Not Measured in Minutes or Hours: On the Writing Day (Part 1)

I love reading about the writing days of published authors and comparing them to my own. Seen close up, they don’t seem so different from how my writing day tends to go (or my writing hours, I should say). They too have a hard time staying focused! They too sometimes have no idea what they’re doing or where they’re going!

Sometimes there seems to be a world of difference between writing while having a full-time day job and writing as a day job (even a part-time one). Other times I think the upsides and downsides of each are probably roughly equal.

The writing day

Regardless, it’s comforting to know that, although I am a writer with nothing published, almost nothing finished, my experience of writing as an activity, a process, is not so far off from those whose work is out in the world. They get the words written and assembled into a shape fit for others to read, however impossible it may seem at one point or another, in a way that doesn’t sound so different from how I do it.

The internet offers up a multitude of details about writers and their writing day. I have too many favourites to fit into one post, so this will be the first part. I’ll share the second half next week.

Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Not all writing days are created equal, Ayòbámi Adébáyò writes in The Guardian. “On most days, I dragged my pen across the page, glancing over my shoulder at the wall clock to check if it was lunchtime, astonished by how long it would take for a minute to pass by. … I did write, but I also drew lots of squiggles in the notebooks because the right words just wouldn’t come.”

But then there are the special days, not like most days:

“Those special days are not measured in minutes nor hours but in chapters completed and sentences perfected. They don’t even feel like days, they are periods I spend in a magical place, unbound by the rules of a temporal universe. Usually, by the time I hit save before taking a nap, my word count has gone down but the world I’m creating feels more tangible than it did before.”

You never know when a special day will strike:

“The peculiar thing about those special days is that they sneak in like the regular ones; I never know when I’m going to write a sentence that transports me via some invisible threshold into another world. Now I think of those moments of magic as my reward for pushing through on the days when the process is quite tedious.”

Kazuo Ishiguro

On planning a story:

“I sit in a stuffy room and fill notebooks with possible relationships and situations. In nonfiction, authors have to do a lot of research before they write. I do the equivalent, but my research is not in libraries, or by interviews. I research the world in my head, the people, relationships, and settings.”

On writing the first draft:

“I write first in pen, deliberately illegibly. I pay no attention to style; my only objective is to let the ideas come out, to get past my own defenses. I write quickly and intensely. Ideas change; if I decide a character would be better this way, I make the change and carry on. I write 30-40 pages and stop. The first draft is a total mess.”

And then improving that first draft:

“I ‘pull out’ of the story to see its overall shape, stare at the numbered points, shape the ideas, see what’s original and what’s not, consider the forks in the road in the story going forward. Then I write the draft again, and repeat the whole process 3-4 times, until I write 30 pages I’m happy with. Then I move on to the next 30 pages.”

Literary Hub has many more words of wisdom from Ishiguro.

Stacy Schiff

On getting mired in the impossible middle:

“Somewhere around the midpoint of any manuscript — a point that by no means identifies itself as such at the time, any more than did the Middle Ages — you hit up against the Zeno’s paradox of writing. You can’t seem to get there from here; the end slips irretrievably out of sight. As with exile, or nostalgia, or unrequited love, you find yourself engaged with a place you cannot reach.”

And finally reaching the end:

“It’s all in the endgame. The bulk of the value comes in that final effort, those late-day tweaks, additions, epiphanies. They’re what make a good book a great one, a well-written one a gem. … You polish your first paragraph for the 200th time. You rewrite the entire manuscript, cutting the boring parts. Because of course only at the end do you at last figure out what you were looking for in the first place.”

Jennifer Egan

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz describes Jennifer Egan’s writing process:

“Egan writes her fiction longhand, at a clip of five or six pages a day, sitting in an overstuffed Ikea armchair that lives in her office, or, when the weather is good, in a Zero Gravity recliner that she sets up under the magnolia tree in her back yard. The process quiets her critical brain; she can let herself riff. After a year and a half, she typed up the nearly fourteen hundred handwritten pages she had produced and read them cold.”

Egan herself on the terribleness of the first draft: “The book was bad. … I did one draft that was absolutely unspeakable. But that’s normal.”

But sometimes not even a second draft is enough: “I thought very, very seriously about abandoning it, because I just thought, Hell — the distance between this and something anybody is ever going to want to read is too great for me to span.”

George Saunders

“What writers really do when they write” in its entirety is brilliant and worth a read through from beginning to end. His visualization of how to measure the quality of your writing and make small, continuous improvements is fascinating:

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

Emphasis on without whining. I’m not even sure I’m capable of being so objective about my own work. But the advice to improve your writing by being more specific is perfect:

“Under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.”

And more

For more minutiae on the lives of writers, I suggest Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, The Paris Review Interviews Volumes I and II, Writing Routines, and The Guardian’s “My writing day” series (which supplied sources for much of this post). And stay tuned for part two!

Drawing Boxes Around Words: Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

Draft No. 4 - John McPheeJohn McPhee has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since the 1960s. His work has been collected in dozens of books. Draft No. 4 is a collection of his essays on the craft of writing.

I’ve never read any of his other work, and although I hear good things about it, I don’t have plans to read any of his other writing. So the fact that I finished Draft No. 4 is a testament to my love of books about writing.

I read Draft No. 4 in two chunks. After the first chapter and a half, I stalled due to boredom with the in-depth examples McPhee gives from his own work on subjects that didn’t interest me. I stalled for so long that my library copy expired, so I had to wait for it to become available again. I did, to my own surprise, want to finish it. When it renewed, though, I again delayed picking it up until it was again nearly due. So I finished the remainder in a few days.

I rarely read books that way, but then I usually abandon books that bore me partway through the second chapter. The book is worth sticking with to the end, though, if you have patience or make no bones about skimming the boring bits.

John McPhee’s genre is creative nonfiction, which is to say he finds an idea that interests him, goes out into the world and spends time with people to research that idea, and then comes home with lots of notes and puts together a long article about it. This is the kind of writing he focuses on in Draft No. 4. It’s not the kind of writing I do. 

There is a lot of value in this book for writers of nonfiction, especially regarding structure and the process of creating a piece of writing out of piles and piles of notes. Selfishly, however, I’m going to share the parts that were relevant to me. 

Getting started

On first drafts: “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? … At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.”

From a letter to his daughter when she had difficulty getting started on a writing assignment:

“For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.”

Priming the pump

On writing by hand: “Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand. Keep a legal pad, or something like one, and when you are struck at any time — blocked to paralysis by an inability to set one word upon another — get away from the computer, lie down somewhere with pencil and pad, and think it over.”

On getting past writer’s block:

“What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

The insecure writer

On lacking confidence even after selling several pieces to The New Yorker: “You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.”

On insecurity: “Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help.”

Competing with yourself

On the writer’s development: “No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.”

On letting the reader do some of the work:

“The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader.”

The fourth draft

“After reading the second draft aloud,” McPhee writes, “and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose words and phrases in pencilled boxes for Draft No. 4. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.”

Which reminds me of a practice Annie Dillard taught in her creative writing classes, as described by Alexander Chee, with the focus on verbs:

“We counted the verbs on the page, circled them, tallied the count for each page to the side and averaged them. Can you increase the average number of verbs per page, she asked. … Have you used the right verbs? Is that the precise verb for that precise thing? Remember that adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader.”

John McPhee goes beyond the verb in a process that, were I to follow it, would probably never end:

“You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one.” 

Dictionary, not thesaurus

We’ll finish with his excellent advice about using a dictionary instead of a thesaurus for draft no. 4. Searching for a synonym tends to result in complicated and uncommon words, whereas a dictionary, by giving the word’s meaning, will steer you in the direction of a stronger and more precise word. Better still, use a paper dictionary.

“Thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste,” McPhee writes. “Your destination is the dictionary.”

Additional reading

Wishing I Were John McPhee at Lithub. John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3 at the Paris Review. Who Can Afford to Write Like John McPhee? The Mind of John McPhee.