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Thursday, April 15, 2004

The metabolism of writing 

Terry Teachout had a rather exhausting month, what with finishing up a new book and writing four major pieces for deadline. But he found, to his amazement, that the more he wrote, the more he could--or that, somehow, it got easier to do so:

What happened? Was it simply that my mind had been concentrated wonderfully by the prospect of a hanging? Or might it be that the more you work, the more you can work? I think both factors probably played a part. Whenever the going gets tough, my friends typically hear me mutter James Burnham's mantra, "If there?s no alternative, there?s no problem." I must have said it at least a couple of hundred times last month. But I also believe that simply by virtue of the fact that I had been exercising my writing muscle so regularly for so extended a period of time, the act of writing came more easily to me. Granted, I have the gift of facility, and daily blogging has honed it still further (I don't think I could have finished All in the Dances in three months if I hadn't spent the preceding six months writing "About Last Night"), but I can?t remember any other time in my life when I?ve been so prolific for so long a period.

I certainly agree that the more one writes, the more one is compelled to do so. But Terry's piece rang a faint bell, as I remembered a couple of other writers who had expounded on similar matters. Last year, as Laura Lippman finished up the manuscript for her upcoming novel BY A SPIDER'S THREAD, she was also a guest-contributor for Slate's diary feature, a weeklong look into a given writer's life. This was her take on the experience at the time:

[...] with a daily deadline of 800 words for Slate, I thought I might be tempted to slack on my other work. But the more I wrote, the more I wrote. It was almost as if I raised my metabolic writing rate. I wrote and revised 14,000 words the last week of June, a respectable chunk of work for a second draft heading toward completion. Two days into July, I have already done 7,000 words and solved a few knotty problems in the work-in-progress. It is getting harder to take weekends off, something I consider vital for my sanity -- and my wrists. If life doesn't hand me any unexpected developments, I should finish the second draft by Independence Day and embark on the third, which puts me on track to finish this book by Sept. 1.

As it happens, Laura met the deadline and the book will be out later this year. Deadlines, of course, make writers do very funny things. Even if they meant to space out their work, it doesn't always happen. Sean Doolittle, in his recent monthly column, talks about streaking to the finish line in finishing up his third novel:

Note to aspiring writers: if you're going to write novel, you can do it a little bit at a time. Let's say it takes you a year. That's, what, a page or two a day, give or take? Slow, steady, wake up one morning, bingo. You got yourself a novel.

You don't have to spend ten months writing the first third and then write all the rest in an exhausting white heat.

Then again, there's no accounting for process. Funny, it seemed like it happened this same way last time, too.


And, as he says later on, it's important to trust that process. Whether it means you write slower than you want to, throw out more than you thought you would have to, or are chained to the computer, finishing things up in a mad dash. But of course, after that, there's the crash...which is also part of the process, I suppose.

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