It looks like we’re off to a good start, because this question gets right at the most fundamental dilemma of my writerly existence. I wish I could say I wake up early and go straight to work for a consistent amount of time every day, but unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Which is that I’m a night owl through and through, and the wee hours are when I’m at my best.
I need to be alone to write fiction, for I am a fragile flower — and the more utterly alone I am, the better. In the middle of the night, there are no distractions. I can get myself to a place where I feel like I’m the only person in the world who’s currently conscious, and that frees me up to be a little more vulnerable and experimental.
The dilemma is that I really don’t want to get too precious about the way I write. I firmly believe in treating writing it like the job that it is, and I am able to keep a more traditional schedule when I’m working on non-fiction. But I just can’t deny the simple fact that, like the world’s most boring Gremlin, I become ten times more productive as soon as the clock strikes midnight.
I recently discovered a new writing tool and it’s been an absolute game-changer, but I’m not going to reveal what it is just yet because as a Serious Writer, I know how important it is to build tension!
Notebooks have always been big for me, both in the early stages of a new project and as a way to get myself unstuck if I’m struggling. But I have giant, chicken-scratch handwriting, and would always end up jotting down thoughts over half a dozen pages and then never really looking at them again. I have probably fifty illegible notebooks sitting in desk drawers, and I would easily have filled fifty more had I not been introduced to the most elegant solution by a friend, the author Ashley Cardiff:
A sketchpad. A 9-by-12-inch artist’s sketchpad. This has been my great revelation. It’s unlined so I can read my bad handwriting and large enough that I can group several ideas together on the same page. Plus, it gives me an excuse to buy fancy mechanical pencils.
Outside of my new love affair with sketchpads, I tend to use Google Docs for notes, and I do my actual writing in Word. I don’t always write in order, however, so I’ll have a handful of documents going at once. It’s always a good feeling when I can move those smaller sections into the main manuscript.
Oh, and notecards. Always notecards, color-coded with highlighters.
Occasionally I’ll listen to a specific song a few times before I start writing to help push myself into a certain mood, but other than that, I have a hard time focusing if there’s a single blip of background noise more severe than, say, a bird chirping half a mile away.
After my 500th cup of coffee, I’m usually ready to go. And I like to settle in with my dog either at my side or, as he prefers, around my shoulders like a 35-pound scarf. He’s a good boy.
I’m a very precise and deliberate writer, and I edit as I go along. My natural inclination is to work sentence-by-sentence without moving on until I feel I’ve gotten every word exactly right — so I have to fight that impulse a bit. It’s tricky, though. Writing is so much about rhythm for me, and I have a hard time seeing the shape of the whole if the rhythm of the parts is off. But then it’s like, oh no, I’ve been moving a comma around for two hours and my brow is permanently furrowed and Sisyphus is rolling his eyes at me… and that just isn’t productive.
So I’ve been actively working to balance my obsessive tendencies, but I’m never going to be the Usain Bolt of writing (or the Stephen King of running, for that matter). A thousand-word day is a very good day for me, and sometimes I’ll tap out at 500 or 600. Obviously, the biggest drawback to this kind of writing is that if I end up cutting a whole chapter, it’s a chapter I’ve spent a lot of time on. But that doesn’t happen very often, which I suppose is one advantage of my hyperfocused writing style. That, and not having to do much line editing.
I’m actually pretty deep into Book Two (that’s just the working title) at the moment, and I’ve had to do SO much more research this time around. I don’t mean to totally sell myself short, but I recognize that Highland was basically the easiest kind of novel to write: first-person narrator based loosely on myself, the built-in framework of the addiction memoir to semi-satirize. One of my intentions with the book was to examine the cult of the personal narrative that’s come to dominate so much young, modern writing and (hopefully) subvert it. So research-wise, that meant reading an endless stream of books and essays within the genre, and I definitely went a little crazy during that period!
The new thing I’m writing is more of a straightforward novel with eschatological and environmental themes, and I’ll admit I probably over-researched it. Partly, that’s because my brain tends toward the obsessive, but it’s also because I have a deep-seated fear of getting something wrong. I imagine most writers share this concern to some extent, though it’s something I’ve heard expressed by women in particular. There’s this nagging fear that if we get one tiny fact wrong, it will invalidate the entire book for the reader.
With the central idea or point I want to make, and then I build it out from there. I rarely ever start at the beginning with anything I write.
Time away from the material is key for me. It gives me perspective. And I’m always much more willing to kill a darling if I’ve completely forgotten about her in the first place.
My short-form work is often more comedy-based and that kind of activates a different part of my brain. I generally feel like something’s either funny at its core or it isn’t, and that means there’s less obsessive tweaking I can do either way. Not that I don’t engage in someamount of obsessive tweaking.
I’ll absolutely admit that I’ve lost many hours to the social media black hole, but I also feel like I wouldn’t really have a career without it. I started blogging (and then tweeting) in college, and it led directly to my first paid writing jobs. And I know it didn’t hurt that I had some Twitter followers when I was out trying to sell my book.
But it isn’t just that I acknowledge that social media is necessary, I treat it as something worthy of genuine effort. If people are going to be kind enough to follow me on Twitter, I want to make sure I’m offering something in return. For me, this means a handful of solid, thought-out jokes every week. It also means being somewhat judicious about what I post, which, embarrassingly, sometimes requires some discipline.
I find it’s worth the effort, though. Just last month, I tweeted something during Sally Yates’ senate testimony that resonated with folks, and a day later an opinion editor for the New York Times reached out to see if I wanted to write an op-ed. And the next thing you know, my grandmother’s telling me she’s proud of me! Which never would have happened if I hadn’t made it a priority to maintain a social media presence that seems halfway worth following.
I try not to let myself read fiction while I’m writing it because I’m afraid I’ll unknowingly steal something. At the moment, I’ve been compromising with voice-heavy non-fiction – Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Maggie Nelson. And I’m finally reading The Empathy Exams, which is great.
Favorite novel of all time? Pale Fire is up there for sure. Faulkner was a very influential dude in my teenage years, though I fear I wouldn’t have the patience for him now. The Names by DeLillo. Go Tell It on the Mountain – how the hell was that a first novel? I think about Coming Through Slaughter a lot, how intense and all-consuming the experience of reading that book was. And Donna Tartt and Colum McCann are the contemporary writers whose work I go through and reexamine at the most.
Writing is my comfort zone, and in that sense, it’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s how I collect my thoughts and generally make sense of things. Which is great in terms of being a professional writer, but not so awesome when, say, I get into an argument with someone and my impulse is to go off and respond with a long email instead of having an actual conversation. If I could correspond with a therapist via pen and paper, I would be the most eager patient in the world.
Is writing easy? God, no. But it’s something I care about very deeply and that certainly helps things along.
I was the quiet kid who was off scrawling stories in Crayon as soon as I learned the alphabet, and a writing career of some sort is the only thing I’ve ever really pursued. Sometimes stubbornly, although that might be the only way to do it.
That’s exactly right – my character loves the idea of being a writer and that manifests as an inability to see her own life as anything other than a narrative. Her existence becomes a tool for generating material. And since she’s a young woman growing up in Los Angeles, this inevitably means drugs and sex and then addiction.
When you’ve cultivated a dramatic arc for your life, along with an intense self-mythology, it becomes a lot easier to indulge the demons. And it doesn’t help that our culture is obsessed with all forms of “reality” entertainment, where content and creator are inextricably tied. So why not have another drink or ten? Because that’s what the character would do. But while the movie version of you gets to brood seductively to a Tom Waits song in a dimly-lit bar, the actual-human you just ends up with a hangover and a word count of zero.
Writing Highland was absolutely a way for me both indulge and and reject the urge to self-mythologize. And to move on from it. (I say as I complete a long explanation of my personal process!) Because here’s the truth: if the work is good, it will speak for itself, but the only way to end up with something good is to sit down and do the damn work.