Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The fascination of the writer’s routine

with 4 comments

The author's desk

We seem to have an insatiable interest in the daily routines of writers and other artists. At least I certainly do. Whenever I read one of the great Paris Review interviews on the art of fiction, my favorite part—aside from seeing sample pages from the rough drafts from the likes of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth—is the inevitable question about the little things: when writers get up, what they have for breakfast, how they arrange their desks. The same is true, if not more so, of more formal profiles, in which the journalist, which for other subjects gets to describe arenas of fans or entire battlefields, is obliged to focus his or her observational resources on the smallest of stages. We all love personal gossip about celebrities whose names we recognize, and because a writer’s artistic life is necessarily conducted within the confines of one room, the tidbits we’re going to get are modest ones. Yet they’re also charged with a magic of their own. This is the matrix in which Rabbit Angstrom and Atonement were born, so we can’t help scrutinizing those homely details for clues. (The recent book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey collects many of the best accounts we have of the humdrum routines of artists at work, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding it almost pornographically fascinating.)

Of course, we aren’t likely to get any useful tips from such accounts, aside from the obvious fact that a routine of some kind is necessary. If anything, the most valuable takeaway from books like Currey’s is how varied productive artistic lives can be. Some authors write in longhand, or on a typewriter, or on WordStar; some write in the morning, others at night, and most whenever their schedule allows; some have a particular room where the words seem to flow most fluently, while others are happiest making the rounds of libraries or coffee shops. The only common factors, which you could almost deduce from first principles, are solitude, uninterrupted time, and some way of managing distraction. (Jonathan Franzen keeps a separate laptop for writing in which he’s glued shut the Ethernet port, making it impossible for him to go online—and the fact that I remember this at all, years after reading it in his Time profile, only testifies to how deeply these little facts embed themselves in the brain.) Otherwise, writers seem content to stick with whatever has worked in the past, and if their routines can seem idiosyncratic, it’s out of a mixture of pragmatism and superstition. Once you’ve written a novel one way, it’s hard to imagine taking another approach, and if you do, it’s like Tiger Woods trying to recalibrate his swing: not something to be entertained lightly.

Scene cards on the author's desk

In my own writing life, I follow a lot of little rules, some of them productive in their own right, others totally arbitrary. I always do a mind map before writing a chapter, for instance, and although I’m not sure it leads to ideas I wouldn’t have had anyway, something about the ritual of sitting down with pen and paper—when I do most of my real writing on the computer—seems irreplaceable, and I’d feel as if I were omitting something crucial if I skipped it. I use different magnifications of the text in Word for each successive stage: 150% for the first draft, 200% for the next polish, and 250% for every revision thereafter, so that one line of text fills the entire screen. If I had to justify this, I’d say that it was a way to compel myself to engage with the text on increasingly granular levels, but really, I do it because it’s what I’ve always done, and I like contemplating the smooth lines of Times New Roman as I fiddle with the words. (When it comes time to cut, I’ll often reduce the magnification to 100%, which is tiny on the screen, since it forces me to see the story in terms of large blocks of material. And maybe I think that if I can’t see the words as clearly, I’ll feel less compunction about cutting them.) I have similar rules about when to print a draft, whether to use pen or pencil to mark up the page, and what kinds of books, movies, or music I allow myself during the writing process.

And the rules themselves are less important than the structure they provide. The act of writing fiction can seem terrifyingly unformed: every sentence represents a choice, and like most people, when presented with too many options at once, I tend to freeze. An outline, and the elaborate rules I use to generate it, provides one kind of scaffold to keep me on task, and the daily rituals I’ve developed are another. You could argue, in fact, that the two impulses come from the same place, or that one is a variation of the other, and I suspect that writers who allow themselves to explore tangents and byways more freely are even more regimented in the routines they impose. It’s a process that always seems on the verge of flying apart into chaos, so we take order wherever we can find it, which, in the end, may be why we’re so interested in what other writers have done. We’re all in the same boat, or on our separate life rafts, and we look to other examples of creative routines not for ways in which writing can be done but for reassurance that it can be done at all. Knowing what Oliver Sacks does every afternoon—”I take a brief lunch break, walk around the block, practice piano for a few minutes, and then have my favorite noon meal of herrings and black bread”—won’t teach us how to write Awakenings. But if we’re lucky, it might awaken something else.

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2014 at 9:35 am

4 Responses

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  1. On point! It’s all about the reassurance factor for me. I don’t know if I’d even realized it. It’s always nice to be able to find likenesses between yourself and a successful writer. Nice post.


    April 30, 2014 at 11:45 am

  2. Thanks so much—glad you liked it!


    April 30, 2014 at 4:44 pm

  3. Unplug the online! I know it works but …

    Ripley Trout

    May 1, 2014 at 8:58 am

  4. Keep your hands off my routine!


    May 1, 2014 at 10:27 am

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