I don’t really consider myself a naysayer or, in the common parlance of today, a hater, but when it comes to the recent media obsession with how writers write, I tend to fall on the cynical side of the fence. The question that most often occurs to me when I come across a magazine article, blog post, or even web video about how a particular writer approaches her craft is, “Who cares?” I’d much rather read the writer’s poems or stories or novels than another self-indulgent piece about just how many hours she spends in her chair or what particular view or music or caffeinated beverage she requires in order to meet the muse halfway.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to graduate from an MFA program without having been assigned a number of how-to-write books. Who hasn’t read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, for instance, or Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird? The fact is, there are some beautiful and, dare I say it, helpful books out there about how one might best go about the art of writing. Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor is one. So is One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty. Also invaluable to me have been Charles Baxter’s instructional tomes, Burning Down the House and On Subtext. What makes these works exceptional is the narrative flare with which each writer approaches craft. In effect, they’re stories about stories, and it’s easy to forget you’re reading advice at all.
In contrast, a much more typical process piece, like Alexandra Alter’s “How to Write a Great Novel,” which appeared a few years ago in the Wall Street Journal, makes me want to crawl in a hole, or at the very least snap my laptop shut. Alter’s article is not particularly egregious. It is merely representative of its genre. But does it really matter that Junot Diaz writes perched on the edge of his bathtub, or that Michael Ondaatje prefers Muji notebooks to any other brand? Did you know that Kate Christensen likes to play solitaire before starting a new novel? No? Me neither. And again, who cares?
Process pieces often treat writing like it’s something you can pick up quickly and painlessly the way you might any other hobby, like knitting, Sudoku, or small engine repair. The truth is, of course, that writing is not a hobby. It is an art form and is therefore intensely individual, personal, private. The idiosyncratic nature of the writer’s process is perhaps why there is such a wealth of “how I write” articles being published right now. Or it could be to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the Internet. Either way, the basic process piece—in the name of practicality and, I would argue, thinly veiled mercenary interest—works to strip all the magic from what is a deeply mysterious experience. I couldn’t tell you where most of my ideas come from or why my characters act the way they do, and the fact that, for the most part, I write in bed is a wholly inadequate explanation for what ends up on the page at the end of a long (or usually far too short) day of writing.
I suspect that many writers, when detailing their daily writing habits, are being disingenuous. They might say they wake every day at 4 a.m. and write straight through (without food or social media breaks) until 9 a.m. and then start up again at noon with the Emerson Quartet playing in the background, but I’d be willing to bet what little money I have that most writers work the same way I do—when there’s time, where it’s convenient, and with one’s phone dinging on the desk. I’m sure some writers do stick to a strict schedule—routine is a wonderful thing that feeds creativity—but time and the ability to determine what one does with it is a luxury rare indeed, and it’s verging on the arrogant to suggest otherwise.
In the end, writers will be remembered not for their eclectic work habits or allegiance to a particular brand of notebook, but for their art, for their unique contribution to our world’s share of beauty and truth. That’s what lives on. Did Jane Austen write in the morning or the evening? What kind of tea did she drink while plotting Pride and Prejudice? I have no idea and, frankly, I prefer it that way.
Deborah Kennedy is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in Third Coast, Sou’wester, and Salon. Deborah’s story, “The Tucker Boys,” is featured in issue 298.2.
Photo attributed to State Library of Queensland.