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After Work: A Writing Routine vs. A Procrastination Scheme

Famous and super-talented authors are often willing to talk about their writing routines.

But Dona Gibbs would really like to know the little painful details of the writing process too. “How many times do the famous look up from the computer and stare into the middle distance? How many times do they pause mid-paragraph and berate themselves for forgetting to pick up lettuce for the night’s salad?’’

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“Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake…. Then you would hear someone say, ‘Hi, Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a café?’ Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook''Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I’ve been thinking about writing habits – my own and others.

Something about the New Year in its third week induced a little navel-gazing. Maybe this is not a particularly healthy pastime. The New Year is supposed to inspire looking forward. Anyway, I thought that there was probably a lot to be learned from the ‘greats.’

Here’s a sampling.

John Updike, an acclaimed American author, said in a Critical Mass interview in the Charlotte Observer that his goal is 1,000 words a day. He begins at 9 and has twenty-two novels, a memoir, short stories, several volumes of criticism and six books of poetry to show for his discipline (and talent).

Another noted American author Richard Ford reported elsewhere that he rises at six in the morning, makes breakfast for his wife and is pounding out his mellifluous prose by eight.

Discipline is mentioned again and again. In spite of the romantic notion of writing in a 1920s Parisian café with a Gauloise smoldering in a chipped ashtray and a glass of red wine at hand, clearly Hemingway was one grumpy bear if his routine were interrupted.

I read that Nathaniel Hawthorne worked every day for ten hours straight when writing “The Scarlet Letter.” Philip Roth reported that he writes standing up as did Thomas Wolfe, who was so tall he used the top of the icebox. (Note, iceboxes were shorter than today’s refrigerators, but you probably knew that already.)

Jane Kramer, European correspondent for The New Yorker, “Letter from Europe.” revealed that she often cooked while writing, letting the ideas simmer.

What famous writers haven’t let us in on is their warm-up routine. That’s a euphemism for procrastination. I have a thousand and one ways to put off what sometimes is an elating, but often a painful process of getting down to work. The tricky part is that I never know whether it’s going to be a day of hooray or a day of uh-oh.

Back in the old pencil and paper days, I could stall by sharpening a dozen pencils and squaring up a legal pad so it was in the center of my workspace. Very satisfying.

Moving on to the manual typewriter era, I could open a new ream of paper, fan it, tap in back into place and carefully roll it into the grey Remington. I could place the dictionary at the ready. Find the typewriter eraser. The act of beginning was rewarding in its own way.

These days of lap top computers and Internet cafes with coffee and connections on every corner, excuses for writerly dithering have almost disappeared. No pencils to be sharpened. The dictionary is right inside. The library, too. Nothing to do but open the damn thing up and begin.

Technology has put writers’ tools at the ready so I’ve had to resort to other activities as a warm-up, ones that don’t look as if they have anything to do with writing at all. Take, for example, sitting in a sinfully comfortable chair outside in the winter Florida sunshine.

I could say that because the said chair allows me to recline with my feet higher than my head it promotes blood flow to the brain and stimulates thoughts. That would be stretching the truth a bit. Actually, that position stimulates thoughts of a nap.

While there’s plenty of talk about routine and discipline, discipline and routine, I’d also like to know more about what writers do when they’re not writing. Oh, I know every one of them reads, really delves into the classics, they report. On the contemporary side, the Canadian author Alice Munro gets a lot of shout-outs.

Nobody mentions The New York Times new blogs in their reading lists. The humor one is an especially rich way to waste time, I mean, prepare.

From information I’ve been able to piece together I know that in away-from-desk time, Updike plays golf and that Jane Smiley rides her horse. But I’d like to know more about others.

For example, what made Noble Prize winner Doris Lessing accessible to me as a human being was the picture of her sitting on the doorstep of her London home, surrounded by grocery bags. Reporters and photographers surprised her. She’d just come from visiting her son in hospital, she said. All very endearing and revealing, but I really like to know what was in those grocery bags.

I’d like to know the little painful details of the writing process too. How many times do the famous look up from the computer and stare into the middle distance? How many times do they pause mid-paragraph and berate themselves for forgetting to pick up lettuce for the night’s salad?

I know all about what makes the famous writers different from me. Talent being the obvious answer. What I’m really searching for is how alike we are—they and I. I would take great comfort in that.


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