The Secret Lives of the Deskbound
James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, using a large blue pencil and wearing a white coat. Wallace Stevens wrote his poetry on small slips of paper while walking. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of writing on a Friday. While the habits of writers vary greatly, many authors believe that creativity and inspiration are sparked by their own distinctive (idiosyncratic?) behavior. We asked the Insiders’ talented columnists about their own tried and true writing habits.
Mad for Music
"I couldn't imagine, and I don't say this with any pride, but I really couldn't imagine writing without a desperate deadline."
--Hunter S. Thompson
This declaration, taken from an interview in 2000, and spoken by one of my favorite writers, deeply resonates with me. My writing process begins as a series of small, early to mid-morning energy bursts fueled by coffee, good music, and positive affirmations. "I can do this! This is great! I feel good and ready to go!" I set up my space (laptop, water, music and the aforementioned coffee), jot down my initial thoughts and form a loose outline of some sort. If I'm really focused, a paragraph or two emerges. "I'm in the zone! It's coming together! This is what productivity looks like!"
Then the coffee cools and the morning wanes, and the positive affirmations I chanted only an hour or two ago reveal themselves to be frauds. I look for any excuse to wander. And so, I do. Pre-pandemic this might have meant getting out of the house and running an errand or two. Now it involves bothering whichever family member happens to be closest to me at the time. If that's not an option, I will badger my family dog, Ruby.
When I finally return to the page, I'll usually find that there's a bunch of crap to sort through. After some knuckle-cracking and perhaps one last lean-back in my swivel chair, I sort through this wreckage. I remind myself that there is a deadline. I remind myself again. I look desperately at the clock and power through. If it all goes according to plan, I finally reach my favorite phase: the revision phase. The high school English teacher in me thrives on revision. “Nix it! Re-phrase! Syntax, syntax, syntax! It's glorious!”
As for those final touches? Well it often feels as if a piece is never really finished. But sometimes, ya just gotta press send.
P.S. For the sake of transparency, I do not own a swivel chair.
“What’s the Story?”
I have the love/hate relationship with writing that I suspect most writers tend to have. In general, I'm more of a morning writer than an evening one--typically I start working on first drafts at 6:00 a.m. and then spend the afternoon reworking them. Having said that, though, if I'm up against a deadline, I'll work around the clock. I definitely tend to work right up until a deadline. I used to get very frustrated with myself for waiting until the clock was really ticking and my stress level was super high--but now I realize that the extra adrenaline seems to fuel better writing, so I lean into it.
My "What's the Story?" columns usually come to me pretty quickly with minimal editing or reworking, and are the kind of work that I typically do whenever I have time for it over the course of the day.
Like many entertainment writers who hopscotch between projects—a movie review here, a set of production notes there, the occasional outside-industry gig (Hello, Hoop Magazine!), I’d like to think I’ve had a set routine, but the fact is one has never taken root for me. So I’m churnin’ 'em and burnin’ 'em while keeping an eye on the deadline. I don’t know that I’ve ever been down to the wire before filing, but neither have I wrapped anything up with days to spare. Black coffee? Sure. Espresso? Even better.
For my "Reel Streaming" pieces, the m.o. is directly inspired by the nature of the column itself: an accounting of the stream-of-conscious trail of the movie-viewing habits I picked up during the early days of the pandemic and subsequent quarantine after a good deal of my regular assignments were delayed (Goodbye, Hoop Magazine!). The streaming quickly extended to creating each week’s column—after making each cinematic connection and watching each film, I would write about just that—and then start again.
Aggravation is a Full-Time Job
At best, writing for me is a joyous romp, an eruption of something I can't wait to let out. That's usually when something has tickled my sense of humor or stirred my convictions and moved me to want to weigh in with an opinion. The verbiage pours out in a torrent. Other times, writing is like the old saying that you just stare at the blank page or screen until little drops of blood form on your forehead. That's when I'm sweating out one of my social-political columns that I know will draw howling, torch-bearing mobs to my lawn. Gotta choose my words very carefully and make sure I've got my facts straight. Either way, I like to write a first draft by just spilling the thought bucket and letting it percolate in my mind overnight. I start cleaning it up the next day and polish the piece right up to deadline. I'm a better editor than writer, so I suspect that's a plus.
I'm most definitely a morning-midday writer with a serious java habit. After two p.m. the fog machine in my brain goes off, the automated window grate comes down and my creativity is closed for business. Thankfully, I've kicked my procrastination habit since cutting it too close to deadline means I'll kick myself later for not saying something more effectively or leaving out a major point. I have been known to go to my editors after the fact, stovepipe hat in hand, to request a fix or addition. I charmingly call them "tweaks." My editors charmingly call me a pain in the caboose.
I do most of my writing on my laptop, laying in bed. Chester, the cat my daughter dropped off for me to watch eleven years ago, fights the laptop for position, so he sits on my chest, obscuring my view of the screen.
I have many anecdotes from my unconventional upbringing and extensive travels as a young adult, extending into my later years. The humor seeps into my everyday life as a father, friend and companion, and I love regaling anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, for my adult children, they have, too often, been the victims of the retelling of those stories and they are quick to ward off yet another version of a previously told tale before I’m too many words into it.
The Insider has given me an opportunity to spin my yarns anew. And, although I try to stay as close as possible to the original, I’ll occasionally take a small measure of license with background to keep the story as simple and as relevant as possible to the present. I hope that they are as fun to read as they have been to tell over the years. So, if I see you and start to tell some story marginally related to our conversation, please don’t hesitate to tell me, as my children are quick to do, “I’ve heard it.”