Do you write in longhand first, or do you compose at the keyboard? Tell us about your preferred pens, ink, paper, or platform and program.
I usually begin everything writing by hand, with a pencil—Ticonderoga #2s are my favorite, but I’ll take a round pencil over them anytime. Every year I go to my favorite copy shop in New Haven to ask for a few. I hoard them, using them till the nub is so short I can’t grip it anymore. The paper is a lined white pad, standard size, with a margin down the left side, where I make notes of things to return to later. I buy the pads by the dozen. If I want to use a pen, it has to have a very fine point. But I like pencils, because I can erase. It keeps me humble. And I love the soft sound of the act of writing on paper. It’s so different from the clicking of a keyboard. Once I’ve broken through the surface, which takes at least half an hour of writing, I’ll write till the idea has come clear. The next stage is going to the computer, moving from the stuffed chair to the desk. But what could be more constraining than writing inside the box of a computer screen? Forced to write left to right, top to bottom, rather than drawing with a pencil—literally sketching ideas, in any shape you want on a page. I print drafts and spread pages on my table, so I can see more of what I’ve written, and draw all over it, moving things around, seeing what it is I’ve made. So for me, it’s very physical, the act of writing, and it includes having to get up and move around, when ideas are coming but the words aren’t, and movement releases the part of my imagination that, freed, will bring me the words. Then, back at the desk, I can work with them.
As for technology, I am usually way behind the curve. I just got a new computer for the first time in 25 years, the new MacBook Pro, which is a beautiful, sleek laptop that I hook up to a big monitor, so I can now see two pages at once. This is like going from a scooter to a Maserati. My other new one was the first IBM PC, which I bought in 1982 to write my dissertation at Stanford. Someone at the law school invented a footnote program that spread like wildfire through the campus. Those were the days of five and a quarter inch floppy disks—which really were floppy—and you had to put this piece of silver tape on the notch at the top left corner to “write protect” your work. In the between the bulky, “computer grey” PC and this lightweight silver slip of a thing, I relied on used computers my sister and niece would send me every couple of years, when they’d update.
I made the switch from PC to Apple in the late 90s after working a job that forced me to learn the Mac. I resisted at first, but then fell in love with the ease of the operating system. I use that big, baggy, monster, Word, because it’s become the standard, but I remember the elegance of WordStar with the fondness usually reserved for one’s first love.
What do you consider a “full day’s work” of writing? Do you measure by number of hours, or number of words? Do you spend time doing mundane chores so that you don’t have to write?
A full day’s work is whatever it takes to get a piece of work done. I’ve had days when I wake up and a whole piece is there, and I can hear it, so I go to the chair or the desk and capture it—or reach for a pad and pencil right there in bed and write it out, and go back to sleep. In the morning, I type it up, fix it till the internal itch is relieved. That’s a great day, a day when I can walk away early and feel satisfied.
Working on the book was work—may days and nights I had to make myself do it. You sign a contract, you feel the pressure of deadlines, though they can be pushed back, they can’t be deferred indefinitely. Five hours of intense work could be a whole day, but there were lots of ten to twelve hour days, and nights when I woke up at 2 and wrote till 4 then went back to sleep, a problem having been solved when I stopped staring at it, jaw clenched.
I don’t think there’s one way to do this, though you have to be honest, disciplined, work hard, get things done in the way that makes sense for your life. You also have to know when to walk away. I had to learn, many times over, that it’s better to stop on a bad day, and do other useful things so that the next day would be more productive.
Who doesn’t practice avoidance? I love Mary Oliver’s essay in Blue Pastures about interruption—it’s not the neighbor coming over to borrow mustard or sugar, it’s ourselves, interrupting our deeper selves in the act of concentration, fleeing from giving ourselves over to the work. So yes, I do mundane chores, but actually, my favorite work day is one that includes intervals of physical work, domestic chores—making a pot of soup, doing laundry, pulling weeds, pinching wilted leaves off the plants, musing, is what it is, aided by not being fixed to one place.
Then there are the days of finish work—the equivalent for a carpenter of screwing switch plates to the wall—when I’m formatting, correcting punctuation, fixing typos, long hours at the machine. Then I turn the volume up loud and listen to great rock and roll.
Dancing is always good when you get stuck, or when you get something just right, or when you reach the finish and hit “save.”
[go back to Interview, Part 1]
[continue to Interview, Part 3]