Routines and writer’s block
One day a few years ago, during my most transformative year to date, I sat down at the kitchen table to write an important story. I had checked all my emails, arranged the papers to my left and right, cleared my mind and opened a new Word document. I drummed a pen against my temple. Nothing. I took a sip of coffee, set my mug off to the side. I had done my research and made all the relevant phone calls. All of my notes were open. Ready? OK. Go.
At some point during this dance, I began Googling “writer’s block.” And then I saw it. Among all the advice and lists, there was Ernest Hemingway, brilliant and simple — “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
When it’s time to write and I get distracted with emails, with conversations, with getting comfortable in my seat or tilting my laptop screen at just the right angle I go right back to Hemingway and I’m cured. I start to write and it is simple and it is good.
I’m reminded of my Hemingway trick to cure writer’s block by this interesting look at the daily routines of famous writers. A blogger and aspiring novelist linked to it the other day, and I found myself particularly struck by the habits of E.B. White and Joan Didion.
Here is White:
“I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
And here is beautiful Joan, in a 1968 interview:
“I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.”