writing life

Gay Talese on Writer’s Block

This is exactly how I feel.

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Theories of procrastination



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If it’s hard, why do it?

Hard Things

This graphic, from a story in the Times the other day, pretty well captures the appeal of novel-writing for me. You do it precisely because it’s difficult.

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The procrastination muse

A visit from the procrastination muse


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The Writer’s Anxiety

No matter how many awards you’ve won or how many sales you’ve got, come the next book it’s still a blank sheet of paper and you’re still panicking like hell that you’ve got nothing new to say. I still panic that the ideas aren’t going to come, it’s not going to be as good as my previous book, I’ve got nothing new to say, people are fed up with me, younger writers are doing better work. There are all kinds of fears that keep pushing at you. Thank God, otherwise you’d just sit back and write any old crap.

Ian Rankin

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How you comin’ on that novel?

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Tweet of the Day

Alain de Botton tweet

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Harlan Ellison: Pay the Writer!

Wonder what Harlan Ellison thinks of writers’ blogs. If only there were someone willing to pay me for every word I write. (And yes, I get the irony: I didn’t pay Harlan Ellison for reposting this clip. But then, you didn’t pay to watch it, either.)

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The Patron Saint of Writers

I am heartened to learn there is a patron saint of writers, St. Francis de Sales. I suspect I am not the sort of writer St. Francis watches out for (atheist, lapsed Jew, author of wicked books). Nevertheless, in a pinch I may send up a prayer or two, just in case. No atheists in a foxhole.

Image: an 1867 medal of St. Francis de Sales (via).

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Why do writers like working in coffee shops?

Writers love to work in coffee shops, and I am no exception. I can’t imagine how many gallons of coffee I have consumed over the years in order to pay the “rent” for a seat at Starbucks. And yes, for writing I prefer Starbucks, in all its antiseptic corporate blandness, to funkier indie coffee shops. Probably I prefer it because of its antiseptic corporate blandness. I feel less distracted, better able to blend in there. I do have a home office but I am not very productive there and I tend to avoid it. So I spend my days traipsing from coffee shops to libraries, usually the Boston Public Library in Copley Square or the Athenaeum on Beacon Hill. I am most productive in coffee shops, though, a fact I am vaguely embarrassed to admit.

But what is it, exactly, about a bustling cafe that is conducive to writing? Conor Friedersdorf rounds up a few theories. Here is my favorite, which Friedersdorf quotes from an academic paper:

…when we are alone in a public place, we have a fear of “having no purpose.” If we are in a public place and it looks like we have no business there, it may not seem socially appropriate. In coffee-shops it is okay to be there to drink coffee but loitering is definitely not allowed by coffee-shop owners, so coffee-shop patrons deploy different methods to look “busy.” Being disengaged is our big social fear, especially in public spaces, and people try to cover their “being there” with an acceptable visible activity.

That is, we writers are such hopeless procrastinators that we will only get down to work when our natural inability to focus is outweighed by something even more unpleasant: the fear of being exposed as a procrastinator, the potential embarrassment of looking like we “have no purpose” — the fear of being exposed as a fraud. We go to coffee shops to work in public because we want to feel those eyes watching us, shaming us into work. The advent of wi-fi at coffee shops largely short-circuits this strategy by allowing writers to look busy from a distance when in fact all we are doing is surfing the web. Still, it gives us a fighting chance in the war against our own worst instincts.

Fast Fish and Loose Fish

Barry Moser, "Head of the Sperm Whale"

In a famous chapter of Moby Dick, Melville explains the law governing ownership of whales at sea.

It frequently happens that when several ships are cruising in company, a whale may be struck by one vessel, then escape, and be finally killed and captured by another vessel; and herein are indirectly comprised many minor contingencies, all partaking of this one grand feature. For example,— after a weary and perilous chase and capture of a whale, the body may get loose from the ship by reason of a violent storm; and drifting far away to leeward, be retaken by a second whaler, who, in a calm, snugly tows it alongside, without risk of life or line. Thus the most vexatious and violent disputes would often arise between the fishermen, were there not some written or unwritten, universal, undisputed law applicable to all cases.…

I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

…What is a Fast-Fish? Alive or dead a fish is technically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants,— a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same. Likewise a fish is technically fast when it bears a waif [ed. note: a pole stuck into the floating body of a dead whale as a marker], or any other recognized symbol of possession; so long as the party wailing it plainly evince their ability at any time to take it alongside, as well as their intention so to do.

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In Between Days

Productive novelists hurry from one project to the next. Lee Child has said that the moment he types the last sentence of a book, he immediately writes the first few sentences of the next one. That manic pace is partly a function of the book-a-year schedule that top-sellers like Lee have to maintain. As a practical matter, if you intend to deliver a book every twelve months, there just isn’t time to slow down between projects.

But there is something else, too. The doldrums between books is a dangerous, depressing time for a writer. In an interview I posted here a long time ago, Philip Roth said, “Without a novel I’m empty. I’m empty and not very happy.” I have that bereft feeling now.

I sent off my last book to my editor a few weeks ago. Since then, I have been trying to assemble the first stirrings of the next book, all the notes, clippings and research, all the vague notions that I have been collecting for the project over the years. These scraps don’t mean much. When I look them over now, they don’t cohere. Whatever glimmer of inspiration I saw in them is long gone. But I keep organizing my old notes, studying them, rereading them, because they are the only clues I have about what this dim intuition in my head is leading to. Also, honestly, I don’t know what else to do. How, exactly, do I go about finding the story in all this mess?

How to start a new book is an especially fraught subject for me. I have had long gaps after each of my novels, which has hurt me commercially. My first English publisher, Transworld, dropped me because I was not “writing regularly.” But the problem has not been slow writing. The problem has been projects that were badly chosen, badly planned, or simply abandoned too soon — healthy babes smothered to death in the crib. I have learned the hard way how crucial this inception stage really is. Choose the wrong story or build the right story the wrong way, and you may wind up writing yourself into a corner or (every writer’s nightmare) abandoning a half-finished manuscript. The time-penalty for a mistake like that is measured in months, even years.

So I want to move quickly this time, but I do not want to make a mistake. Hesitation is fatal, but lack of hesitation can be, too. The trick, as John Wooden put it, is to “move quickly but don’t rush.”

In the meantime, tonight is New Years Eve. The clock will be ticking especially loudly for me.

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This video made the rounds on the web a while ago, when Converse announced the latest reinterpretation of its sneakers by designer Ryusaku Hiruma, but I only discovered it the other day.

Fashion clod that I am, I had never heard of Hiruma or his Converse shoes. For the uninitiated: Ryusaku “Sak” Hiruma is a Japanese designer who has been studying traditional shoemaking techniques in Florence for almost a decade. Over the last few years, Sak has applied old-world craft to produce chic, luxurious handmade versions of Converse’s classic Jack Purcell, Chuck Taylor, and One Star models. The latest Sak/Converse shoe, a design based on an old basketball shoe called the Star Tech, features fine leather and hand-stitching throughout. Only 64 pairs will be made, in natural shades of tan, off-white and black leather. Retailing for $600, they will be available only in New York, Boston, and Costa Mesa. (Costa Mesa?) If you’re into shoe porn, details are here and here.

I loved this video. I found it oddly touching and romantic, not just for Sak’s dedication to craft and tradition but for personal reasons. My own family was in the shoe business for several generations. Growing up, I assumed I would be too. There were no writers or artists of any kind in my family or anywhere else in my world. Even now I think I might have been very happy making shoes.

Maybe that is why I have a nagging sense that, as a writer, I don’t really “make” anything. A book is an ethereal creation, a non-object. It exists as a chain of words, separate and apart from the paper-and-ink thing we call by that name. Book publishing is only now transitioning to digital, permanently alienating the idea of a “book” from a physical object, but writing made the leap decades ago. In my own daily working life, paper plays no part. Over the two years or so it takes me to produce a novel, I never print out a hard-copy manuscript. And when I am done, I simply email a digital file to my editor. There is no object to hold, really, until I receive bound copies from the publisher, long after the writing is done. Even then, the physical books do not feel like my creation. Only the words do.

Contrast that with the intensely physical world of traditional shoemaking in this video. The materials are so lush and sensuous. Even the tools have a gorgeous patina. That the shoemaker’s artistry is lavished on such a low, practical object — when you step in shit, it is not your hat that is ruined — only makes the concrete physicality of the whole thing that much more real and authentic. Only 64 pairs of these shoes will be made, and Hiruma will touch every one with his own hands. And, poignantly, every one one of those shoes will wear out.

Novels, of course, are theoretically immortal precisely because they are insubstantial. My books can be reprinted and rescreened into infinity, and each copy is no less my creation than any other. Maybe that is what makes the shoemaker’s art so poignant to a writer: he cannot give you his creation without surrendering it himself.

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Voices in Our Heads

This afternoon at a crowded Starbucks in Back Bay — where I was writing furiously to finish my latest rewrite while gorging myself with pumpkin scones — there was a homeless man sitting alone in one of the burgundy plush chairs. He had the typical homeless look: scraggly hair, sunken eyes, windburned skin, ragged army jacket, patinaed head to toe with dirt. But he was also handsome in a down-and-out way. He had a thin face with dignified features. His nose was as narrow as a shark’s fin. When he smiled, his teeth were very straight and white. There were laugh lines around his eyes and mouth which, if he were a banker or lawyer, would have seemed very distinguished.

This man was carrying on an animated conversation with an imaginary friend, who seemed to be sitting by the man’s left knee. The man would turn to his invisible friend and say, “It was a gentleman’s agreement.… Spartacus was the leader of the Anatolians.… It was Johnson was the leader then.… I told him, ‘Don’t do it,’ but he wouldn’t listen.” As I was only hearing half of the conversation, I can’t say what tied these sentences together. He kept repeating the phrase “it was a gentleman’s agreement” over and over; he seemed to be telling his friend a story about how he’d been stiffed somehow. (What part Spartacus and his brave Anatolians played in the whole thing is anybody’s guess.)

What set this man apart from the usual crazy, murmuring homeless guy was how well he acted the part of a man in conversation. He listened attentively while his imaginary friend spoke. He nodded and smiled. When his friend made a joke (apparently), he pointed and grinned appreciatively: good one. He spoke in an ordinary, natural conversational tone, with the sort of expressive gesturing you see in a lot of hand-talkers. And he did all this without acknowledging the crowd of customers on every side of him.

I watched this performance furtively, avoiding eye contact, ducking down behind my laptop, and I thought, How sad, a crazy homeless guy talking to himself.

Then it occurred to me that I was writing dialogue, too. Specifically, I was imagining a conversation among four fictional characters, all of whom I have described in elaborate, fastidious, lunatic detail over the course of five hundred or so double-spaced pages, a project that has taken me the better part of three years now.

Then the homeless man left, and I was the only crazy one.

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It’s All Been Done

For a crime-novel writer of any quality or ambition — for a serious writer working in any genre, I imagine — there is always the little voice whispering, “It’s all been done.” How can you possibly produce, say, a courtroom drama that is original, fresh, unpredictable when there have been ten thousand courtroom dramas already written? (And that doesn’t count the endless loop of “Law & Order” reruns on basic cable.) The ten-thousand-and-first, no matter how clever or well crafted, will inevitably feel derivative, formulaic, small.

On the other hand, writers choose to work in a genre for good reasons. I write crime stories because, first, the situations are dramatic and emotionally resonant (“bad men do what good men dream”). Storytellers need drama; crime stories have it in spades. But I also like writing crime stories because they come with a ready-made shape. A murder mystery will proceed, one way or another, from the crime to the unmasking of the criminal; a courtroom drama from indictment to trial to verdict; a heist from the planning to the robbery to the escape (or failure to escape). You can play around with these formulas as much as you like, but the formulas are there and that is no small thing when you are staring at a blank computer screen. (There is another, more obvious advantage to writing genre novels, of course: people actually read them. But we’re talking about an artistic problem here, not a commercial one.)

So that is the bargain. And the little voice whispering “It’s all been done” generally doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, I find the conventions of the genre stimulating. Twice now, I’ve had a fine time playing with the tropes of police procedurals, subverting them in my first novel (“no unreliable narrators!”) and taking them out for a spin in a strange new neighborhood (Boston in the Strangler era) in my second. All been done? Well, let’s do it again, in a new way.

In fact, I try quite consciously to find a “precursor text” for all my books, that is, a book or film (usually several) that will give shape to the story I am trying to tell, particularly in the early stages of writing when the story is still unformed.* You don’t have to dig too deeply in The Strangler, for example, to see the influence of L.A. Confidential. All writers do this, with varying degrees of awareness. How could any writer not be influenced by the books he has read and loved? Even using the term “precursor text” to describe the practice is something I borrowed from one of my betters, novelist David Lodge, who always identifies a precursor for his novels.

But with book three, for some reason I listened to that little voice too much. I let the genre novelist’s insecurity get to me. The book is, in the end, a courtroom drama. It is narrated by a man whose teenage son is accused of killing a classmate, and the centerpiece of the novel is the boy’s trial. The trouble was, when it came to writing the critical courtroom section of the book, I was too determined to avoid cliché, to write a courtroom drama utterly unlike any of the ten thousand that have come before — a fool’s errand, but then it’s easy to make a fool of yourself in this business. So out went the usual pre-trial strategy talks. Out went the tried and true good-cop-bad-cop interrogation of the defendant. Out went the dramatic parade into the courtroom for the arraignment. Any scene that felt remotely secondhand was cut or truncated.

Monday I heard from my editor that this section of the manuscript needs a rewrite to restore at least some of these conventional scenes. After I had ruthlessly excised every scene that had ever appeared in a legal novel, she suggested, there just wasn’t enough drama or mystery left. The storytelling was fresh and innovative, yes. It just wasn’t very compelling.

It ought to have been devastating news. This is the third or fourth major rewrite of the manuscript (I’ve lost count). And of course I was disappointed. The trial sequence ought to have been the most sure-footed part of the book. As a former trial lawyer, it’s what I know best. Worse, I had resisted making these very changes in previous rewrites.

But I see now, after taking a day or two to wrap my brain around the problem, that my editor was right. The formulas work. Subvert them, twist them, depart from them by all means. Be daring and original. But remember that story comes first. It is a mistake to sacrifice good storytelling to some abstract conception of immaculate originality. It has all been done, it’s true. The trick, so late in the life of the genre, is to innovate just enough — make it new, but keep what works.

Another rewrite. So it goes.

* Note to the book-nerds out there: Yes, yes, I know, the term “precursor text” is borrowed from Harold Bloom and I’m not using it properly. Obviously I am talking about a purposeful, self-aware sort of borrowing, which is not the “anxiety of influence” that Bloom means. The term is a useful descriptor, though, and I’ve been using it this way for years in plotting my books. No emails, please, about what a boob I am to have misappropriated it. Emails calling me a boob for other reasons are of course always welcome.

Vita Brevis, Ars Brevior


Last night I watched The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the 1965 film version of le Carré’s novel. The movie is very good — not quite great, but very good. It does a lot of things well. It is beautifully shot, with an elegant gray palette and wonderfully dingy sets. It is well written. Even at 112 minutes long, the plotting is tight and the dialogue is generally rich and credible. (Le Carré himself added some polish to the screenplay.) The acting is terrific. Richard Burton and Claire Bloom shine in the lead roles, of course, but the cast is filled out with obscure actors in supporting roles who are just as good, especially Cyril Cusack as the spymaster “Control” in London, and Oskar Werner as an East German intelligence officer named Fiedler. The whole thing plays like a watered-down version of The Third Man — which I mean as high praise, actually. You could do a lot worse than The Third Man Lite. I came away thinking that TSWCIFTC sits somewhere in that range of movies that are much better than average yet not good enough (or lucky enough) to last. I have no doubt it was one of the best movies of 1965; now it is almost completely forgotten.

To an artist, that is a queasy thought. Ars longa, vita brevis, we like to think. Life is short, art endures.* But the truth is, the vast majority of the art that gets churned up every year — movies, music, literature, pictures, dance, all of it — is about as brevis as you can get. It perishes almost immediately. Even very, very good work like this movie is quickly buried in the endless avalanche of newer creations.

This is no great insight. Every writer knows that ars longa, vita brevis is a vanity. You have only to walk through the endless dusty, abandoned stacks of a library to realize how quickly books are forgotten, even very good books. (Dr. Johnson pointed this out long ago.) Only an infinitesimal percentage of books remain current for any length of time. The rest die by the millions. Ars longa, my ass.

The good news is that, from the audience’s perspective, the reservoir of good art is vastly deeper than we tend to think, especially now, when the long-tail economy of the digiverse makes even the most recherché obscurities quite easy to obtain. If you scratch below the surface even a little bit, there are lots of forgotten jewels like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. That is a fact I will do my best to ignore when I sit down to work.

* Yes, I know that is not a completely accurate translation of ars longa, vita brevis, but it is how the phrase is generally understood today.

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The Sawyer Effect

From Jonah Lehrer, an illustration of the power of intrinsic motivation — the desire to do a thing because you enjoy it, rather than for any extrinsic reward like a paycheck:

Scientists have recognized the importance of intrinsic motivation for decades. In the 1970s, Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett conducted a classic study on preschoolers who liked to draw. They divided the kids into three groups. The first group of kids was told that they’d get a reward — a nice blue ribbon with their name on it — if they continued to draw. The second group wasn’t told about the rewards but was given a blue ribbon after drawing. (This was the “unexpected reward” condition.) Finally, the third group was the “no award” condition. They weren’t even told about the blue ribbons.

After two weeks of reinforcement, the scientists observed the preschoolers during a typical period of free play. Here’s where the results get interesting: The kids in the “no award” and “unexpected award” conditions kept on drawing with the same enthusiasm as before. Their behavior was unchanged. In contrast, the preschoolers in the “award” group now showed much less interest in the activity. Instead of drawing, they played with blocks, or took a nap, or went outside. The reason was that their intrinsic motivation to draw had been contaminated by blue ribbons; the extrinsic reward had diminished the pleasure of playing with crayons and paper. (Daniel Pink, in his excellent book Drive, refers to this as the “Sawyer Effect.”)

Pink defines the Sawyer Effect as “practices that can either turn play into work or work into play,” after Tom Sawyer, who tricked his friends into painting a fence for him by convincing them it was fun.

This week I am faced with yet another rewrite of my book, to answer more concerns raised by my editors — an entirely extrinsic motivation, with all that connotes. I’d rather be playing with blocks or taking a nap.

A Writer on Monday Morning

Buzz Bissinger — who has a Pulitzer Prize and a smash book, Friday Night Lights, to his credit — was in a low mood when he sat down to work Monday morning. At 9:29, he tweeted:

My last book with LeBron was shit. I know that. All writers only have a finite amount in the tank. Every day — the fear you have run dry.

This was followed by a series of tweets, each separated by two or three minutes.

I wrote Friday Night Lights when I was 33. I am now 55. Haunts me every day. Best thing that ever happened. Worse thing that ever happened. [9:31]

When people call me over-the-hill I react with profane defensiveness. But maybe it is true. It crawls into my head every minute, every day. [9:33]

I have a beautiful book on my hands about my son. I can barely write a sentence w/o crippling self-doubt. i get encouragement — turn it off. [9:35]

I am angry. I do hate bullshit. But maybe I am the biggest bullshitter of all, passing judgment on those who still do. Am I caricature? [9:38]

It isn’t self-pity writers feel. It is fear that what you did was accidental, luck, no more words left. Only to escape it seems was Updike. [9:43]

At 9:51, pulling out of it, he tweeted,

Writing is a matter of confidence, like any creative act. You gain it, you lose it, you gain it, you lose it. No better high. No worse low.

And five minutes later, after he’d apparently received some encouragement from other Twitterers, he concluded,

Enough. Your support means a tremendous amount to me. And as some have said, pull up your socks and get back to work.

I haven’t accomplished anything like what Bissinger has, but I have felt all these doubts, every single one. Most writers do. Probably most creative artists of all kinds do. In a weird way, it is reassuring to hear someone so accomplished cop to it.

A strange benefit of the real-time web: the ease of broadcasting confessions like these in the false intimacy of a lonely office allows writers to peek over each other’s shoulders.

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Starting Over

Tuesday I got the very good news from my editor, Kate, that my manuscript is finally finished — “nailed,” in her word. For those of you who have been following the stuttering process of bringing this book to completion, you will recall that I have reached the finish line several times before, only to have the manuscript returned to me for more changes. For the last month or so, I have been making a last round of corrections. The ending was particularly troublesome. I completely rewrote it several times, not to change the story but to fine-tune the storytelling. This time it really is done.

There remains just one nut to crack: the book still does not have a title. In my desperation, a couple weeks ago I took a very unscientific poll of my friends and family to pick among the likeliest candidates. The winner in a landslide was “Line of Descent,” a title my editor has already judged insufficiently attention-grabbing. At this point I admit I have lost interest in the whole subject. My publishers can call the damn thing whatever they want. I’m sick of thinking about it. In my own mind I have already moved on to the next project.

So what is the next project? That is not entirely clear to me yet. Here is what I do know.

I want to write about the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, in the bicentennial year of 1976, an epochal moment in Boston. I have wanted to set a story there for a long time. I have written about the Zone before. A few years ago, I even tried to sell Kate on a novel set there. She did not buy it, and I wound up scavenging the proposed novel for the bones of a story that ultimately became my just-completed novel. (Lord, it would be easier to talk about that book if it had a name.)

Why the Combat Zone? There are a few signature Boston crime stories: the Strangler, the Combat Zone, the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger, the pedophile priests scandal. To me, it always seemed like bullshit that local writers kept churning out generic hard-boiled detective stories that had nothing to do with the real Boston when these true, epic stories were hanging there, ripe for the taking. Imagine the audacity of the Combat Zone experiment: in order to contain an intractable, spreading trade in prostitution and adult entertainment, Boston created a lawless zone — a sort of mini Tombstone or Dodge City — right in the heart of downtown. What writer could resist that?

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Writing Is Play

“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression,” says Dr. Stuart Brown in this TED presentation on the importance of play. (The quote seems to originate with Brian Sutton-Smith.) I ran across this epigram yesterday in a blog post by Garr Reynolds called “The Secret to Great Work Is Great Play,” and a light bulb flashed on in my head.

I have been in an unproductive loop lately. About six weeks ago I submitted the manuscript for my third book. My editor loved the pages (the book will be released as a Random House “lead fiction” title, whatever that means) but, as always, she requested changes. I agreed with all her recommendations and was determined to finish the rewrites as quickly as possible. But the process has dragged on.

Why? Maybe I have been staring at the same project too long. I’m bored, ready to move on to a new book. Or maybe it’s the usual completion anxiety — the apprehensiveness that comes with releasing a manuscript out into the world, where its many flaws will surely be exposed.

Whatever the reason, a familiar vicious cycle has set in: the harder it is to write, the more I dread writing; the more I dread it, the harder it is to do. Mule that I am, I have responded to this dilemma the only way I know how — by working harder and harder and harder. But pulling the rope only makes the knot tighter.

So it was useful to be reminded that fiction-writing is a form of play — imaginative play. Which is not to say it is easy. Obviously it is not. But many kinds of play are not easy (weightlifting, crossword puzzles, classical piano). I have been writing for pleasure a lot longer than I have been doing it for money, but somehow the last few weeks I allowed my life’s passion to become drudgework. You cannot create that way. You have to relax. You have to bring a sense of play to your work. You have to enjoy the story you are creating even as you create it, because if it feels like drudgework to the writer, imagine how it will feel to the reader.

Image: My son Henry shows me how it’s done.

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