“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” So quoth the great EM Forster… (or did he?)** But it got us to thinking about how we write. We queried some of our favorite writers, a distinguished lot, all of them, to see how they manage their creative processes. Here’s some of what we heard:
Ideal work environment?
“I need peace and quiet. Total silence is ideal. I will even turn on the air conditioner just to drown out noise from outside if I have to. At the moment, my study is a wreck that is trying very hard to be a thoughtful, sophisticated, and eclectic nod to late nineteenth-century and Bloomsbury British interiors… when I look up at the wall I painted to match the color of Whistler’s Peacock Room, it’s enough to get me through the frustration. Sometimes.”
“I write at home, in a small “office” off the kitchen that also serves as an apartment storage space. Being near the kitchen can be a problem when things aren’t going well, and I feel the urge to “snack” instead of fighting through a difficult patch.”
“It’s tough to write when I have too many distractions (not a surprise) but I do need to have some diversions available… music, internet, something else to look at… when I need a brain break or to sort out something in my head.”
These days I fantasize about a Susan Orlean-recommended treadmill desk. A lot. I’m always surprised what kind of music gets me rolling… sometimes it’s got a beat I can dance to, other times it’s Sufjan Stevens.”
“During breaks I might listen to a short piece to refresh my brain. It could be anything from Trombone Shorty to Jerusalem from Kate & Will’s wedding, to a gospel cut by the great Marion Williams.”
Breaking writer’s block?
“I take a brisk walk on country roads and consciously keep bringing my thoughts back to the issue at hand – eventually, invariably, I come up with a solution. If i need to come up with characters for a tour, this is how they’re born. Also, ever since a yoga teacher told me about a book called “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals”, I’ve been getting up every hour or so to dance to a hip-hop song – when I’m working at home, alone. The key word is alone!“
“The only “cure” for a blank page/screen is to start putting down words. It hardly matters what they are at first. One good self-starting trick is to assure yourself that you are not really writing the piece, just putting down notes. Then, the notes may morph into a line or two and you are on your way.”
“When I’m writing a script and I don’t know how to begin, I just ask myself, “What IS it?” And then I have a sentence or two, even if later this is deleted or edited so as to be unrecognizable. Slow and steady wins the race.”
“In general I spew everything I can think of onto the page that can keep me from actually “writing.” Because as soon as I start writing, it will feel all-consuming until I am done.”
“I actually like to take a shower before I start writing. Clears my head and helps me organize my thoughts.”
Hilary Mantel, John McPhee, Alice Munro, Philip Roth, Calvin Trillin, Julian Barnes, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Fry, Laurie Colwin, Dashiel Hammett, Michael Chabon, Haruki Murakami, Chris Ware, Tolstoy. David McCullough, Russell Shorto, Paul Fussell, Joseph Mitchell, Christopher Morley, Sarah Waters & Pat Barker, Alan Garner, PG Wodehouse, Tom Stoppard
**Note this link, disputing Forster.