I never listen to music when I'm working. I haven't that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn't like it at all. On the other hand, I'm able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There's a lot of traffic. But it's a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man—they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.
E.B. White (see photo below)
I have reached the stage where I am extraordinarily productive when I’m following my writing routine—but can fritter away massive amounts of time when I’m dislodged from it.
Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on myself here. The issue is not necessarily that I fritter the time away—though that can happen in a seemingly infinite variety of ways (and I can be far from blameless). It is more that my routine is now so ingrained that I have become dependent on it.
I say “dislodged” because I rarely abandon my writing routine of my own volition until the work in question is finished. In fact, even then, I withdraw slowly and reluctantly. It’s not that I don’t get a buzz out of completing a work. It is more that I get even more pleasure out of the actual writing itself. The process is what really turns me on. I feel much the same way about sex. Actually making love is, as far as I am concerned, generally speaking even more enjoyable than orgasm (which is saying a lot).
There are three villains where a breakdown in routine is concerned.
- LIFE—with a heavy emphasis on social obligations. Putting it simply, most people don’t understand the truly desperate need to write that suffuses a writer. They understand what is involved in principle—you string words together, sometimes quite entertainingly—and they regard such a skill as mildly useful in an impractical sort of way—but they don’t appreciate that a true writer has to write or life becomes meaningless. It is writing that gives both meaning and purpose to a writer’s life. Family, friends and riches are all very well—but only writing validates a writer’s existence. Writing is not just a job you can leave when requested—it is the essence of life itself.
So how do I handle “life?” In essence, I try and steer clear of it as much as possible without being anti-social. As I have tried to explain previously (on numerous occasions—with scant success) the issue is not that I don’t like people—I am not a recluse and enjoy few things more than dinner with friends—but that I like writing more.
But, overall, I have become fairly pragmatic about life—and accept the fact that there is a certain amount of it that a writer just can’t dodge (and that a great deal of it is no more than a plot to stop us writers doing what we need to do).
- STRESS resulting from being emotionally upset. This can happen for a variety of reasons from a row to a shock resulting from a health issue to a failure on one’s own part. The key point is that your emotional balance is disturbed to the point where the subject you are writing about is displaced by the emotional issue.
I rarely lose my temper or have rows these days—I made a resolution not to lose my temper over four and half years ago, and have stuck to it—but suffice to say that still leaves plenty of causes of stress. The bottom line is that I have a tendency to over-react (whether I show it or not) and am not as emotionally resilient as I would like. I regard it as a character weakness which I’m trying to redress. However, I find I tend to need time to recover. It can easily wreck a day for me—but if have a good night’s sleep—it rarely wrecks two. One of the best antidotes is to write. Once I start writing, my mood is almost invariably improved. If I had been Nero, I would have written while Rome burned.
- COMPUTERS. Here, I really mean technology issues but since I tend to think of them as “computer problems” I think I’ll stick with that phrase. These run the gamut from hardware issues to faulty internet connections (plus, I’m sure, my ignorance) But I seem to have had more of them than most of my peers. There is a context here. Whether for reasons or by happenstance, machines of various types have long broken down around me rather more than seemed normal. In fact, at one stage before I became a writer I ran a business machines company, and sample machines sent for evaluation broke down so often, it was creepy.
What I have noticed is that my writer friends with Macs seem to have vastly less trouble, so I tell all writers who will listen to go that route.
You can write with the simplest of tools—a pencil and a piece of paper will be sufficient—but I confess that despite all my computer issues, I have persevered and have become thoroughly addicted to the point where I virtually cannot function without an internet connection.
I don’t need ideal conditions under which to work—and don’t recall ever experiencing them. However, I have worked out an optimum layout tied to an array of machines and peripherals I rely on—and if one of them is not working, it throws me more than it probably should. Nonetheless, though the fact that a peripheral may be dysfunctional for some mysterious reason (known only to God and Windows 8.1) doesn’t stop me working.
What I will say is that a standard layout tied to a regular routine is of enormous assistance in ensuring that I do write daily.
Writer’s routines are fairly comprehensively described in THE PARIS REVIEW and other publications—and, based upon my own experience, are well worth reading. Certainly, I found them invaluable.
They demonstrate that when it comes right down to it, no matter how successful the writer being interviewed may be, we all struggle with much the same difficulties—and all start with an empty page.