set yourself a goal and get to it. Every great book starts with the first word, it’s true. But there’s a lot of words that have to follow. A daily allowance of usable prose is a good place to start.