Are you holding it fast?
Tunes for a Monday Morning

What makes a good writing day?

Dylan Thomas' Boathouse in Laughame, Wales

Inside Dylan Thomas' BoathouseDylan Thomas' writing hut, The Boathouse, in Laugharne, Wales

Tracy Chevalier:

"A good day? I get up, I wake my teenage son up, we have breakfast, and he leaves at 8. That’s the cue for me to go to my office. My writing life has shifted slightly over the years, but what works best for me now is if I start writing immediately. I’ll check my email to make sure there’s nothing I need to deal with right away, then I read what I’ve written the day before. That jolts me into continuing. Ideally, the day before I’ve left a little bit left in the tank, so to speak. Not like Graham Greene — he used to write 500 words a day, and if the 500th word was in the middle of a sentence, he’d stop. I’m not that bad, but what’s really useful is to have a little left that you haven’t quite gotten down on paper. Then I can use that in the morning to get started. A lot of times, if the writing goes well, I’ll be done by 10. Sometimes I’m still working at 6. It depends on what I come up against."

James MacBride:

"I get up around 4:30 or 5 at the latest. I usually go until I get tired, until about 9 or 10. Then I quit and monkey around. That monkeying around could be anything: research, working out, paying bills, flossing my teeth…I have a whole array of delaying behaviors that usually don’t kick in until 9 or 10. At 5 in the morning I’m too sleepy to do anything but try to think about what I was last working on. My mind is clearer. Through the day sometimes I’ll practice music. I push through the day, get my son to school. Then after dinner, 7 or 8, I’ll have a go at writing again, if I’m really deep into it.

"I can write anywhere. I was on the train this morning writing. I usually write the first few pages longhand. I used to write a lot longhand. I still write my first 20-30 pages longhand. Then I move to the computer, or I’ll type it — I still use a typewriter, too. I used to use a typewriter a lot more. I needed it early in my career. The computer makes you rewrite and just hit the 'insert' key. The insert key is deadly for a writer. You really have to push forward, know you’re going to discard and rewrite everything. Man, I rewrite everything. Even emails I rewrite."

Robert Stephen Hawker's hut, Morwenstow< Cornwall

The view from Hawker's hut

Above: Hawker's Hut, built by poet Rpbert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875) near Morwenstow, Cornwall.
Below, a writer's hut built by poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988), also near Morwenstow.

Robert Duncan's writing hut

Inside Robert Duncan's writing hut

Emma Donohue:

"A day like today started around 4 in the morning, because often my kids wake me by yowling in their sleep. Then I’m bolt upright, wide awake, so I figure I might as well use that time in the middle of the night, so I hop up and do a bit of work. More typically I would get the kids off to school around 8:30, then I rush to my computer. I wish that what followed was actual writing. That would be bliss. But I admit that I first make my way through a fast-growing undergrowth of business....

"I know you’re supposed to do the writing first and leave the administrative stuff for later in the day, but I can’t see my way clear to do the writing until I’ve answered those wretched new emails. When I think back to when I had infinite time to write, before we had kids, I don’t think I did my best writing first thing in the morning. I need to warm up. Maybe in fact, by devoting the first hour of the day to silly business, I’m saving the better creative time for later. But sometimes the 'business' takes all day; I look up and it’s already 4, and I have to rush off to the bus stop to pick up the children."

Louise Erdrich:

"I don’t like getting up early, but I do because of school — driving my daughter to school is a good thing about my day. When I get back, either I walk/run our dog or go straight upstairs and sit down in the same chair I’ve had since 1981 — just the right arm height for a board to lay across and then I can sit there and write. A friend upholsters this chair every fifth year, and it is currently covered in red mohair velvet. My cousin’s quilt drapes the back of the chair. I am sort of obsessive about having things around me from my family — these objects pop up in the books."

George Bernard Shaw's rotating writing hut in Hertfordshire

Inside George Bernard Shaw's writing hutGeorge Bernard Shaw's writing shed in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. (It rotated to catch the best sunlight.)

Jane Goodall:

"The only time I have for writing is when I’m back home in England, in the house I grew up in, where all my things are, my books. Many times, I’ve got to try to get a lot of writing done in just, maybe, five days. That means setting the alarm for five o’clock. Desperately writing until breakfast, going back to write again. Always taking an hour off to spend with the dog. And in the evening I spend time with my sister — we own the house together and she lives in it with her family. Then I sometimes have to go back and write late into the night. It’s a very stressful way to write, high and edgy."

Mia Jian:

"Flora and I have four young children, so I write late into the night — the only time our home is silent. At three in the morning, I usually collapse on the narrow bed in my study, but am often woken a couple of hours later by one or both of our 3-year-old twins, who like to waddle down from their room and climb on top of me. At 8, I make pancakes for the children, then sleep again until 11. This is when the day really begins. I make myself a cup of tea, sit at my desk, phone my friends in Beijing, read for a while, then start thinking about what I am going to write."

Lev Grossman:

"I can’t write every day. I’m a binger. I like to go six or seven hours at a time, without a break, then go off somewhere and drink something."

Virginia Woolf's writing shed at Monks House in Sussex

Inside Virginia Woolf's writing shedVirgina Woolf's writing shed at Monk's House in Rodmell (near Lewes), Sussex

Margaret Atwood:

"I’d be lucky to have a morning routine! But let’s pretend…. I’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, have coffee, then go upstairs to the room where I write. I’d sit down and probably start transcribing from what I’d [hand]written the day before.... I don’t think there’s anything too unusual about [my study], except that it’s full of books and has two desks. On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!"

Nicholson Baker:

"When I’m rewriting, and it’s progressing, I begin breathing audibly through my nose. I like to proofread in noisy restaurants, with my glasses off, staring close at the type. I love the feeling of sealing up a FedEx envelope — that soft, cool fibrous Tyvek bending around the corner of a block of page proofs — and sending it off. Lately, working on Traveling Sprinkler, I’ve been writing in the car, so what I see is whatever is out the windshield — usually leaves, other cars, fireflies. The dashboard is the desk, complete with coffee stains."

Vita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle

Inside Vita Sackville-West's writing towerVita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent

Khaled Hosseini:

"I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

"I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode."

Roald Dahl's writing hut

Inside Roald Dahl's writing hutRoald Dahl's writing hut at Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Karen Russell:

"I try to write 1000 words on a good day, about three pages. The reason for that amount, it feels right to me because most of the scenes I write are 3000-4000 words long. Not always, but on average. That means that I get 3-4 days per scene, which is good, because sometimes I’ll read it and feel — I feel different on different days, so it means I won’t have just one tone per scene. I have several different cracks at it.

"I’ll often be in the middle of writing and realize I don’t know what I’m writing about. For instance, today I’ve been writing a scene about a man who’s grafting apple trees. So I have to stop and look at my notes about grafting. Just now I was thinking, I still don’t really understand this. I need to order a book at the British Library and go and read it tomorrow. That’s what happens as I go. So what I’ll do is write a basic part of the scene, but for the grafting bit…I’ll put down three stars. Three stars in a manuscript for me means there’s something missing, I have to go back and fill it out. I don’t want it to stop my writing flow, but I’ll leave it aside and do the rest of the scene without it, come back and fill it in later. That’s a good interruption. A bad interruption is when I can’t focus and I wind up fiddling around online, having lunch with a friend, or something like that. What I’m aiming for is that concentrated time of focusing."

Henry William Williamson's writing hut

Inside Henry William Williamson's writing hutThe writing hut in North Devon where naturalist Henry William Williamson wrote Tarka the Otter.

"I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day," Russell continues, "but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? Was I able to stay put and commit to putting words down on the page, without deciding mid-sentence that it’s more important to check my email, or 'research' some question online, or clean out the science fair projects in the back for my freezer?

"For me, a good writing day is when I can move forward inside a story, because I take so much pleasure in tinkering with sentences that I often have to fight my own impulse to dither and revise in order to keep the momentum of the narrative going. So if I can move in a linear way through the story, and stay zipped inside the story, not jinx myself with despair or frustration or over-confidence or self-consciousness, and be basically okay with not-knowing what is going to happen from one sentence to the next, that’s a great writing day. Writers are such excellent self-saboteurs, though. I swear, I can hijack my own writing day in a hundred ways — I can eject myself from a story because I’ve decided it’s 'going good.' There’s this excruciating aspect of joy, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, where you almost want to interrupt it. For me, the experience of losing myself in a character can feel intolerably wonderful. So I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going....

"Showing up and staying present is a good writing day."

Michael Pollan's writing cabim in Vermont

Michael Pollan's writing cabin

Inside Michael Pollan's cabinMichael Pollan's wrote a book about building this writing hut: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams.

Jodi Picault:

"On a shelf above my computer are five letters that spell out W-R-I-T-E. Just in case I forget why I’m there."

Neil Gaiman's writing Gazebo, spring

Neil Gaiman's writing gazebo. Minnesota

Inside Neil Gaiman's writing gazeboNeil Gaiman's writing gazebo, Minneapolis, Minnesota

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