Monday, April 22, 2013

The (Odd) Things We Writers do

(Note to readers: this post is being written on Thursday, April 18, and will be posted on Monday, April 22, my assigned slot. The thing is – Yay! – I am flying to New York City Friday morning for 5 days of pleasure. With luck, we might get to see a play or two. The Book of Mormon is off our list, though: tickets are going for $300 a pop. And we would not pay that much to spend two hours with Mormon himself. Or is it the Angel Moroni I am thinking of? But we will certainly see a lot of art galleries.)

In my usual pre-post angst, wondering what to write about this time out, I came across a really interesting column on the op-ed page of Monday's New York Times. It was titled Stupid Writer Tricks, and it was by the American writer, Ben Dolnick, author of the coming-of-age novel, Zoology, and a new novel, out soon: At The Bottom of Everything.

And to give full credit to the source of some of what follows below, here is his photo:

(For the actual column, go to:

The opening paragraph of the piece brilliantly sets the tone:

One day a couple of years ago, when I found my desk drawer so full of microphone headsets that it would no longer close, I realized it was time for an intervention. I could no longer deny it: I needed to stop reading interviews with authors.

Interviews can be addictive, apparently, and a very important source is The Paris Review, which has been conducting them since the long-ago days of the 1950s. The entire collection is online. Online material of all kinds, as we all know, is a monstrous creation, something a friend of mine would refer to as "a snare and a delusion". It calls up the well-worn joke about the person of a certain age who goes upstairs looking for something really important, and along the way is distracted by something else, which leads to something else, and so on and so on, until the original objective is completely forgotten, and s/he finds him/herself downstairs again, wondering why s/he went upstairs in the first place. Being of "a certain age", I know that feeling much too well. 

But, back to Dolnick's riff on author interviews in The Paris Review:

...whole days, weeks, months can disappear as you read about why Ray Bradbury has no use for college writing programs or consider the fact that Janet Malcolm no longer smokes while she writes.

Other gems of creative assistance are noted.
  • Alice Munro writes her first drafts with a scribbler. (I have to wonder what that might be.)
  • Haruki Murakami feels it necessary to exercise like a marathoner in order to sustain his novel-writing momentum. (I ran my one and only marathon in 1982, but my first novel, Undertow, did not appear until 20 years later. What gives here, I have to wonder? Where did I go wrong?)
  • Don DeLillo once typed each paragraph on its own piece of paper. (Interesting. Someone once told me that Michael Connelly dedicated an individual laptop to each novel, and when it was done, put it away in storage, never to be violated again. I tried that in 2006, but the partially completed novel, partly set in Havana, sits there still, along with some 12,000 other partially completed works of near-genius.) 
  • Joan Didion needed to be sleeping in the same room with her manuscript, so as never to lose touch with it. (That technique is now on my to-do list; the problem being that my uncompleted manuscripts, such as they are, are on that famous laptop, and I worry that I might stagger out of bed in the middle of the night, answering the call of nature that gentlemen of a certain age are prey to, and crush the damn thing underfoot. That would be an unspeakable tragedy.) 
  • Philip Roth writes at a standing-desk, but this is apparently for lumbar, rather than for literary reasons. (I might have tried this, but the standing technique has been forever and irreversibly tainted by knowledge that Donald Rumsfeld, a major architect of the 2003 Iraq disaster and other calumnies, worked in the same manner. Definitely a no-no for a writer of vaguely liberal pretensions.)
This writing business - and it isn't much of a business, really, if your books don't take off into the literary ionosphere, and land you interviews on PBS, on Letterman, or some other internationally popular and profitable venue. (The BBC would be my first choice, but that's my quasi-English DNA fragments kicking in.)

Yesterday I had an illuminating session with my accountant. I have an accountant not because my book income is overwhelming and numbered accounts in obscure Caribbean republics beckon, but because I am of a certain age, and my post-retirement, pre-embalming investment portfolio needs translating. My nest egg, modest though it is, is now sufficiently complicated that it takes a skilled numbers guy to make sense of it. The hieroglyphics of accounting and finance render me numb with terror.

After looking at my recent book earnings, outlined in the paltry royalty statements – my gleeful cry that I can now afford to buy that Big Mac Double Cheeseburger with Fries and Shake that I have been lusting after all these years did not impress him all that much – and his thoughtful and kind comment, that this does not really look like a business plan, has now been taken to heart. He appeared to be suggesting that if I wanted to make some real money, I might think about taking a job at MacDonald's, dishing out Big Mac Double Cheeseburgers with Fries and Shake, or consider a job as greeter at Walmart. And it's a fact, watery blue is one of my favourite colours.

Now, semi-sobered by the reality of my financial un-success as an author, but still with the desire to put words on screen, with the ultimate goal – or should that be "gaol" – of seeing said words on paper between covers, I am trying to reorder my thinking and approach to the enterprise. (Not to be mistranslated as "business".) I have tried writing in coffee shops. Doesn't work. I have tried writing on buses, or at least making cogent notes on the well-worn seats, and indeed have jotted down sketches of the people around me. (But James Joyce I am not, and Ulysses is nowhere in sight.)

I have used all manner of implements: the famous laptop; a succession of desktops; pads and notebooks of various dimensions, designs and colours; pencils of various kinds and description and hardness; I have a world-class collection of pens – ballpoints, felt tips, and so on. I even have a Parker 51 ink pen that I bought in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1957, from a silver-tongued salesman who was allowed to flog his wares on the Canadian naval ship, a frigate called HMCS Fort Erie, on which I was billeted during my short but brilliant naval career. None of the foregoing has facilitated the completion of my stalled fourth book.

I am too aware of the old saw that "Writing is easy; you just have to sit there and concentrate until blood starts to seep out of your forehead." Yeah, sure. But I will persevere. Only last week, I saw a nifty laptop in Staples that might just do the trick. It was small, compact, and very light. It had Wi-Fi, whatever that might be; something like a "scribbler", maybe? The Staples salesman told me I should never leave it unattended in an outdoor setting. A gentle wind might catch it, and blow it away. It is that advanced in design. I will certainly keep that in mind, should I take the fiscal plunge.

In the meantime, I remind myself that I need a new supply of ink for that Parker pen. And a blue-tinged writing pad. One of my favourite colours, you understand.


Hannah Dennison said...

Great post! Ha ha! Love it. I now don't feel so weird with my own writing tricks which I'm too embarrassed to mention.

Donis Casey said...

I'm saving my royalties to buy a new pair of shoes. I have enough in the account for one shoe already, but I'll have to wait for the next check to be able to afford the other one.

Donis Casey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donna Janke said...

A scribbler is a lined notebook with a soft cover, usually 8 1/2 by 11. I think it is a term unique to Canada. I don't know if the term was coined by the company Hilroy, but Hilroy scribblers are often on a school child's list of needed supplies.

I do my writing on the computer, but still do daily journaling in a scribbler.

Linda Wiken said...

Great post, Tom. I say, go for the new computer and if it does the trick, please let me know ASAP! Enjoy NYC.

Katie Hamilton said...

Thanks for your posts, Tom. They remind me that writing is the craft that tames inspiration.
Katie Hamilton