I write best in the morning, with a cup of coffee and a single candle burning on my desk. Unless of course I’ve stayed up late the night before revising, then I write best at night, no candle, one lamp, shades drawn. However, I’ve recently noticed that I can write in the afternoon, right after lunch, in the public library, but only if I can snag one of the private cubicles near the back windows. For a few weeks, I wrote outside on a bench with a hot cup of black tea beside me and a pencil and a yellow legal pad on my lap because I thought I remembered Patricia Hampl mentioning that a yellow blank page is more inviting than a white blank page. David Huddle notes that the novelist Don Bredes suggests placing a plant, preferably a cactus, in one’s writing space. Not exactly sure what Bredes is getting at with a cactus, something to do with keeping him sharp. Perhaps he puts it in the doorway of his studio to keep out the cat. Who knows – it’s dangerous to decode a writer’s habit, to look for a recipe. Although, Huddle is the one who suggested the candle, and I don’t think I’d write as well in the morning without it.
But real writers know there is a recipe, and it only has one step: write every day. You must find the time, at some point each day, to sit down and put pen to paper, fingers to keys. It can be good to take a few days off, though. Get some distance from your words, come back with a new perspective. That’s the only way to keep things fresh. But too much time off isn’t good either. You know that scene in Swingers when they’re talking about how long to wait before calling a new date – a day, two days, six days; you call too early, she’ll think you’re being too pushy, too forceful, like you’re trying to impose meaning on a relationship that doesn’t exist. Call too late, and she might think you forgot about her and all the promising details of the night you first met. If only writing were as easy as love.
Hemingway said to write well, you must write without ambition. Good advice. Step one: stop trying. If our job is to make a struggle appear effortless, to make it seem like we wrote this novel or story in one sitting, word by word, sentence by sentence, proudly placing the final period with a smug grin, then perhaps it’s worth setting aside ambition for a while. Ambition makes us think too far ahead, makes us look up witty epigraphs when we should be writing dialogue or ponder dedications while the cursor winks on a blank page. We must maintain our passion but control our ambition. At times, unfortunately, the difference between passion and ambition can be indiscernible.
Which is why all writers need a lake house. A modest one-bedroom cabin with a galley kitchen and tiny living room. A place far from ambition. Miles from aspiration. Smack dab in the middle of passion. On the long drive to the house, the city or suburb or roommate or spouse or parents or children shrinking in the rearview mirror, the contagious hum of the tires spreading a soothing song through the writer’s entire body, he begins to see his work open up like the road before him. When he arrives at the house, he inhales deeply, stretches his legs, and steps into welcomed isolation.
It’s good to write in public, too, though. David Mamet wrote in bars and restaurants; his dialogue more osmosis than writing. A friend of mine writes at Starbuck’s. A professor I once had told me he wrote best in small cafés and independent coffee shops. Something to do with free trade, I suppose. So there it is; that’s the secret: write in a private public place where your isolation is freely observed.
But one aspect of the writer’s life that can not be disputed is the benefit of devoting a chunk of time – three to six months – just to writing. There comes a point in a project that requires uninterrupted concentration. Time to let the narrative form in your mind as the coffee machine percolates, test the truthfulness of your dialogue as the water from the shower head blasts the porcelain tub, revise the final sentence of an essay as the white of an egg bubbles in the frying pan. Drift through the day on your words, kiss your wife goodbye in the morning and let the laptop warm your legs as you type and think, type and think. Yellow leaves cling to the branches outside your study’s window. As the season gets colder, the wind plucks the leaves, revealing the tree’s naked form, a bare continuation of its roots. Things begin to make sense. Your life is in order; your words an extension of your body. When was the last time you felt this connected? This full of purpose? You cannot remember.
By month two, you’re the worst writer that ever lived.
Why did you do this, you ask. You had an OK job, steady income, but now you’re coasting on savings and you can’t seem to do what you said you desperately needed the time to do. A day is a long time, you think. The air in your apartment sparkles in the light. You notice how this changes each hour, sparkling less and less, until the dust no longer shimmers. The winking cursor is audible, crashing like a judge’s gavel. These are just words, you think, just words. How did you let these inanimate objects infect your life? You start to doubt everything – your work, your life, your choices, your expectations, your capabilities. You remember a professor telling you that writing should not interfere with living. Or was it the other way around? You stare out your study window and the leafless trees look just like what they are: Skeletons.
Month three: You’re a genius.
You’ve started running and you realize everything Haruki Murakami says is true. Writing and running are founded on endurance, and boy, you have plenty. Your feet pound the pavement like the arms of a typewriter slapping a blank page. The revisions you made that morning make so much sense that you feel high, even higher because the high is totally natural, so pure that any attempt to name it or isolate it is futile. You just feel it in your system, coursing like blood, like air. While you run, you listen to Bob Seger to get in touch with your father’s character, and when you hear him sing the sweat pours out your body like the music that you play, you get chills. When you get home and cook a gourmet meal for your wife, she’s mesmerized by your brilliance, sees it glistening on your skin. That night, the two of you sleep with the windows open, the late fall air cooling your flushed skin.
Month four: What kind of a man are you?
You write about your fucking feelings, how your brother used to pick on you or let his friends drip spit on your face and you’d hide under the kitchen sink and listen to him and his friends looking for you and here you are now, twenty years later, trying to connect that to your father sitting underneath a kitchen sink in Vietnam because he’s only got thirty days left and no way he’s running out to the perimeter. Through the trees outside your study window, your eyes drift to the construction workers pulverizing the pavement with jackhammers. Each day you watch them work, the job progressing slowly, steadily. The chunks of pavement are cleared away and a clean channel is dug. A pipe is constructed and sunk into the channel. A worker connects the pipe to another pipe, one that has been underground for years, and eventually the same water that flows through the old pipe flows through the new pipe. At the end of the month, you watch them pour steaming asphalt into the channel and smooth the surface with a wide-toothed rake.
Month five: It’s about your mother! Of course!
The wind outside your study is her sighing in the kitchen, the tree branch cracking is the handle of her wicker laundry basket snapping, the yellow oak leaves on the ground are her delicate hands patting the soil, coaxing life from her garden. Here she is, you think, all around you, always has been, always there, taking care of everything behind the scenes and yet on the stage with the rest of the men, just never in the spotlight. It is time for her soliloquy. When you write this you are not a writer but a ventriloquist, her warm hand on your back, cool Listerine goodnight kiss on your cheek. After she is asleep, you speak for her.
Month six: No, it’s about you. It always has been.
Your father taught you how to restore a 1966 Dodge Coronet, but it was you who realized it could never last, never stay that way forever. Now when you run, you hear Bruce Springsteen sing I built that Challenger… but I needed money and so I sold it… and when your father brought home For Sale signs, though he didn’t complain, he filled them out like etching a tombstone. How much of us dies as we grow, you think. This is the thought that is on your mind now, as you continue to revise your work and search for meaning. When the cicada bugs that buzzed above your head on long summer vacations shed their old skin and sprouted iridescent wings, what did they leave behind? What had to die for them to go on living?
You are the taxidermist’s son, and his Army jackets in the basement, the ones that hang like old skin, are not about him, they’re about you. How you wrap yourself in the past, try it on and see how it fits, take up the slack and fill in the gaps with cotton memory, puff it up with the present, wonder how it will fit in the future.
Month six, you think, is life changing.
So what do I know about being a writer? It’s taught me to embrace the loyalty of doubt. Doubt is my best friend, my toughest editor, my wisest critic. To be doubtful, to be skeptical of taking life at face value, is one of the reasons I write nonfiction. Life deals out metaphors like a set of match game cards, scatters them over years and years. You hold onto a few for reasons you can’t yet articulate, but doubt that putting them back in the pile will do any good. One day, you see the matching card in the pile, sitting right on top. How could you have missed it, you wonder. But there it is, and it’s doubtful you ever would have realized its potential if you hadn’t held onto that first card.
I think tailoring the definition of doubt so the word works for me is indicative of my approach to writing. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how writers write, what the secret is. I loved reading books on writing and discovering my favorite authors’ secrets. What time of day did Hemingway work the best? Does Tobias Wolff write in the attic or the basement? Did Raymond Carver use pen and paper or a typewriter for his first drafts? While it’s interesting to read about these details, eventually we have to stop reading about how others write and start writing ourselves. We must develop our own habits.
The only way to do that is to push through doubt. If it works to write in the morning one day, do it. If it doesn’t the next, that’s OK, try writing at night. Writing is a balancing act, a mental battle we win and lose daily, but that’s what makes us better writers: endurance, perseverance.
So, then, my recipe, my secret ingredients: write everyday, take some time off, read a lot, revise revise revise, write in the dark, write in the light, use pencil, ink, blood, keep a cactus by your side, a candle in the window, running shoes on your feet, listen to Bob Seger, cook eggs, take showers, drink coffee, make love to your wife, know yourself, discover yourself, reinvent yourself, realize you were right from the beginning, trust your instincts until they steer you wrong, don’t forget your mother, stay healthy, own a lake house, go to the library, write without ambition, become a famous author and then say write without ambition, grow old, continue to write, carry the candle with you and do your best, no matter how dark it gets, to walk in the comforting shadow of doubt.
-Anthony D’Aries, Fellow in Nonfiction