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!

A Struggling Writer

Awaiting the next draft

I’m a struggling writer. I finished the first draft of two novels this year. Those two sentences don’t sound right next to each other, do they? But they’re both true. I wrote well over a hundred thousand words between February and July, but today both drafts remain in rough form, sitting in Google Drive, awaiting my attention.

I have extensive notes on the changes I want to make, and I’ve started rewrites on the second story, but it’s a daunting task. Where to start? I’m not sure where I’m going with either novel. I have no idea if they are any good. At the moment, I can’t see the path that will bring me to the next draft.

Besides these two books, I have beginnings and scenes and character sketches for a dozen other novels, scores of short stories, essays and blog posts and flash fiction. I have piles of ideas, document upon document of notes.

But I still don’t feel like a writer

I don’t know if I have what it takes to write a book that I, much less anyone else, would want to read.

I used to write all the time when I was younger. Stories for friends about boys, fan fiction for the shows and books I obsessed over. A personal blog I updated nearly every day, secret diaries, journals written under pseudonyms. I developed alter egos and fictional characters and alternate universes. I wrote the truth with a veneer of fiction, trying to turn appearances on the surface into something that reflected what was happening inside. But it became too revealing, too intimate, too much.

I never stopped writing, but for a long time I stopped wanting to write for an audience. What I write about evolved. My style and tone shifted. The doubt remains, but I’m slowly learning to push past it. I keep asking myself hard questions, and I don’t know any of the answers. What does this story mean? What is it really about? What am I trying to say? But that’s okay. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding. So I keep writing.

But it’s not enough just to keep going. I need to constantly get back to basics, relearn everything I think I know, think like a beginner. Like one of William Stafford’s aphorisms about writing from Sound of the Ax“I write not because I understand and want to expose, but because I understand nothing. I experience newness every day and write of it as the first tasting of interest.” I don’t write because I know anything special; I write because I want to figure things out.

Figuring things out

Michel de Montaigne is my favourite example of the person who writes to figure things out. As Sarah Bakewell writes in How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne, his essays “have no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance.” He argues one side and then the other. He changes his mind all the time. He is always seeking to enlarge his mind; always trying to find another perspective he hadn’t considered before.

I’m afraid of being misunderstood, or being understood too well. Maybe I’ll offend someone or make a misstep. But if I write to figure things out, nothing is set in stone. I’m likely to change my mind tomorrow if, as The Dude might say, new shit comes to light. I might change my mind, and isn’t that a good thing?

So, after a long break from writing online, I’m back. Ampersunder is different from what I’ve ever done before. It’s something new for me, and I’m excited to see what it becomes.

My writing life has been turned inward for many years, and it’s time to change. I’ve spent enough time writing only for myself, appreciating the inspiration and examples of others but not sharing or reaching outward. I’ve been hiding for long enough.

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