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Apr 19, 2014
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Posted on May 9, 2013
By Gabriel Thompson
Other routines are designed less to unlock creativity than to create a system that encourages silent sitting, refusing to give in to what Ayn Rand memorably called “the squirms.” (For Rand, a key fight against the squirms was ingesting huge amounts of amphetamines.) Here it can get intense as well. In writing “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen sealed “himself in his Harlem studio with the blinds drawn and the lights off, sitting before the computer keyboard wearing earplugs, earmuffs, and a blindfold.”
“Daily Rituals” is better nibbled than eaten quickly. Read in one sitting, some of the entries can grow repetitious—there is much talk of morning versus evening writing, of walks and meals and smoking pipes. But there are also satisfying details that stick to the ribs: Gertrude Stein enjoyed looking at “cows and rocks between writing intervals,” and Richard Wright penned the first draft of “Native Son” while perched atop a bench on a hill in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, his face buried in a yellow legal pad even during rainstorms.
Although plenty of the profiled artists admitted to struggles with procrastination, others maintained a superhuman output. George Sand, we are told, generated at least 20 pages a night. For roughly 15 years, William Faulkner often wrote at least 3,000 words a day. Joyce Carol Oates, who seems to publish a new book for each season, has said that her productivity isn’t so extraordinary, considering that she writes eight hours a day.
Having a day job helps some artists keep a sense of perspective. For much of her career, Toni Morrison worked as an editor at Random House, taught university classes and raised two sons alone. The luxury of a Franzenesque life devoted solely to the craft—if luxury’s the right word—wasn’t in the cards for Morrison. But the limits on her free time had a liberating effect. “When I sit down to write I never brood,” she said. “I have so many other things to do, with my children and teaching, that I can’t afford it. I brood, thinking of ideas, in the automobile when I’m driving to work or in the subway or when I’m mowing the lawn. By the time I get to the paper something’s there—I can produce.”
Of all the artists, I took the most comfort in the remarks of Martin Amis. “Everyone assumes I’m a systematic and nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person,” he told The Paris Review. In truth, he admitted, he typically writes only from 11 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon. “Two hours,” he said. “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.”
Amen. That’s my new goal.
Gabriel Thompson has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, The Nation and Mother Jones. His most recent book is “Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do.”
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