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Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to.
By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus.
It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.
That, and oh so much more, is what Dani Shapiro explores in ) — her magnificent memoir of the writing life, at once disarmingly personal and brimming with widely resonant wisdom on the most universal challenges and joys of writing. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. “Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. Shapiro echoes that Dillardian insistence on presence as the heart of the creative life: We are all unsure of ourselves. At times, we find unexpected strength, and at other times, we succumb to our fears. We want to know what’s around the corner, and the writing life won’t offer us this. There is only this moment, when we put pen to page. No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. What is it about writing that makes it—for some of us — as necessary as breathing? We are as close to consciousness itself as we will ever be. Beneath the frozen ground, buried deep below anything we can see, something may be taking root. Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar.
Shapiro opens with the kind of crisp conviction that underpins the entire book: Far from a lazy aphorism, however, this proclamation comes from her own hard-earned experience — fragments of which resonate deeply with most of us, on one level or another — that Shapiro synthesizes beautifully: When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. Every one of us walking the planet wonders, secretly, if we are getting it wrong. Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. In ), Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.
Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying.
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The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail.You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work.Progress is reassuring and inspiring; panic and then despair set in when you find yourself getting nothing done day after day.After the year’s best books in photography, psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, science and technology, “children’s” (though we all know what that means), and pets and animals, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists concludes with the year’s best reads on writing and creativity. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. And then on January eighth I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment: And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out — with extraordinary candor and insight: Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success.The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to replicate the workings of genius in our own work. In ), editor Meredith Maran seeks out answers on the why and advice on the how of writing from twenty of today’s most acclaimed authors. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell.For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place — in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part.The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. These rewards manifest not as grand honors and prizes and bestseller rankings — though hardly any writer would deny the warming pleasure of those, however fleeting — but in the cumulative journey of becoming.We seem to have a strange but all too human cultural fixation on the daily routines and daily rituals of famous creators, from Vonnegut to Burroughs to Darwin — as if a glimpse of their day-to-day would somehow magically infuse ours with equal potency, or replicating it would allow us to replicate their genius in turn.And though much of this is mere cultural voyeurism, there is something to be said for the value of a well-engineered daily routine to anchor the creative process.One of the painful ironies of work life is that the anxiety of procrastination often makes people even less likely to buckle down in the future.I have a long list of “Secrets of Adulthood,” the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve grown up, such as: “It’s the task that’s never started that’s more tiresome,” “The days are long, but the years are short,” and “Always leave plenty of room in the suitcase.” One of my most helpful Secrets is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done.