categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
This was originally posted in January 2011, but given the results of the U.S. Open seems relevant:
There are those who think it’s hard to write every day. Maybe. I’m of the camp that it’s harder to write once in a while. The rituals of daily-ness are built to contain a writing life in a way that the formlessness of the occasional is not. And for most of us who have chosen to make knocking words around our life, there are rituals a-plenty. Mine include getting up early, stretching my back (chronically bad since I was a teenager), drinking a cup of tea for calm before starting in on coffee for intensity (I am currently on day 11 of no coffee for the first time in many years so I apologize if my prose is sluggish), keeping note of my hours at the desk on a chart, listening to music (different albums for different drafts—The Talking Heads Stop Making Sense, for instance, for rolling along on first drafts), and, later in the day, long walks by the Cape Fear river armed with a microcassette recorder (and later still, notes in my journal armed with a beer.) Right off I notice that there are a lot of liquids involved in my rituals which seems right since there is an element of communion, and ablution, in the whole thing. Like most daily rituals mine was never planned but rather evolved, and did so for the single purpose of getting words on the page.
At the moment I am teaching a graduate class called The Writing Life, and some of you might remember that I posted the syllabus last year (I’ll paste this year’s revised syllabus below). The class starts, fittingly, with Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and as I re-read that book I noted that her rituals were more extreme than my own, and seemed geared toward creating an intensity far beyond the everyday. She writes:
“…writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours along with a hundred other Zulu warriors, you might be able to prepare yourself to write. If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance that on a certain morning the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals and drinking dubious liquids, you might, when the time came, be ready to write. But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior or Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?
“How to set yourself spinning? Where is an edge–a dangerous edge–and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?’
A couple of pages later she answers her own question in pracitcal terms:
“To crank myself up I stood on a jack and ran myself up. I tightened myself like a bolt….I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range within which the coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.
“I pointed myself. I walked to the water. I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach log, watched bird. That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month. Only the coffee counted, and I knew it. Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday….”
This seems a tad extreme, even for me. But I get it. It’s close to trying to work oneself up into a berserker’s state of mind, and reminds me, not of my own rituals or those of other writers, but of the pre-game routine of the tennis player Rafael Nadal. In his autobiography, Rafael writes of his preparation before playing Roger Federer at Wimbledon:
“I was withdrawing deeper into myself, isolating myself from my surroundings, settling into the routines—the inflexible routines—I have before each match and continue right up to the start of play. I ate what I always eat. Pasta—no sauce, nothing that could possibly cause indigestion—with olive oil and salt and a straight, simple piece of fish. To drink: water….Forty five minutes before the game was scheduled to start I took a cold shower. Freezing cold water. I do this before every match. It’s the point before the point of no return….Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow…Nothing else exists but the battle ahead….[Next] I stood up and began exercising, violently—activating my explosiveness…”
This is very similar to the routine that Bill R. has described to me before he writes in the evening. Kidding here, of course. No writer I know prepares for battle with quite the intensity of Mr. Nadal (of course no writer has ever had to type against Federer ). But if the preparation described is too extreme for our more sedentary profession, it isn’t too far off. Here is Nadal stating his goal on the first page of his book: “Because what I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head, to shut everything out of my mind but the contest itself and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing.”
Tennis, Nadal says, is a sport of the mind, and the best player is the one who has “good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from ups and downs in morale…”
Though he is talking tennis, this does not sound entirely irrelevant to the writing life. Nor does his conclusion:
“And of one thing I have no doubt: the more you train the better your feeling.”
CRW 580—THE WRITING LIFE
3:30 pm-6:15 pm KE 1112
This class will focus on all aspects of the writing life. What does it mean to live a life of writing and reading books? The course will be broken down into two halves. The first will focus on the spiritual aspects of the writing life, as well as work habits, and the second on more practical aspects, the brass tacks, from writing a cover letter to a book proposal. But while we will end on a practical note we will keep our focus on the larger picture, and the philosophical aspects of choosing to be a writer in today’s world. Our reading will include books on writing, biographies, and more practical writing guides.
The main requirement of the class is keeping up with the reading. You will demonstrate that you have done this by:
1. Writing short reaction pieces that are due each class. These are answers to pre-assigned questions on the reading that I will hand out the week before we discuss each new book. The reactions should be short and creative, and are really meant to get you thinking about the reading so we can have a lively and engaged class. I will collect the reactions to check at mid-term and at the end of the semester.
2. Class participation. Everyone is expected to engage in our discussions. If you have shyness issues please come and talk to me.
Everyone will be assigned to be a co-leader for one of the books and expected, with their co-co-leaders, to run the discussion that day.
3. Everyone in the class will be asked to give an oral report.
Please focus on a writer who has influenced your work. Please describe the ways in which your work has been influenced by the writer. The report should also show some awareness of the author’s work. But for the purpose of this class the real focus should be on how the author works: work habits, statements he or she has made on the writing life, overall arc and effort of career. Please try to engage the class—-poke, prod, stimulate. A great source for this, highly recommended but not required, is the Paris Review interviews: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews
All books are available at Pomegranate Books. I’ll e-mail you the ISBNS since it’s essential we have the same copies for page numbers.
Part I: SPIRITUAL UNDERPINNINGS
1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
2. Life Work by Donald Hall
3 . Winter Hours by Mary Oliver
4. First We Read, Then We Write by Robert Richardson
5. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Part III: GETTING PRACTICAL
6. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
7. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
8. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet by Walter Jackson Bate
9. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
10. On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner