When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for twenty minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always twenty minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you’ve already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.
In her new book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood poses three questions to herself and other novelists: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? And where does it come from?
Mr. McEwan answered them in quick succession: “I think you could only do it for yourself under the assumption that if you like it, someone else might like it, too. Why do it? I think it’s impossible not to. Not to write seems to me to be a gross rebuke of the gift of consciousness. Where does it come from? You have to dig fairly deeply and relax your control of it … [Fiction] is a random, associative business, just the white noise of daydreaming thought.”
Roxana Robinson describes how she prepares to write in the morning.
In my study, I set the mug next to my writing chair, across the room from my desk. My computer is at my desk, connected to the internet by a short thick blue cable. I unplug the cable and carry the laptop to my writing chair, where the blue cable does not reach. I sit down, free from the endless electronic niggling of the internet. My computer is now empty of anyone’s thoughts but my own.
Sometimes I read a bit, to enter into a sensibility that’s useful for whatever I’m working on. I read “The Journals of John Cheever” while I wrote “This Is My Daughter.” I read “Anna Karenina” while I wrote “Sweetwater.” I read “The Hours” while I wrote “Cost.” I read “Atonement” while I was writing “Sparta.” I came to know those books very well. I could open them anywhere and know the passage. I broke the spine of Atonement, though I only read one section of it, over and over.
I read a page or two, then close the book.
This is the moment. On a good day I’m now where I need to be, still in that deep dreaming place, where I can listen.
Stephen King included Defending Jacob on his list of “the best books I read in 2012,” in Entertainment Weekly, calling it “the best crime-and-courtroom drama in years.” Very cool.
If that isn’t surreal enough for you, Google’s Zeitgeist 2012 list placed the book at #5 and its author #2 among trending search terms for U.S. books and authors, that is, “search queries with the highest amount of traffic over a sustained period in 2012 as compared to 2011.” Mom, is that you Googling me over and over?
The town of Sharon, Massachusetts, chose Defending Jacob for its annual “One Book, One Town” program, which means everyone in town will read the book or face criminal prosecution. Or something. (I will be visiting Sharon as part of the event on Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm at the Sharon Middle School.)
And just for fun, my favorite pull-quote from a review: “I am so in love with this book, I would marry it if it asked me.” Now that belongs on the cover of the paperback.
The mass-market paperback edition of Defending Jacob goes on sale February 26. The trade paperback edition (the larger paperback format) is coming in a few more months.
As ever, thanks to all of you for sticking with me. Happy 2013!
I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.
In his 1988 book of essays, Prepared for the Worst, Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.
The desire to matter as much as we once did to our mother is at the broken heart of all narcissistic endeavour, whether it’s writing novels, tweeting or carrying the right kind of handbag. Writing fiction is the symptom of many psychological distortions — a terror of mortality among them — the most poignant of which is a longing for perfect recognition, perfect understanding. This is the illusion hovering at the end of every painstakingly edited line. There was a time when Franzen’s mother imitated his “wuh” sound, mimicked his O-shaped gape, as if it was a work of genius, as if it mattered to the culture. The secret motivation of even the most gifted writer may be to enjoy this again — this is our blueprint for the experience of mattering — and “writer’s block” is perhaps a fancy way of describing the moments in which this seems impossible.
It is now 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying that the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there will never be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost.
One of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease. And that disease — I’ve seen other people get it, too — it’s the disease of thinking that having a great idea is really ninety percent of the work. And if you just tell people, “Here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen. The problem with that is that there’s a tremendous amount of craftsmanship between having a great idea and having a great product.