It’s funny now that I think of it, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve begun to really enjoy reading about writing from other writers. Perhaps that’s because I still consider myself a half-writer at best, and even that is a very recent achievement. But in the past year or so, I’ve become a bit of a writers-on-writing junkie. I read Stephen King’s excellent On Writing last year, and since then I’ve been collecting interviews with writers in a folder online. Just recently I read Neil Gaiman’s interview with Stephen King, McSweeney’s Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do, not to mention countless blogs on the process.
Part of it was healthy procrastination, of course, as I was writing my own book. But mostly I’ve become a junkie for those “Aha!” moments because I finally get what writers mean when they say things like, “It takes practice like running or swimming fast miles. When I haven’t written for a month or two I cannot access this part of being and I have to begin training in my fashion.”
That quote comes from the most recent piece in my collection, Tim Ferris’ interview with Fred Waitzkin, author of Searching for Bobby Fischer and The Dream Merchant. While I had heard of both those books before, I was unfamiliar with Waitzkin himself, and I had never read anything he had written. What struck me instead, were bits like this:
“Inspiration is frequently misunderstood. When I was a young writer I looked for it in all the wrong places. In my twenties, I lived with my wife in a studio apartment just off Washington Square. Somehow I decided that the best writing time for me was late at night–I guessed that was when the muses would be running wild and delivering intoxicating poetic secrets. Perhaps I got this impression from Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round about Midnight’ which I played over and over–it was so hauntingly beautiful and sad. In those days, after a late heavy dinner with a couple of beers topped off by more than a few drags of weed, I took my yellow legal pad into the chilly unsightly stairwell across from my front door and got ready to write the great American novel. Ugh, wrong move, Waitz. I recall sitting in the stairwell waiting for inspiration to strike until I was dozing off or feeling too cold. Some evenings when my wife was off taking classes at N.Y.U., for inspiration I maxed out the hifi with Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane blasting pure madness solos while I tried to compose my delicate pages. Wrong. Wrong. All wrong, Waitzkin.
Now, many years later, when I’m working on a book I write everyday except Sunday, when I watch football or go to the country with my wife. This routine has settled deeply inside. It gives me confidence. I’ve learned that pages will come if I go to my quiet office and stick with my routine. Back in the younger days, the unsightly stairwell seemed cool, but not now. I could never do my best work after a heavy meal or with the music blasting. It would be a distraction–an energy robber.”
Aha! Of course he’s right, and that’s something I learned very recently the hard way as well. I first tried to only write when I was in the “right mood”, in the perfect setting and with just the right combination of caffeine and alcohol. What did that get me? A good three months when I wrote maybe half a chapter in total. And then deadlines began to appear and I started setting aside blocks of eight, ten hours a day for just researching and writing, every single day, and while it took a whole lot longer than I ever expected, suddenly I had ten chapters done, then twenty, then finally all twenty-five and then editing went a lot faster because I was already thinking and living the book at that point.
“But what if there is no energy? I read the paper. I switch on sports talk radio. I look at my watch. I pace. I am eyeing the lunch hour. It’s getting closer to lunch. One hour before I meet my friend Jeff for turkey burgers. Forty-five minutes. Now I’m getting nervous. Thirty-five minutes before I have to leave my office! Suddenly I feel an urgency. I CAN’T leave for lunch without writing one good paragraph. I’m sweating, feeling the time pressure… and the words pour out. Sometimes a writer can do more in a fervent half hour than in a dreary eight-hour day. I’ve often played this game with myself.”
For me, it’s dicking around on the internets (how do you think I find all these pieces?), going for a bike ride, playing XBox, but the process is the same. And here I thought I was a slacker, a lazy, distracted procrastinator that’s only good at cramming. Now I know I’m not alone, because if someone as great as Fred Waitzkin dicks around for half a day before getting a paragraph out, maybe there’s nothing wrong with me after all.
There’s a lot more gold in this interview, and I recommend anyone thinking about writing for a living (or even for shits and giggles) to read parts one and two in full, take notes, save them in a folder, whatever. And then maybe read some more, for a little while, but not too long, because eventually it’s all about writing, and then writing more. Every single day.