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The Writing Life, The Agonies of Process, and A New Year’s Resolution

Kurt Vonnegut wrote for two hours every morning: two hours of intense concentration, giving it his all, and done. Better, he posited, than eight or ten hours of fractured or diluted thought.

Jack London wrote twenty hours a day. According to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, he obtained all the University of California course syllabi in literature and philosophy and spent a year reading the assigned texts. Then, he wrote.

Joseph Campbell shut himself away in a cabin in Woodstock, New York for five years, reading nine hours a day, then went on to develop his epic oeuvre on mythology.

Dillard woke late, smoked obsessively, drank coffee, wrote, ate an early dinner, walked, smoked more, and wrote into the early morning. Working on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she wrote all night, facing the dawn exhausted and delirious.

Joan Didion worked in the morning, left the work to marinate for the afternoon, and returned with a drink before dinner. She called that evening cocktail revision the most crucial hour of her work.

Haruki Murakami used to write at the kitchen table at 3 a.m. after closing his Tokyo jazz club. Now, he wakes at 5 a.m. and writes until ten or eleven, then runs: eight, ten, twenty miles. In the evening, he reads.

While she and her husband were in London, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the morning and ran her way through the tangles in her work in the afternoon.

E.B. White didn’t read. “There are too many other things I would rather do than read… In order to read, one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living,” he said in an interview with The Paris Review.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard advises,

“Write about winter in the summer. Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris. Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, Connecticut. Recently, scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room.”

On my desk right now, I have twenty-two books. The vast majority are titles like, Indians, Merchants and Markets: A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian economic Relations In Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821. Then there is Dillard’s The Writing Life, a Christmas present I’ve carried everywhere like a talisman since the morning of the 25th. There are three notebooks, and uncountable photocopies and stray pages. Lingering, near enough to induce guilt and pressure but not enough to completely suppress all activity, are 400 pages of manuscript stacked in diagonals according to must-have, must-cut, and unsure. The last is the huge, unwieldy middle between the previous two.

I list the objects because this is so much more straightforward than discussing what I should do with them, when, and how. I know they’re necessary, I know eventually they’ll all help to shove this massive, staggering notion of a book forward, but it’s the how that has me here resting my head on my desk, drawing the dogs from their head-to-tail sleep on the bed with my pathetic little whimpers.

The fetishization of process in writing might exceed the fetishization of difficulty. It’s as if by understanding when a writer wakes, sleeps, walks; when he smokes a cigarette, when she makes a mojito; how many books he reads and when; whether she edits with a pen or pencil; we can piece together the puzzle of how art is made. I cringe at the term “art,” with its suggestion of divine inspiration and elevated status, but I believe that the writing I love the most and consistently return to is art. It is precisely the sense of wholeness, of inevitability, of a transcendent and self-contained vision of the world that makes this work art, and that stirs in anyone stupid enough to attempt something similar a frenzied obsession with the artist’s choice of breakfast.

I never expected this when I started my M.F.A. nearly three years ago. I assumed that if I wrote everyday, if I wrote and wrote and wrote, good things would come. And to a certain extent, that has been true and remains true. You cannot, I want to say, be a writer and not write–but then surely there are the writers who spend months on end on drugs or vacation or playing Frisbee with Golden Retrievers on the beach and then, alrighty, sit down and churn out a critically acclaimed novel. You cannot be a writer and not read, but then there are those like E.B. White who shrug at the literary life and would rather be baling hay, cranking out their 20th-century classics between farm chores.

Of course, you’d have to be an incredibly smug–and ignorant, and probably doomed–young writer to stick up your nose at the rules, and the discipline. If you love writing, you write; you read. All the time. My point here is not to question the old maxims. It’s to reveal their complications. The deeper I get into writing as a life and a career, the more multi-faceted, complicated and confusing my definition of “writing” becomes and the more I struggle with what I should be doing, when.

Where I’m at, now–in the thick of a book, a first real in-depth hard-as-hell book–I feel that the most difficult element is not the writing, but the process. I lay out 400 pages on the floor and sit before them, feeling panic begin to rise in my chest. I stare at the computer screen, jump from one chapter to the next, cut and then add, rewrite a sentence and then press Control-Z and then rewrite and then Control-Z. I research and research, then start to write up an initial draft of the research, then worry that this is a waste of time, premature, then spend three days on research alone, then agonize with guilt about not writing and sit, stuck sweating and panting between all the potential choices of tasks–revising, cutting, restructuring, researching, adding research, writing new scenes and material.

To the daily paranoia about process–is it OK to run in the morning, during my most productive writing time? Should I force myself to become an evening runner even if I feel sluggish and vomit-y and hate running and the world? Should I force myself to write even when I loathe it, should I take regular breaks to bring about epiphanies or is that prescriptive, should I leave a work to incubate or push and push on through until I have exhausted all I can do with it? When? How?

The other day I had one small breakthrough. I was back in that room at Pittsburgh’s regally titled Cathedral of Learning, a capital-W Writerly room with the American flag flapping beyond the window and sweeping views and gray-white light that turns eyes steely blue, renders faces chiseled and crisp. I was with my manuscript committee, and its two members stared at me mildly stupefied and perhaps amused when I said, panicky, sucking back an insipient weepiness, that I felt so guilty for not writing: that every second I spent researching, restructuring, etc, felt like a second robbed from the generation of new material and from my integrity as a real bonafide writer. As if the universe examined my writer’s time card sternly at the end of each day, and created a concomitant karmic destiny that would doom or elevate my work-in-progress.

For as much as I know intellectually that no formula is ever all or enough, and that each tells a million insidious little lies, I break into a cold sweat when I think I haven’t sat down and “written” in five days. But the problem, my manuscript committee reassured me, is the definition of writing. Writing is what Annie Dillard describes as the conference table covered in papers. It’s the hours spent copying out notes from The Zapotecs and adding place-markers in the book for details about Spanish colonial tributes and 16th-century witchcraft. It’s the exhaustive reading and rereading, shifting, tweaking, rethinking, sitting on the rug with the dogs and listlessly throwing the ball over and over and over until the stamina to return to the computer or the resolution to push through that stubborn impasse returns like blood to the cheeks.

At a panel I was on this past October for the Ohioana Awards in Columbus, Dave Lucas, the 2012 Ohioana Book Award Winner for poetry, was asked about his writing process. He answered (I’m paraphrasing here) “I wait. I do a lot of waiting.” I was stunned by this, found it honest and courageous and also, in retrospect, disconcertingly self-confident. My biggest fault as a writer might be – fine, is – a lack of patience. I can put in my time in the day-to-day, can do the slogging-through and accumulate pages and pages. What I can’t do, am loathe to do, is wait. I hate ambiguity. I hate all the many days, pages, ideas, attempts in writing that don’t pay off, and the uncertainty of whether or not they will in the long run. I hate the days I am not making clear forward motion, I am instead playing in the kind of structured play that makes kindergarteners whiny because it is neither recess nor clear learning time. I hate not knowing whether that time off will prove the fallow field that subsequently bursts into riotous growth or just another mildly boring afternoon pruning in the bathtub in the name of my artistic temperament. I suppose it is like this for many other professions as well: the lawyer who puts in 80-hour weeks for months or years for cases that crumble at trial, the doctor whose training betrays or eludes him or whose doggedness is simply not enough to save the patient. Perhaps this is more a factor of choosing a clear career and its long and complicated path than a problem associated with a particular discipline. I’ve spent years summiting learning curve after learning curve: foreign languages and countries, new skills, new classrooms. But now I have to stick to this curve, which just keeps on rising and rising, inscrutable in the distance, making me nervous, so nervous.

And then, jittery, frozen before the books and the papers and the blank page and the enormous scroll of written work, I think with fondness about the time of apprenticeships. When there were guilds of workers, and they’d all help one another out: the experienced ones would fondly tell the newcomers they were doing it all wrong or they should hold their elbows a little higher. I dream of that vanished figure in the artist’s life, the patron, whose role is simply to believe and to provide the funds. The other day, driving back with my stepmom from the first mall I’d visited in at least five years, I grumbled about all the artists who seemed to spend their fertile years smoking cigarettes and listening to jazz all afternoon in sunlit Parisian apartments.

“Yeah,” Meg said, “But there’s always money in there somewhere. There’s some rich guy’s house where all the artists go and hang out for months.”

It’s not necessarily the hedonism or the house I long for, but the guidance from others just ahead of me: what should I be doing? When? How? Reading this guidance through the fractured medium of the Internet, from people I don’t know and will likely never meet and who don’t know me or my work, is simply not the same or not enough. Sometimes it strikes just the right nerve: sometimes it is just what I need to hear at precisely the right moment. But otherwise it all tends to feel like that confident, chipper advice of the friend at the bar who tells you to just get over it when you confess that all you want to do is get right back into your familiar destructive habits, that you just don’t know how to do this.

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is different: I have been reading and rereading her work since I was a teenager, and she remains my most beloved writer, so her insights resonate in a far more personal and profound way. But still, I long for someone who knows me to play the role of writing mentor-therapist, and I feel like most of my writing comrades at this point do too. We play that role for each other, urge each other on, help each other through the murk, but none of us has the birds-eye-view, none of us can look back yet and say with reassuring expertise, “You’re here and you have to get there. Stop this. Get over this. Do this.”

Where is my John Wayne
Where is my prairie song
Where is my happy ending
Where have all the writing mentors gone?

I’m sure there have been many, many writers throughout history who’ve not had mentors, many who’ve not spent sun-shot afternoons sprawled on the floor of Parisian artist haunts listening to Jelly Roll Morton and sucking down cigarettes without any preoccupation about rent or tomorrow. This is the harder notion to embrace as I inch, incrementally, along this writing path: that it is all difficult, all of it. Not just the writing, but the whens and hows of process, and the many aspects of writing that don’t look or feel like the raw creation before the empty screen, that feel much more tentative, tedious, and back-and-forth.

I am seized now and then by the notion that if I move to…Senegal! The Oaxacan Sierra! India! and seclude myself in some rustic abode with nothing but books and time and basic food it will be simpler and easier, but when it’s not 11 p.m. and I haven’t had several potent microbrews I am too wise to believe this. There is a difference between the need to hew to a particular lifestyle, ascetic or frenetic, and the hope that all the complications of writing can be solved by setting. We can read about writers’ mornings, noons, and nights until the end of time, can eat talismanic greens or sip whisky at precisely the golden hour or chant incantatory phrases but ultimately we will be making it up moment by moment, page by page. This is, in the end, why this is worth doing: because it is so hard.

In Chapter 5 of The Writing Life Annie Dillard quotes sculptor Anne Truitt: “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.” To sit, then, amidst these citadelles of books and papers and follow the nerve through all the quaking uncertainties, questions of process, and perpetual moments of doubt. This will be the project of 2013.

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