Ted Hughes on the ideal place for writing

 

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James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat – and composed Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. Conrad Aiken worked at a refectory table in the dining room; Robert Graves wrote in a room furnished only with objects made by hand. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up; D. H. Lawrence under a tree. Nathalie Sarraute chose to write in a neighborhood café, at the same time, and same table, every morning. “It is a neutral place,” she said, “and no one disturbs me – there is no telephone.”

The variety of spaces within which writers choose to practice their art is as infinite as the different styles they write in and plots they pen. Some writers prefer company and background noise, while others need isolation – even seeking out loneliness to better enhance their work. Some need the magical monotony of sameness, and others the inspiration of variety.

But are there any qualities that these ‘creative safe spaces’ have in common, beyond the superficial differences of location or appearance?

Just as certain spaces seem to lend themselves to the art of reading, providing a near perfect sanctuary for doing so, so too, perhaps, do some places seem ideally suited to the act of writing. Or, at least, perhaps there are shared characteristics of places that provide necessary elements conducive to the act of writing and creative expression.

This is the subject of a fascinating hypothesis from Ted Hughes, one of the true giants of 20th century British poetry, which he discusses during an interview with the Paris Review.

Asked whether he has a favourite place to write, Hughes embarks on a wonderfully enlightening and thoughtful off-the-cuff verbal essay on writing spaces, and whether it is possible for writers to write anywhere, or if there are certain elements that are required to make a place suitable to practice one’s chosen art. He says:

“Hotel rooms are good. Railway compartments are good. I’ve had several huts of one sort or another. Ever since I began to write with a purpose I’ve been looking for the ideal place. I think most writers go through it. I’ve known several who liked to treat it as a job—writing in some office well away from home, going there regular hours. Sylvia had a friend, a novelist, who used to leave her grand house and go into downtown Boston to a tiny room with a table and chair where she wrote facing a blank wall. Didn’t Somerset Maugham also write facing a blank wall?

Subtle distraction is the enemy—a big beautiful view, the tide going in and out. Of course, you think it oughtn’t to matter, and sometimes it doesn’t. Several of my favourite pieces in my book Crow I wrote travelling up and down Germany with a woman and small child—I just went on writing wherever we were.”

Musing on the idea that solitude is crucial for writing, Hughes considers whether loneliness is something writers are drawn to, or if this is something writers can con themselves into thinking:

“Goethe couldn’t write a line if there was another person anywhere in the same house, or so he said at some point. I’ve tried to test it on myself, and my feeling is that your sense of being concentrated can deceive you. Writing in what seems to be a happy concentrated way, in a room in your own house with books and everything necessary to your life around you, produces something noticeably different, I think, from writing in some empty silent place far away from all that. Because however we concentrate, we remain aware at some level of everything around us. Fast asleep, we keep track of the time to the second. The person conversing at one end of a long table quite unconsciously uses the same unusual words, within a second or two, as the person conversing with somebody else at the other end—though they’re amazed to learn they’ve done it.”

Intriguingly, Hughes suggests that the content we are writing, and the form and style in which we write, may be intrinsically linked to the location base ourselves when we come to begin writing. Different places provide for different atmospheres, which lend themselves to different feelings and different levels of concentration. He says:

“Different kinds of writing need different kinds of concentration. Goethe, picking up a transmission from the other side of his mind, from beyond his usual mind, needs different tuning than Enoch Powell when he writes a speech. Brain rhythms would show us what’s going on, I expect. But for me successful writing has usually been a case of having found good conditions for real, effortless concentration. When I was living in Boston, in my late twenties, I was so conscious of this that at one point I covered the windows with brown paper to blank out any view and wore earplugs—simply to isolate myself from distraction. That’s how I worked for a year. When I came back to England, I think the best place I found in that first year or two was a tiny cubicle at the top of the stairs that was no bigger than a table really. But it was a wonderful place to write. I mean, I can see now, by what I wrote there, that it was a good place. At the time it just seemed like a convenient place.”

Of course, finding a suitable creative space to write is only part of the struggle. Indeed, the challenges facing writers today mean that, to a very real extent, all books are written against impossible odds. Yet it seems undeniable that certain writers need certain spaces in which to write. So, what spaces do you require? Do you  choose coffee shops and public spaces, or secluded spaces and secrecy? Can you write wherever you feel relaxed, or do you need specific conditions, with everything adjusted just so – following the style of Virginia Woolf, for instance, who spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar?

In short: where do you write, and why do you write there? Share your ideas for the ideal places for writing in the comments below!

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On writing: the daily word counts of famous authors

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Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to a close family friend and aspiring young writer: “nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one”. It takes time, and effort. You have to put the hours in. You have to actually, well, write (surprising, huh?).

We’ve previously asked whether there is such a thing as the ‘perfect’ daily routine for writing. But if there is no such thing as an average writing day, is there any guidance on how much you should be at least aiming to write as you start to pen that epic poem or finally look to finish that novel you’ve been working on?

R.F. Delderfield, the English author of family sagas, wrote 33 pages each day, and he wrote until four o’clock in the afternoon. If he finished a novel at three o’clock, he rolled a clean sheet of paper into his typewriter, and began the next novel, and worked until quitting time.  He credited a daily swim in the English Channel for his prodigious output.

Of course, not all of us are R.F. Delderfield. Not all of us write family sagas. And not all of us have ready access to the English Channel for our regular swimming sessions. Indeed, with author’s incomes collapsing to near ‘abject’ levels, many writers are increasingly facing more challenging difficulties in finding the time to meet their word output targets.

So what about other writers? How many words do they (or did they, in some cases) write each day? We’ve put together a list of the daily word counts of 20 famous authors, which you can check out here below.

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Of course, there’s a problem with just taking a writer’s word counts and trying to deduce too much insight from them. The authors in the above list all write in different styles and genres – using different tools and in different conditions from one another. Not all writers monitor their word count – and others would advise against it; after all, the adage ‘quality, not quantity’ is surely rarely more applicable than when used in relation to writing.

Indeed, some writers – who write very well – will produce a great quantity of work that is then stripped back so much that to try and say how many words were actually produced per day over the course of any writing project is nigh impossible. Consider Philip Roth, for example, who said in his interview with the Paris Review that “I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive.”

Or there’s James Joyce, who took seventeen years to write Finnegan’s Wake.

On the point of Joyce, there’s a good Stephen King joke on the subject of his word count:

“A friend came to visit James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): ‘Seven.’

Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.’

Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

This joke echoes the sentiment of a famous story about Gustave Flaubert, in which his bohemian friends stopped by his house one day, and invited him to go out for a few days of debauchery (who wouldn’t?!). Flaubert declined, saying he had to write, so they went off and returned a few days later. (A good solid length of debauching, one would say). “How did your writing go?” they asked once they returned. “Fantastic!” Flaubert replied. “I put the semicolon back in.”

So it’s important to take each of the writer’s word counts with a pinch of salt – in that, just because they are writing x amount of words; it doesn’t mean you should be, too.

With that in mind, it can still be an interesting work of self-evaluation to consider how many words you write each day. Are you as prolific of Crichton or more careful with your words like Hemingway or Dorothy Parker? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Writing against impossible odds – what does your writing day look like?

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‘There is nothing so dangerous to good writing as having too much time, too much liberty. You need the filtration system of being kept from your work,’ so says renown author Maggie O’Farrel. Writing in The Guardian, she says that “the idea that there is a typical ‘writing day’ makes me laugh”.

Here at Nothing in the Rulebook, we’ve previously asked whether there is such a thing as ‘the perfect daily routine’ for writing, examining in the process the writing habits of a number of literary titans. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, stuck to a regimented routine of writing, reading, exercise and general life admin.

But are such routines only available to those writers who are not dependent upon other sources of income? With author’s incomes collapsing to ‘near abject’ levels, many writers, both established or aspiring, must balance the requirements of writing with the rigors of a 9 to 5 job. And while certain literary voices, such as legendary poet Charles Bukowski, can urge you to quit your soul sucking job to pursue your dreams, it’s obviously more easily said than done.

Some writers, such as Willa Cather, have elucidated at great lengths that face writers who must also work regular jobs. But even if you are free of the challenges that face employees in the hurly burly world of the modern capitalist workplace, what of other demands of day-today human existence?

In her article, O’Farrel notes that it is not just about the work than brings in additional income, but also the work of being a mother – and of being a fully functioning social adult in the modern world.

“Life with children precludes such planning, such routine, such predictability. Last week, for example, my writing mornings were disrupted and erased by, in no particular order: the cat being copiously indisposed on sofa and carpet; my daughter drawing a seascape of swimming lions on top of some notes I had made; one child sent home ill from school; and another requiring lifts to and from concert rehearsals.”

The challenges facing writers who wish to establish a regular pattern of writing into their day-to-day lives are steep. As O’Farrell notes: “All books are written against impossible odds”.

And of course this is just on the practical side of things – before we even start to consider some of the more existential challenges writers must grapple with; including the need to “struggle with integrity” as James Baldwin says.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Some practical advice may be to include exercise in your daily routines, as so many creatives do. But perhaps it ultimately comes down to a matter of attitude. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to a close family friend and aspiring young writer: “nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one”. It takes time, and effort – and the struggle to face the challenges of writing and becoming ‘a writer’ is part of what you do when you love something enough, and when you’re drawn to write without question – when the thought of not writing is impossible to contemplate; when not writing becomes more difficult than all the difficulties one must face in trying to write, to express yourself.

These are just the thoughts that spring to mind when reading O’Farrell’s insightful article, which you can read on The Guardian here. So what do you think? Is there such a thing as a typical writing day? If so, what does yours look like? Or what would yours look like in an ideal world? Let us know in the comments below!

The loneliness of the long distance writer

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Studying the daily routines of many famous writers, one is immediately struck by how many rely on physical exercise to support their mental cogitations. Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, favoured long swims at his local municipal pool, accompanied by “doing sit ups and push ups all the time”, while author Tim Leach has prescribed rock climbing as a writing aid, noting how “both writing and rock climbing share a kind of rarefied loneliness”. Countless other writers, meanwhile, have found solace in the hypnotic action of racking up mile after mile in solitary, focused long-distance running.

Louisa May Alcott, for instance, thought she “must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run”. Famous misanthropic satirist, Jonathan Swift, meanwhile, would “run half a mile up and down a hill every two hours” during his 20s, according to Samuel Johnson. Then of course we have the novelist Haruki Murakami, who started running to get healthy and lose weight, but who found in running something essentially important to the mindset of the writer, noting how he felt his “real existence as a serious writer began on the day that I first went jogging.”

So what precisely is it, about running, which seems to lend itself so aptly to the art of writing?

Joyce Carol Oates ascribes the twin activities of running and writing “to keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control”, and notes that she would ease any bouts of writing block with afternoon runs.

Freedom, consciousness and wildness

For Oates and other writers, running is thus a process that proves especially useful for the type of intensive, cloistered work they do. But perhaps it goes beyond that. After all, there seems a natural similarity between the two actions; they complement each other, seeming to be the natural extension of the other. The steady accumulation of miles mirrors the accumulation of words on the page, and both aspire toward a clear finishing line: either the end of the run, or else the end of the novel. Equally, while both are challenging, they can also invoke a sense of joy and elation – heavy physical exercise releases endorphins, while the rush and exhilaration of finding a writing rhythm and flow similarly brings forth feelings of ecstasy (no wonder Vladimir Nabokov described writing as “a drug”).

Both Leach’s “lonely” rock climbing and long distance running, therefore, offer a combination of freedom, consciousness and wildness – an ability for writers to escape their surroundings with a sense of purpose that is necessary for cultivating deep thought, or working out constraints and challenges within their writing.

Running is important to writing, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Perhaps nowhere in literature is this crucial aspect of running captured better than in Adam Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Famously, this work began as two alliterative lines of verse, written by Sillitoe upon being struck by the serene calmness of a young man bedecked in a running vest and shorts trotting past his cottage.

Sillitoe’s short story focuses on Smith – a working class teenager with bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime – who turns to long-distance running as a method of both an emotional and physical escape, and as a means of mental reflection. As he runs and thinks alone, Smith – perhaps inevitably – turns to writing; and it is he who narrates his own story, in a perfect summation of the symbiotic relationship between writing and individual cogitation on notions of ‘the self’ during bouts of solitary exercise.

Expanding consciousness and self-education

This idea is expanded upon by Oates, who in 1972 began keeping a journal to accompany a new-found “compulsive” need to run. She writes: “[Running] is not a respite for the intensity of writing but is a function of writing […] running seems to allow me an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream.”

Don DeLillo echoes such sentiment, as he recalls the transporting effects of running after his morning writing sessions in an interview with The Paris Review: “Running helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle – it’s a nice kind of interlude.”

The solitary exercise of long-distance running seems, in many ways, to be part of self-education – and indeed of self-revelation; just as writing is. This is pointed out by Murakami in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, as he attributes “most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day”. On the one hand, running is about constantly striving for new challenges and fresh goals – competing ever longer distances in the quest for better conditioning of our bodies – and on the other hand it helps us better express how this makes us feel through our words; supporting us in writing as we seek to better condition our minds and souls.

This isn’t simple conjecture based on hearsay from other creatives, either. Indeed, there are an increasing number of scientific studies that show a connection between aerobic exercise – which increases the flow of blood to the brain – and enhanced mental capacity. For example, a study by Oppezzo and Shwartz demonstrated that walking boosts “creative ideation” both in real time and shortly after (though this effect can also be induced by other activities, such as knitting).

Perhaps, then, the perfect daily routine for writing should include both long periods of solitary exercise, followed by periods of writing interspersed with periods set aside for knitting. Or perhaps the clue to the perfect daily routine for writing actually lies in those crucial words “daily routine”. For composition and writing is so rarely sustained by one momentary act of inspiration; but rather by daily perseverance and steady progress.

When creativity flows, it really flows; just like an invigorating run where you finally “hit your stride” – and it is no coincidence that this same phrase is used by writers and runners alike to describe the moment when work becomes joy.

But of course, simply running regularly will not be enough on its own to invoke the muse of creativity. It is not necessarily an instant cure for writer’s block. Yet it is through the same effort, determination and repetition of the act necessary to perfect the running process and push ourselves toward our long-distance goals that we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.

In a 2004 interview with Runner’s World, Murakami sums this up pretty succinctly:

“The most important qualities to be a writer are probably imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus. But in order to maintain these qualities in a high and constant level, you must never neglect to keep up your physical strength. Without a solid base of physical strength, you can’t accomplish anything very intricate or demanding. That’s my belief. If I did not keep running, I think my writing would be very different from what it is now.”