how we write

Another person asked, How do I write?

Much as anyone who makes things: a pianist, painter, winder of fly-fishing lures. In my own little world. Turning problems this way and that. Choosing what I want to make and then trying to make it. One part aesthetics, one part skill. Each part shaping the other.

But a writer has no tools to hold. No processes, no talismans. Nothing that separates our endeavor from life’s daily business. It makes it harder to push out the world. But this, I believe, has its uses. The ability to deny the world is strongly tied to the ability to make a new world, word by word. Such is writing.

Some writers have little gimmicks for forcing the separation. They pretend that their practice is like others: tied to the physical, trappings and tools. They adopt the quill or the typewriter or the fountain-pen. They cloak their craft in anachronism to try to get “in the mood.”

They don’t realize that a painter’s brush, a blacksmith’s hammer, are not anachronistic. They are bridges between the artist’s will and the stuff they’re shaping to meet it. They are simple, accurate, elegant; they maximize the materialization of intent. They are the height of technology. They just happen to have reached that height a long time ago.

A writer does not act upon the stuff of the world. They are pure spirit from the get-go. For a novelist to use an ink-well is not like a painter who insists on organic pigments or a violinist who forsakes a plastic bow. They are more like a woodturner who insists on a treadle-lathe, a blacksmith who disdains a blower for a child-apprentice working the bellows. It is all form and no function. It is comic; failing that, it is dull.

My goal is that of any craftsman: to minimalize the separation between will and world, between what I want to make and having made it. A baker’s oven, a jeweler’s lamp, a glowing kiln; so too the light of a laptop-screen. It is just as thin a veil between intent and manifestation. A writer with a computer is ready to go.

Some writers need that room-of-her-own, to lock their door upon themselves and force the world physically far away. Some do not. Some write best in coffee-shops, with others quietly about. Some write best in loud bars, train stations, music-halls. Some would be in bare white rooms, or black, or light, or dark. Some find a constant swirl and movement to be the least distracting. Some can write well anywhere, and do: if they are going to spend the better part of their lives hunched over a keyboard, they might as well go to places of interest, or beauty, when they do it. Some like forests. Some like seashores. Some like walking up and down the world. Some will choose a single place, a favorite bench, a cozy chair, and work only there until they lay down the pen.

Some drown out the world with ear-plugs. Some would go to a quiet room and then put on headphones and turn them loud. Some, I’m sure, like to smell surf or skin or baking bread. Some like to have food and drink about them – water, whiskey, six types of caffeine. Some work well only when full and sated. Some only work when hungry. Starving. Having need.

I am perfectly dull (and perfectly lucky) in that I can rather work well in any circumstance. It’s purely a matter of suiting my needs of the moment – which are usually minimal, and so I can suit my fancy.

I have written in my bed, at my desk (such as it is), on my couch, lying on my couch, standing on my couch to use the window-sill as a standing-desk. I have written on my floor, in my bathtub, on my toilet, on my exercise bike, with laptop nestled amongst prep-bowls as I stand by the stove and cook.

I have written in a lecture-hall, forcing out the doldrum-drone of a bad professor. I have written in a student-center, talk and troubles sloshing all around me. I have written in the empty seats of a basketball-court while the team practices, my ears drowned in dribbles.

I’ve written in buffets and cafeterias where they don’t mind if you sit there all day. I’ve written in good restaurants when they’re empty on a long afternoon. I’ve written in beer-bars on Sunday mornings and shot-bars late Sunday nights. I’ve written in a whole fucking hell of coffee-shops.

I have written on trains, on buses and planes. Come this January I shall write aboard a ship.

I have written in the rare book room at the library of a regal college in the woods, soaring windows bound in iron, leatherbound books to all sides, leather armchairs and soft green couches, a roaring fire and the whole room just to me.

I have written beside an old farm-house in the highlands of Vermont, a sweet wind blowing flakes of snow through the air, the first grasses of spring rolling over hills to every side.

I have written on a wooden dock stretching out into Casco Bay, the mast of a white-sailed sloop bobbing from the waves, the smell of salt, seagulls wheeling over the bay.

I have written in a greenhouse of tropical plants, jutting out from the third floor of a building. When I pushed past the palm-fronds and wiped away the condensation from the windows, I could see for miles the deep snows that covered the Pioneer Valley.

I have known writers of even odder proclivities. I knew a fellow who would only work on his dissertation when receiving oral sex, his laptop balanced on the bobbing back of whosever head was in his lap. I knew a woman who only compiled lab reports when face-down on the floor, wearing nothing but headphones, her preposterously large breasts keeping her head from falling into her Macbook Pro. I knew a man who wrote all his songs at a gay bar, a drink at his elbow, perpetually refusing all offers of conversation. I knew a guy who would surf his friend’s couches with Erdos-like peripateticism, sleeping all day and then staying up all night to write.

Mostly I write at home. It’s easy, it’s quiet, I can wear my pyjamas and make pot after pot of tea. I can regulate the temperature with a monitor, the noise with speakers or headphones, the light with six lamps and three windows. I have a desk, or equivalent, made of four small tables that I scatter about me. I have a computer monitor the size of a Buick. I have a comfortable leather couch, and an uncomfortable wooden chair, depending upon whether I wish to induce more or less in the way of being-awake. I have a large room with little in it, feeling open, easy to be within. And its walls are covered in books and things of beauty, providing a good boundary between my world and the world at large.

But that is nothing to the boundary that I must erect between my world and the world that I am creating, the place and people and conveyance of whatever I am putting to pen. That is a mental exercise, and if it be made easier or harder by the comfort of a situation, or its character, or its beauty, that all is nothing to the overall work of rolling back the world like a tide until there is nothing but empty beach in every direction. Only then can sandcastles be built.

Would it help if I was in the top of a castle-tower, locked away from the world? Would it help if I was in a cushioned harem, servants in silent slippers to bring me sweets and drink? Would it help if there were a host of houris to please my fancy, or a team of rabid editors to demand my work? A cabin in the forest? A tent above a glacial lake?

They all sound very nice. But I think I prefer the thought of trying them all. A lovely way to live a life – and leaving prose behind me.

And from time to time – as you can see – I write about writing, while working up the juice to do it. But the juice is here, and so: good afternoon.

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~ by davekov on 16 November 2014.

One Response to “how we write”

  1. I quite liked this.

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