by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Do you write by hand or on a computer? Before computers became de rigueur, this was the first question writers were asked at readings or at parties, or any place where their identity had been discovered. The question was so predictable that when it came up one evening after I’d read with a close friend who knew my habits well, she stood up and said, “I write by hand and”—waving casually to me beside her—“she uses a computer.” Or maybe it was the other way around; I don’t remember anymore. It was long ago; she and her pen or computer have gone to writers’ heaven and I’m now about 90% computerized.
The second most frequently asked question, then and now, is about writing schedules and habits. Do you write in the mornings? Afternoons? Evenings? Every day or when the spirit moves you? Sometimes the word “inspiration” is used. There was a time when I could honestly answer—with a tad of smugness—that I wrote every day, from late morning to late afternoon. Alas, that time and that smugness have passed. In any case, why, I wondered, would anyone care? How could my writing habits be of any use to anyone, or of any interest? They weren’t even of interest to me. I and my fellow writers were hoping for the truly fun questions, about the work itself: all the wonderful details we’d agonized over; those three sentences of description that took hours; that clever allusion that began the last page; the deeper connections and resonances. We wanted to talk about what interested us, not our listeners.
But writers and their work habits fascinate readers. It’s as if they believe there’s some secret to the writing life, and if they could only worm it out of us they’d be writers themselves. I’ve read interviews in which authors are pressed to reveal the most mundane details about their working lives. There were a few modest ones, like the great Italian novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg, who claimed to write now and then, when she was in the mood. Knowing her large oeuvre and her impeccable style, I found this baffling.
On the other hand, one very distinguished writer who lived in a Manhattan apartment building was reported to dress in a suit and tie every day as if headed to an office job; then he’d take the elevator to the basement, where he’d fixed up a small studio, and spend the day working—a regular nine to five schedule. Another, a Nobel Prize winner, allegedly wrote all day every day, barely stopping for meals. My favorite of these accounts comes from Tillie Olsen’s book, Silences, where I learned that Joseph Conrad would shut himself up in his study from morning to evening, and his wife would leave a lunch tray outside his door—the nineteenth-century equivalent of a retreat like Yaddo or the MacDowell Colony, without the shared bathrooms.
Sylvia Plath got up at five in the morning to have a couple of writing hours before her babies stirred and claimed her attention. And we know what happened to her. Then there’s Anthony Trollope who, rumor has it, would write on long sheets of yellow foolscap and when he finished a novel, would scrawl “The End,” flip the page and start the next book. Since Trollope held down a responsible day job in the postal administration, this too is puzzling.
What I always wondered about those paragons was, didn’t they ever have to buy a birthday present, or new underwear, or go to the dentist, or get a flu shot, or visit a relative in the hospital, or help out a friend in trouble? (Or read a friend’s new manuscript.) Not to mention shopping for groceries, picking up dry-cleaning, and bringing the broken vacuum cleaner to the repair shop—unless they had spouses as accommodating as Conrad’s. (Plath definitely did not.) I doubt many such remain nowadays.
Finally it dawned on me. They’re lying. Or to put it more graciously, they’re saying what they think their readers want to hear; or more likely what they wish were the case; or what they manage to do for a few weeks at a time now and then, and extrapolate to mean habitually.
In my younger and more confident days, I thought I had all the secrets of the writing life and was more than willing to pass them on. Make a daily writing schedule and stick to it, I’d tell students. Do your writing first, before you tackle the banal tasks of daily life. Don’t go out to lunch—it breaks up the day. Save your social life for after five. (Better still, live like a hermit if you can.) Never fill out forms, unless the government requires it. And so on. I followed those rules for quite a while, writing a certain number of hours daily. It was my job, though I didn’t put on a suit and tie.
When it was time to pick up my children from school I dutifully put down my pen and put on my coat. Later, when they could come home by themselves, I put down my pen the instant I heard the click of the key in the door. It was like the bell ringing in school, to mark the end of a class period.
Because writing was my self-appointed job, it irked me when strangers marveled that I got any work done. A doctor I met at a party who knew I’d published several books asked how in the world I found time to write. I asked him how he found time to take care of his patients. This worked: he slunk away.
The strict rules also worked. My most productive years were when I had school-aged children. (Not babies—their needs are just too much.) It sounds paradoxical, I know, but that rigorous discipline got me through a phase that otherwise might have been focused on finding just the right lunchbox or the right middle school. Not that I didn’t endure those trials, but they were tempered by my knowing that on the desk, waiting eagerly for my return, was a manuscript that transported me to a realm all my own, where I could be endlessly adventurous and playful and focused.
Oddly enough, it was when my children grew up and moved away that my discipline started to flag. I was free of many responsibilities; my time should have been more my own than ever (though I did spend a lot of it teaching). I broke many of my own excellent rules. I could no longer honestly say that I wrote daily from late morning to late afternoon. Unexpected concerns came to occupy my time. The days felt more crowded with each passing year. Crowded with… life itself. The aging parents, the recommendation letters, the birthday gift, the dentist, and all the rest.
I still wrote a lot, but not on my formerly disciplined schedule. Perhaps we all possess a finite amount of discipline, and I had used mine up early on. There were some good long days; others flew by in a crush of details, with barely any time for work. After much agonizing and self-reproach, I came to grasp that I couldn’t win a struggle against the demands of my life. Maybe others could, but for me that struggle was enervating and self-defeating. Rilke could choose to miss his daughter’s wedding—as the story goes—because he had to finish a poem, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t go so far. What mattered was that I write when I could, as best as I could.
I learned to yield to life with as much grace as I could muster (often not much). I never stopped missing the long days at my desk, especially if I was in the middle of something I loved. Or if I hadn’t a piece of work waiting for me, life felt hollowed out, boring. Not a superficial boredom—day by day I was engaged by whatever claimed me—but a deep down boredom, as if the center had been removed and I was drifting along the peripheries.
Today I’d never venture to advise anyone on how to map out their time. Writers’ lives follow different patterns. Some hit their stride in their twenties and thirties; others in their forties and fifties or even later. Unforeseen changes disrupt the best of plans. There are no secrets. Or else each writer has to discover his or her own secret. Hard and constant work is one method. A kind of dreamy receptiveness may be another. Or relentless observation of the world, finally erupting in words. To balance discipline and yielding, shutting the world out and letting it in, is the task that faces all of us. Ultimately our choices will inform our sentences, and make us the individual writers we are.