Conditional Discharge: Under what conditions do writers do their best work?
With: Tristan Hughes, Dany Laferrière, Anita Rau Badami, Evan Munday, Allison Baggio, Stuart Clark, Gayla Reid, David Penhale, Stan Rogal, Daniel Kalla, Laura Boudreau
This month, as Fiction Craft continues its exploration of the nuts’n’bolts of writing fiction, I asked eleven authors to answer the question: Under what conditions do you do your best writing?
This is a very simple question for me to answer: I do my best work when I have enough time. It is that which is almost impossible to get. Writing takes time. Time is not money. Money can be gotten. You can have lots of money and still have no time. Time, if it must be defined in such terms, is the absence of want for money. Yes, a room of your own is a splendid thing, as is a nice desk and whatever writing tools you like best, and a quiet environment, and soft slippers, a bottle of scotch, an aluminum-foil hat, and twittering budgies if those are things you “need”. But all those things and much more can be had, and still there may be no time. Without time there can be no writing. Give me a room with a desk, chair and computer or even just a pad of paper and some pens, and if you want to throw in a luxury, give me a nice view of nature (the Cantabrian Sea from the cliffs of Asturias, if I had my druthers), and then slip me enough cash to support my small family for a year, preferably two, without having to worry every second about how to pay the rent and buy groceries, and I will, I hope, amaze you with what I can do. To me, everything else is just dressing and distraction.
Now, let’s see what some other scribes need to do their best work.
TRISTAN HUGHES is the author four books of fiction including the novels Eye Lake, Revenant, and Send My Cold Bones Home. He lives in Wales.
Many writers remember the circumstances under which they wrote their books as vividly as the books themselves – in fact perhaps more so. In the often rather uncanny distillation and alchemy of the writing process, the book itself - the words and pages and paragraphs - come to feel almost as though someone else wrote them, and what’s left behind is the memory of the desk, the room, the house where they were written, inhabited by a kind of ghostly shadow self, shuffling about in slippers and tapping intermittently at a key board.
My own first book had a slightly unusual origin. I began writing it soon after I’d fallen off the walls of a 12th century castle in Wales and broken my back. It took me eight months to fully recover and I remember convalescing in bed, with an ancient laptop in front of me. It wasn’t the ideal set of circumstances to write in - and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone! - but lying in bed for eight months did turn out, in a perverse way, to be quite conducive to finishing a first draft. Books do have this other, secret life, and it wasn’t until several years later that I began to notice how much this first book was pervaded by images of confinement and claustrophobia - of windows peered through from the inside.
Since then I’ve discovered that I seem to prefer writing during periods abroad – preferably in a country whose language I don’t know. My last book was completed in Belarus and Greece, and the one before that in Germany. I think the separation helps me. Perhaps the distance allows me to imagine the familiar from a different, more detached, vantage point - to make it appear strange and exotic. And in terms of language there is a similar isolation: the only place you are linguistically at home is in your book. And not hearing your own language on the street, or on TV, etc, you maybe begin to see it in a fresh way, to notice other dimensions and possibilities in it – like unexpectedly bumping into a friend in some faraway land.
DANY LAFERRIÈRE is the author of nineteen novels, including The Return, Comment fair l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer, Cette grenade dans la main du jeune nègre est-elle une arme ou un fruit?, and Je suis fou de Vava, for which he won the 2006 Governor General Award. Laferrière lives in Montreal.
Je cherche l’état de grâce
Il y a quelques années, j’ai affiché sur la porte de la petite chambre où j’écris cette phrase de Montaigne : « Je ne fais rien sans gaieté ». Puis je me suis dit qu’une pareille affirmation ne ressemble pas à la photo de Montaigne que je vois parfois dans les dictionnaires. Je me rappelle plutôt d’un homme sévère ourdissant une littérature de la plus haute érudition. À moins d’être Virgile ou Plutarque, on ne trouvait grâce à ses yeux. Il faudrait savoir ce qu’entendait Montaigne par gaieté? Comment prenait-t-il son pied? C’est comme imaginer Borges, un fiévreux samedi soir, à la discothèque du coin. Puis, je me suis rappelé que l’image publique d’un artiste est parfois différente de son image privée, et que Montaigne est aussi l’homme de cet étrange égarement qui a pour nom : La Boétie. L’une des explosives déclarations d’amitié de la littérature universelle. Je me suis rappelé aussi que Borges a courtisé toutes les jeunes étudiantes de Buenos-Aires qui ont franchi son espace d’aveugle pour converser avec lui à propos de ses mythologies personnelles (les épées, les miroirs, les labyrinthes, la milonga et les sagas islandaises), en un mot que cette érudition peut devenir tout à coup joyeuse en irradiant les cœurs. Ces écrivains aiment bien garder un certain esprit primesautier qui leur permet de rester encore parmi les humains. Je me suis dit que c’est là leur secret et qu’il me fallait, à moi aussi, une sorte de rituel, car sinon la littérature risque de vous emporter trop loin, et de faire de vous un être désincarné.
C’est arrivé à l’époque où je vivais à Miami, et que je tentais d’écrire hors du bruit médiatique qu’avait ramené dans son sillage le succès de mon livre. J’avais compris qu’écrire n’avait rien à voir avec le fait de coucher des phrases sur le papier, avec ou sans talent, et qu’il faudra un peu plus que cela si on veut rejoindre ces lecteurs qui nous regardent de l’autre côté du Styx. Je me suis rappelé de la phrase de Stendhal qui peut paraître arrogante mais qui s’est révélée si juste : « Mes lecteurs ne sont pas encore nés. » Cette phrase a du bien l’aider quand il voyait tant de mauvais écrivains de son époque occuper le devant de la scène. C’est avec cette idée en tête qu’il se mettait au travail jour après jour.
Et moi à Miami? Je passe un long moment, au réveil, à rêvasser dans le lit. Des images de l’enfance surgissent alors. J’y reste assez longtemps pour me retrouver dans une maison vide : ma femme déjà à son travail, et mes filles parties à l’école. Sans même un café, pour ne pas quitter trop brutalement l’univers liquide de la nuit, je sors alors faire le tour du petit lac artificiel, juste de l’autre côté de la rue. Je ne cherche pas des idées en marchant, ni une forme particulière pour le récit que je suis en train d’écrire. Simplement à retrouver cet esprit conquérant qui remonte à la plus haute enfance et qui me permettait dialoguer d’égal à égal avec les chevaux et les oiseaux, de tenir tête aux fourmis entêtées ou de ne pas rougir devant la beauté frémissante d’un papillon posé sur une fleur. Ni non plus devant la grâce de la libellule au vol. Je ne rentre travailler que si je me sens proche de cette grâce.
ANITA RAU BADAMI is the author of the novels Tell It to the Trees, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call, The Hero’s Walk, and Tamarind Mem. She lives in Montreal.
I need my cluttered writing room, my bookshelves, and my own desk at home. Without the familiarity of this space I cannot think. Airports, cafés, writing retreats rarely work for long bursts of writing. Although noise does not bother me at all – I can write through an animated conversation in the next room -- I cannot find inspiration in music as the rhythms tend to contaminate the rhythm of the words I am trying to manipulate. The only novel that was written with music as an accompaniment was The Hero’s Walk. I would listen over and over again to the same piece of music for days and weeks and drove everyone else in my home mad. Apart from these physical requirements, I tend to work best under extreme pressure. Give me a deadline and an editor breathing down my neck, and the thoughts flow like water.
EVAN MUNDAY is the author of the YA novel The Dead Kid Detective Agency, author and illustrator of the graphic novel Quarter-Life Crisis, and illustrator of the graphic novel Stripmalling. He lives in Toronto.
It may seem terribly anachronistic and twee, but I always write first drafts in longhand in a notebook. It's a compulsion. (But don't worry: it's a spiral-bound Hilroy deal, not one of those adorable Moleskine notebooks. I have some self-respect.) I wish I could say it were some element of romanticism that leads me to do this, but it's more that I have the attention span of a jack-rabbit. I can't handle writing a first draft on screen with the many distractions a computer can supply, even if that computer lacks an internet connection. However, there's also something immensely satisfying about seeing pages and pages of previously pristine wide-ruled paper forever ruined with your words once you're done.
My need for little distraction means I do my best work in the study carrels of the Toronto Reference Library. Unlike coffee shops, filled with awkward first dates and people pretending to write or do creative work while they actually check their Twitter feed for the millionth time (I kid because I love), the people in the study carrels of the Reference Library are there because they've got thirty-six hours left to finish term papers or something terrifying like that. There's also the occasional quiet study date between shy, academic types, but all I can see at my study carrel is a wooden backsplash.
When the Reference Library isn't open, I can also manage some decent writing in the dead of night. Midnight to four territory. Despite my best efforts, I can't manage to wake any earlier than the last moment possible to arrive at wherever I need to be that morning in time. So late nights are a good time for writing.
I've found I also write well on deadline, which seems counter-intuitive. But I need order and structure to help me write, and deadlines certainly aid in that department. I wrote the first draft of The Dead Kid Detective Agency while unemployed, but I forced myself into a strict routine: walking to the Reference Library, writing from nine to two every day, then searching for jobs over the remainder of the afternoon. I gave myself a deadline to finish that first draft, though I can't remember now if it was two or three months. (I'm a harsh taskmaster!) So, in short: spiral-bound notebook + deadline + study carrel = my recipe for moderate writerly success.
ALLISON BAGGIO’s debut novel, Girl in Shades, was published October 2011. She lives in Whitby, Ontario.
I think this is one of the most important questions writers can ask themselves. The reason being that—at least for me—writing is not about trying to write, but rather, creating an environment that allows for writing to happen. Many new writers probably find themselves hunched over their computer thinking very hard about what they are going to write. The thing I have learned as I have become more comfortable as a writer is that this kind of forced concentration will never produce anything that rings true to others. It will never create anything that was sent to you from your subconscious mind.
So in order to allow the brain to shut off and the creative intuition to flow down seamlessly, I’ve found that you must put your body into a state that does not second guess anything that is coming out. Instead of trying to think about what exactly I will say when I write, I quickly consult an outline I’ve made and then put my focus on the emotion that the completed passage will bring; on what I want to have at the end. I can only unfurl the path to the “end” when I am in that “writing state” and this brings me to the conditions that allow me to do my best writing.
It doesn’t really matter where I am, at a coffee shop, by the lake, sitting up in bed, in my office, but there are a few elements that are necessary:
I must be rested.
I must be comfortable.
I must be mentally relaxed.
I must have no distractions.
I must be in silence.
I know there are many writers who work to music, almost drowning out their thoughts as they go along. Not me. It’s strange to say but when I am writing I actually hear the words in my head a second before I write them down. Not sure if it is like that for all writers, but probably not because any sort of outside sound like music would definitely drown these voices out. So yes, silence and the confidence that I will not be distracted are vital to creating my best work.
The sad part about my life these days is that the conditions I have listed are very elusive. I don’t have the luxury of knowing that every morning I can wake up, meditate calmly and then write myself out. No, I have other things to do in the morning: like make school lunches and clean faces and try to recover from a choppy night’s sleep.
So when I do have the chance to have these optimal writing conditions, I always take advantage of the time to write a new draft of something. I do use my logical brain for the revising stage, so I can do that part at any time. But that first draft, that time is special.
STUART CLARK is the author of the novel The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth. His previous, non-fiction work includes The Sun Kings. He lives in Hertfordshire, England.
Unquestionably, I do my best writing when I’m relaxed. Often this can be late at night when the world is falling asleep around me. In the cocoon of dark and quiet, all things suddenly seem possible and it becomes a magical time for creativity. Seemingly intractable problems resolve themselves with no effort and new directions open up before me. Of course, it may simply be that I know I’m not going to be interrupted.
Having said all that, I do try to keep to office hours as much as I can. I’m a journalist as well as a novelist, so my days are not just spent crafting fiction, and I have to juggle what I do.
I enjoy writing fiction in the morning, especially if I can get a chunk done before the day’s events and interruptions start. Alternatively, mid-afternoon onwards can be highly creative if I’ve got a piece of journalism finished and off my desk and feel I’ve achieved.
My fiction writing is highly susceptible to mood. Sunny days are better for my writing than overcast ones. Warmth and sunshine make me optimistic and hopeful, which I’ve discovered are the key emotions to unlock my creativity. Too much positive energy, however, can be a bad thing.
Excitement (rather like anger) damages my judgment, but I can usually fix the resulting flights of fancy in the edit and it is infinitely preferable to disappointment, which kills my imagination. So, I try to manage my writing environment as a little bubble of StuWorld, removed from the normal run of space and time. It’s not always possible, and that’s usually when I end up having to write at night to catch up.
I often listen to music while I write because it’s a powerful mood-altering device, and usually a sure-fire way to make me happy. It can be baroque or film soundtracks, but most likely it’s rock music. Rush have provided me with inspiration for decades – and I’m not just saying that because you’re a Canadian website!
Finally, having a reachable deadline provokes me into finishing the work rather than tinkering and fiddling, perfecting the perfect opening sentence or whatever. But it’s a day-to-day thing; great progress one day is no guarantee of the same the day after. I’ve come to accept this as normal.
GAYLA REID is the author of the novels Come From Afar and All the Seas of the World, and the short-fiction collections Closer Apart: The Ardara Variations and To Be There With You. She lives in British Columbia.
Bring the fiction forward: In graphics programs you can bring objects forward and send others back. That’s the way I think about writing. I write legal information materials for a living. The fiction comes from a different place entirely. I write best when the day-job is in an undemanding phase and I get a clear run into the fiction part of my brain and heart. I can bring it forward. Send the day-job back.
Time for wool-gathering: Doris Lessing introduced me to “wool-gathering” as an essential part of the writing process. This involves time alone, to gaze at the ceiling, stare out the train window, watch birds, walk by the sea.
A room of my own: I write best with no distractions, social or domestic. I write at home (no children in the house, which makes this possible). I don’t apply for writer-in-residence gigs or frequent writers’ colonies. Writing at home means I can rely upon predictable comforts: my library, my own cooking, and so on. No surprises.
In the still of the night: Late at night is best. My partner is asleep. The phone does not ring. I write before I go to bed and revise when I first wake up. That way I can be working in my sleep.
With luxuries: I often read a little poetry before I write. I call upon immortals such as W.S. Merwin to sing me up into the place of fiction. And when I revise, I listen to a station that plays all Beethoven all the time. Beethoven is my man and everybodysmusic.com is the station.
DAVID PENHALE’s first novel, Passing Through, was published October 2011. He lives in Toronto.
A coffee and a bagel. Six freshly-sharpened pencils. A notebook that doesn’t have a cute animal on the cover. Like most people these days, I do most of my writing on a computer. I like a mouse that glides, a keyboard with a clicky touch, a big monitor --- the bigger the better, since I like to see two pages at once. Software and I have stormy romances. Commercial wordprocessors work well with short documents, but give them a novel and do a lot of putting and taking, and they turn into divas, snapping into strange formatting modes at the worst possible moment. This fall, I’m flirting with Scrivener, a program designed for writers, from Literature & Latte, a small company in Cornwall, England.
Once I’m rolling, I need a plan of action. I wrote Passing Through following the method described by John Braine in Writing a Novel, a how-to book published in 1974. Braine, one of Britain’s “angry young men” of the 1950s, is perhaps best remembered for Room at the Top, the story of a heartless social climber. Never having written a novel, I had no idea how to go about it. I like Braine’s novels, and his advice seemed as good as any. He suggests a series of steps --- a discovery draft, a synopsis, as many rewrites as necessary. Write the discovery draft straight through, Braine says. Don’t edit as you go. If you forget the name of a character, make a note but keep going. Set a word target. Don’t miss a writing session. My quota was 1,000 words a day. When the word count clicked over 999, I saved the file happily and went for a walk. When the first draft was complete — at about 80,000 words — I was ecstatic. I had written a novel! It was good to have that moment, because it soon dawned on me that the manuscript wasn’t a novel. It was the raw material for a novel. But blessings on Braine. I had captured the story. I had a draft to work on.
Paul Engle, the long-time director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, famously said, “Writing is rewriting what you have rewritten.” Oh, yeah. As the months passed, the simple joys of the first draft — hitting a quota of words, watching the manuscript grow — gave way to a slogging process of reshaping and rewriting. There were satisfying moments, and many dark nights of the soul. The conditions inside my head needed constant attention. It was essential to suspend judgment, to keep working. Someone else had written the manuscript, I told myself, an innocent, literature-loving fool who needed my help.
What did I learn from all this? The ideal conditions change as a project develops. The trick is to tweak as you go — and to treat yourself well.
STAN ROGAL is the author of numerous books of fiction and poetry, including the novels Bloodlines, Bafflegab and The Long Drive Home. He lives in Toronto.
I’d like to say: when I’m getting paid. Or promised publication for work yet to be written. I’d like to, but as I’ve never experienced this personally (apparently some people have, though this may be an urban myth meant to keep writers on a short leash), I’d only be speaking from hearsay and/or speculation.
Besides, this is likely not the real boiled potato question. In fact, I know it’s not.
OK. A quiet room to myself. Luxury of being able to sit for several hours at a desk staring at the blank page without interruption. Mornings are best. Surrounded by books I admire and which influence and/or affect my own process. Sober.
Not to say I am unable to sit and write in a noisy bar or coffee shop in the afternoons or evenings or bash out a few thoughts over a couple of glasses of wine. I can do that and have done so. Though, this is preliminary to what I call the “real” writing. This is note taking and gathering ideas and words and lines to be developed into something of consequence later.
Back to the room. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a space to myself over the years. At this time, it’s in the basement of a house. Cool in the summer, warm in the winter. A door to keep the dog out. Or the writer in. Sharp pencils and a stack of used paper. No music of any sort. Just me and the beast that is the story or novel or play or whatever it is I’m trying to wrestle out. Scratch, scratch, scratch until I have enough raw material to transfer to the computer and put into some sort of early order.
Now put on the music. Instrumental to begin. Mainly jazz. Perhaps add some foreign influence along the way for a change of pace: French, Brazilian, Chilean. So long as I can’t understand the lyrics. It’s still all me inside my own head. Develop a solid skeleton and flesh it out. Feeling pretty good about things? Put on music with lyrics: country, rock, reggae, jazz, blues, whatever: allow the lyrics and sounds to influence me. Re-vise, re-write, re-think. Get away. Go for a walk. Take the dog for a bark in the park. Return. Thrash around some more. Feeling better still? Have a few drinks in order to break the balls of logic and allow the piece to move off in different directions. See where it goes. Keep re-writing even as I’m two-finger tap-tapping out another draft on the keyboard. Put the bastard aside and come back days later and go at it all over again.
Crank the tunes. Kill the bottle. Tap-tap-tap.
Finally, call it done. Send it off into the ether or snail mail to see if anyone finds it even remotely interesting and/or publishable.
DANIEL KALLA is the author of numerous novels, including The Far Side of the Sky, Of Flesh and Blood and Cold Plague. He lives in Vancouver.
I know writers who follow routines so rigorous that it would make a Swiss rail schedule look unpredictable. They sit at their desks every morning at the same time with the same flavour of tea until they produce the precise number of words as they had the previous day.
Me? I am the polar opposite. I need neither a designated space nor a specific block of time to do my best writing. In fact, often the opposite is true. Two or three unscheduled quiet days can be paralytic to me accomplishing anything, while I might do my best writing in the midst of my most hectic schedule as an ER physician and father of two schoolgirls.
I have no specific routine or ritual to my approach. Sometimes I write daily while other times I take weeks between sentences. I write morning, noon and or night. I can write anywhere. All I need are ideas and a keyboard, but I never set out to reach a certain word count or number of pages in any one session. That is a recipe for disappointment.
What inspires me most when tackling a new manuscript? Momentum. I am very cognizant how important those first pages and chapters are to the success of a novel, however, I know from bitter experience that I can over-polish a rough gem of an idea down to a nub of nothingness. So I try to turn off that self-editor and allow the story to carry me.
When I feel the story taking shape, hear my characters voices and can envision a shadow of the finish line, those are the conditions—regardless of my surroundings or my schedule—under which I write best!
LAURA BOUDREAU is the author of Suitable Precautions, a collection of short fiction. She lives in London, England.
Overcast, sixty percent probability of precipitation, thirteen degrees Celsius, low barometric pressure...
Actually, weather and seasons do have a significant effect on my productivity. Summer is basically a bust. I’m a sucker for barbecues and patios and beaches and bike rides. Staying inside, alone, with a computer doesn’t win out very often, and when I try to force it, it doesn’t work. I once took a summer off in order to write — it wound up being hotter in Toronto than in Baghdad, and my writing afternoons slowly disintegrated into me watching reruns of Law & Order and then falling asleep on the couch. Give me the bright, crisp days of autumn and I’ll hunker down and start squirreling stories away for winter.
I’d say solitude helps, provided it doesn’t cross over into loneliness. When I lived in Zurich, I spent so much time alone that it started to eat at me. I’d have to psych myself up to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy and interact with people. Then — surprise, surprise — all my characters started hiding out, trying to psych themselves up to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy. It got weird.
Which is another way of saying that I need a community. I’m a relative newcomer to London, and so I’m still trying to figure out where the bookish people are, what they do, and how I can buy a ticket to join. I’ve found writing workshops (and the deadlines and egos and wine they inevitably entail) extremely helpful at different times in my career, but now I’m looking for something different: I think one trusted literary mind with an extremely sensitive bullshit detector would about do it.
In practical terms, here are the key elements that make for ideal writing conditions, at least for me:
- Computer — one I can disconnect from the internet, if I am disciplined enough.
- Quiet — I like working at home. If I play music, it’s instrumental only.
- Snacks — sometimes I get hungry.
- Cat — excellent for keeping the keyboard warm, and for non-verbal company.
- Large chunk of uninterrupted time — five hours is ideal.
- Sunny window — for daydreaming, and fresh air.
- Mega-huge advance from publisher — I haven’t had the opportunity to try this one out, but I’m pretty sure it would help.
Read past editions of Fiction Craft:
September 2011: What is your relationship like with your characters?
August 2011: How do you tackle revision of your work?
July 2011: How do you approach research for your fiction?
Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the e-book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.
Follow Shaun on Twitter.