Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ways of working #1

I'm obsessed with process; with the way people achieve what they achieve and do what they do. I've long wanted to get some understanding of filmmakers processes outside of the structured periods of production and shooting. It would be fascinating to see how people maintain discipline when such a scattershot approach to work is required.

My obsession with process extends far beyond film, however. I've grilled lots of writer friends, artist friends, musicians, athletes, dancers... all to understand the ways they work when self discipline is required. So, for all of this, the following blog - - is incredible. It details the daily routines of writers, artists and other folks who do, make, say and think the good stuff.

Below are some excerpts from this blog but there is a vast archive of interviews and articles on the site with many, many more revelations (Auden's use of a daily dose of benzedrine for 20 years of writing is a good'un, for example)...

JONATHAN LETHEM: What were you doing today before I appeared in your house?

PAUL AUSTER: The usual. I got up in the morning. I read the paper. I drank a pot of tea. And then I went over to the little apartment I have in the neighborhood and worked for about six hours. After that, I had to do some business. My mother died two years ago, and there was one last thing to take care of concerning her estate—a kind of insurance bond I had to sign off on. So, I went to a notary public to have the papers stamped, then mailed them to the lawyer. I came back home. I read my daughter’s final report card. And then I went upstairs and paid a lot of bills. A typical day, I suppose. A mix of working on the book and dealing with a lot of boring, practical stuff.

JL: For me, five or six hours of writing is plenty. That’s a lot. So, if I get that many hours the other stuff feels satisfying. The other stuff feels like a kind of grace. But if I have to do that stuff when I haven’t written—

PA: Oh, that’s terrible.

JL: That’s a terrible thing.

PA: I’ve found that writing novels is an all-absorbing experience—both physical and mental—and I have to do it every day in order to keep the rhythm, to keep myself focused on what I’m doing. Even Sunday, if possible. If there’s no family thing happening that day, I’ll at least work in the morning. Whenever I travel, I get thrown off completely. If I’m gone for two weeks, it takes me a good week to get back into the rhythm of what I was doing before.

JL: I like the word “physical.” I have the same fetish for continuity. I don’t really ask of myself a given word or page count or number of hours. To work every day, that’s my only fetish. And there is a physical quality to it when a novel is thriving. It has an athletic component. You’re keeping a streak going.

PA: Writing is physical for me. I always have the sense that the words are coming out of my body, not just my mind. I write in longhand, and the pen is scratching the words onto the page. I can even hear the words being written. So much of the effort that goes into writing prose for me is about making sentences that capture the music that I’m hearing in my head. It takes a lot of work, writing, writing, and rewriting to get the music exactly the way you want it to be. That music is a physical force. Not only do you write books physically, but you read books physically as well. There’s something about the rhythms of language that correspond to the rhythms of our own bodies. An attentive reader is finding meanings in the book that can’t be articulated, finding them in his or her body. I think this is what so many people don’t understand about fiction. Poetry is supposed to be musical. But people don’t understand prose. They’re so used to reading journalism—clunky, functional sentences that convey factual information—facts, more than just the surfaces of things.


I'm always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o'clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o'clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I'll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it's a pleasure to work."

"I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don't use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance."

I don’t get up very early. I linger over breakfast reading the papers, telling myself hypocritically that I’ve got to keep with what’s going on, but really staving off the dreadful time when I have to go to the typewriter. That’s probably about ten-thirty, still in pajamas and dressing gown. And the agreement I have with myself is that I can stop whenever I like and go and shave and so on. In practice, it’s not till about one or one-fifteen that I do that—I usually try and time it with some music on the radio. Then I emerge, and nicotine and alcohol are produced. I work on until about two or two-fifteen, have lunch, then if there’s urgency about, I have to write in the afternoon, which I really hate doing—I really dislike afternoons, whatever’s happening. But then the agreement is that it doesn’t matter how little gets done in the afternoon. And later on, with luck, a cup of tea turns up, and then it’s only a question of drinking more cups of tea until the bar opens at six o’clock and one can get into second gear. I go on until about eight-thirty and I always hate stopping. It’s not a question of being carried away by one’s creative afflatus, but saying, “Oh dear, next time I do this I shall be feeling tense again.”


 - Where do you write?
 - have always thought that the place where you sleep or the place you share with your partner should be separate from the place where you write. The domestic rituals and details somehow kill the imagination. They kill the demon in me. The domestic, tame daily routine makes the longing for the other world, which the imagination needs to operate, fade away. So for years I always had an office or a little place outside the house to work in. I always had different flats. But once I spent half a semester in the U.S. while my ex-wife was taking her Ph.D. at Columbia University. We were living in an apartment for married students and didn’t have any space, so I had to sleep and write in the same place. Reminders of family life were all around. This upset me. In the mornings I used to say goodbye to my wife like someone going to work. I’d leave the house, walk around a few blocks, and come back like a person arriving at the office. Ten years ago I found a flat overlooking the Bosporus with a view of the old city. It has, perhaps, one of the best views of Istanbul. It is a twenty-five minute walk from where I live. It is full of books and my desk looks out onto the view. Every day I spend, on average, some ten hours there.

 - Ten hours a day?
 - Yes, I’m a hard worker. I enjoy it. People say I’m ambitious, and maybe there’s truth in that too. But I’m in love with what I do. I enjoy sitting at my desk like a child playing with his toys. It’s work, essentially, but it’s fun and games also.

I will tell you my order of time for the day, as you were so kind as to give me your's. At 6. oclock, we all rise. We breakfast at 7. Our study hours begin at 8. At 9. we all meet in Seminary Hall, for devotions. At 10¼. I recite a review of Ancient History, in connection with which we read Goldsmith & Grimshaw. At .11. I recite a lesson in "Pope's Essay on Man" which is merely transposition. At .12. I practice Calisthenics & at 12¼ read until dinner, which is at 12½ & after dinner, from 1½ until 2 I sing in Seminary Hall. From 2¾ until 3¾. I practise upon the Piano. At 3¾ I go to Sections, where we give in all our accounts of the day, including, Absence - Tardiness - Communications - Breaking Silent Study hours - Receiving Company in our rooms & ten thousand other things, which I will not take time or place to mention. At 4½, we go into Seminary Hall, & receive advice from Miss. Lyon in the form of lecture. We have Supper at 6. & silent-study hours from then until retiring bell, which rings at 8¾, but the tardy bell does not ring untl 9¾, so that we dont often obey the first warning to retire.


What is your writing process like? Do you write every day? Do you have a kind of totemic place or object? Or do you need to read before you write?

I try to write every morning, from about nine until twelve. It’s really rare that I would ever write more than that. I know it’s a good idea to listen to music on the way to writing, but I often just can’t quite get it together, for some reason, to do that. I try not to speak to my extended family before I write, because that just clouds everything up.

So you don’t answer the phone, you don’t do e-mail.

No, I do. I’m not, like… I don’t curate the museum of my writing. I am not at all prissy about it. Things don’t have to be a certain way, and life gets in the way all the time. When I was in college and starting to think about writing, I was driving once from Princeton to D.C., where my parents lived, and there was a sex therapist on the radio. And someone called with whatever problem, and this therapist said, “What do you do in the bedroom?” And the guy was like, “Well, watch TV, sleep, have sex, do my taxes; that’s where we change our clothes…” And the therapist said, “Don’t do anything in your bedroom except have sex and sleep. Don’t watch TV, don’t do—because all these things are going to be on your mind, and it’s going to be much harder to separate this thing that needs to be separated out.” And writing is like that. If you don’t find a way to create a wall between it and the world, the world will always win.

What helps about listening to music?

I think music is probably the most directly impactful art form. I mean, it’s the one that, within three minutes, you can find yourself screaming at the top of your lungs and banging your fists. And a novel never does that.

A poem can do that sometimes.

A poem can do that, it’s true. But not quite like that. I mean, certainly you can’t, like, turn up the volume on a poem. A poem is still always going to be a more active experience than listening to music. And there’s something about the passiveness of it that allows for whatever mood you’re in to really enter.

It works on the limbic system, in a way.

Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s a very quick way. It’s like a shot to the heart, you know.


The Celebrated said...

I'd like to know what the 10 thousand other things Emily Dickinson does in her room after receiving company! Maybe she got on the interweb. Have you tried on her routine yet?

The Buoy Archives said...

I am, as of now, quantifying my day in 1/4 hours. At 6 & 1/4, for example, I recite the daily facebook postings until the 6 & 1/2 bell rings at which time I read inane bigoted commentary on the news websites until it is time for a supper of stale bread and broth and a viewing of Jersey Shore until 7 and 3/4....
Weird thing is I am not feeling any more inclined toward poetic expression than before...