Colum McCann wrote his latest novel in a closet. Literally in a closet. And Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer at the young age of 26 for her wonderful book called A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek recommends writing in a dark room walled with cinder block.
This is a far cry from the usual writer’s fantasy of sitting down to a typewriter in a farmhouse sitting before a windowed view of mountains.
The reality about writing is the more romantic you are about the process, the less likely you are to write something great.
Writing is all about emotion, about moods and sentiment and being sensitive to beauty. And yet if you worship those sentiments, you’ll accomplish nothing.
Great writers, the accomplished ones that is, are split personalities. They feel things deeply, they swing with their moods, and yet they whip their moods into shape and, not unlike plumbers or carpenters or brick masons, get to work, smelly and sweaty.
My recommendation for anybody writing a book? Here are 3 tips:
1. Don’t shower until you finish a chapter. Even if it takes days. Smell. Feel dirty. Poetry is heavy lifting. Nobody who reads your book will smell you so don’t worry about it. Lie to your readers. Make them think you were walking through a field smelling roses when you wrote that last chapter. Never let them know you smelled like a dog who came out of a ditch mouthing a tennis ball. Never let them know you beat your head against the desk while you were writing that last paragraph.
2. Choose an uncomfortable chair to write in. Or don’t sit in a chair at all. Can you stand? Can you write on your lap sitting in a parked car? Get over the need to live the writer’s life the way it’s portrayed in movies. Write like somebody trying to raise the money to get their next hit of whatever drug they are addicted to. Don’t wait for a romantic time or place. Write where you are and write well. May the next literary prize go to the hardest worker, not the most sensitive brain. Let’s pray for this kind of justice.
3. Compare yourself to nobody. Your process will not look like anybody else’s. The only thing you will have in common with the greats is a strong work ethic. Imagine yourself in the break room of life, talking to Hemingway, talking to Steinbeck, talking to Dillard, sharing war stories about how hard the devil is attacking your words. Then leave the break room and go back to work, doing it your way, knowing it’s only when you find your true voice the magic will happen. Who cares what the rest of them are finding in the mines? Your only job is to chip the earth and hope you find gold. If they find more gold than you, make sure it’s all about luck, not about work ethic.
Let’s leave the very stupid, romantic idea of writing behind. Let’s just do our work.