Posted by: oneyearbook | November 29, 2009

How to

So I’m a bit behind on this – this article has been making the rounds of the Internet in a flurry for the last couple weeks – but I just got around to reading it recently so it’s still fresh for me.

I really like reading about how writers do what they do; my favorite part of short story anthologies is the bit in the back where the writers talk about the process for that particular story. (And if anthologies don’t have that it makes me sad.) So the article’s like that times a whole career instead of just one story which is fun.


Idiosyncratic methods – Nicholson Baker has a series of highly entertaining methods for writing: first he’s talking into a voice recorder, then he’s growing a beard and videotaping himself rambling for 40 hours. I like this sort of dedication to finding a unique process. I also like his beard. Richard Powers writes while lying down and talking into voice recognition software. John Wray wrote Lowboy while riding the subway in New York constantly. Perhaps I should get into my island setting by riding the ferry? Too similar? Maybe I should write out in the woods, or in a farm field, or a barn. A barn actually doesn’t sound too bad. One of my characters lives in a barn.

Surprising number of people – Orhan Pamuk, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Dan Chaon, Amitav Gosh, Russell Banks, Edwidge Danticat – were specifically described as writing first drafts by hand. Is it meaningful that they are almost all men? Only Danticat among the women that I noted mentioned longhand writing. I tried writing by hand the other day. I went to the library, which has no plug for my laptop. I wrote about four sentences, realized that I couldn’t really read what a couple of the words said, and went home again. Anyone who’s ever seen my handwriting knows why serious longhand writing would be a disaster for me. As a reporter I always had to transcribe my interviews immediately or risk losing 50 per cent of the words.

Failures: lots of talk about failure, about manuscripts that didn’t work. Kate Christensen has apparently had to throw out whole drafts of four novels; Margaret Atwood has abandoned two books partway in; Junot Diaz threw out 600 pages of Oscar Wao before really getting going. This makes me feel better.

Dan Chaon says: “I used to think my average as a short story writer was one completed story out of every 20.” This, also, makes me feel better.

What will I say if I am ever famous and asked to contribute to one of these? Unfortunately I think my methods, which involve sitting in a chair with a laptop computer, do not make for entertaining reading. Maybe I will make something up and pretend that I write in a zero-gravity chamber or something.


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