I read this wonderful interview with author James Salter in The Paris Review. If you’re not a writer, or you’re not working on a long, big, scary project (an essay, a thesis, a report, a house) I still think you’ll find some good life lessons in it. And will enjoy his considered, dignified answers. It continues the theme I’ve been exploring of late: taking the time it takes to do something. Doing things steadily. Finding your own kooky rhythm and finding solace in the kooky, twisted rhythms of successful people.
He writes in longhand first! As do I.
I write in longhand. I am accustomed to that proximity, that feel of writing. Then I sit down and type. And then I retype, correct, retype, and keep going until it’s finished. It’s been demonstrated to me many times that there is some inefficiency in this, but I find that the ease of moving a paragraph is not really what I need. I need the opportunity to write this sentence again, to say it to myself again, to look at the paragraph once more, and actually to go through the whole text, line by line, very carefully, writing it out. There may be even some kind of mimetic impulse here where I am trying to write like myself, so to speak.
He tweaks and frets!
I hate the first inexact, inadequate expression of things. The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another…I write big sections and then let them sit.
It’s dangerous not to let things age…
and if something is really good, you should put it away for a month.
Just get it down, he says. Which is something so many successful people say….
Normally I just go a sentence at a time. I find the most difficult part of writing is to get it down initially because what you have written is usually so terrible that it’s disheartening, you don’t want to go on. That’s what I think is hard—the discouragement that comes from seeing what you have done. This is all you could manage?
I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible.
Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.
He knows he needs to be alone, and ensures he is. How many of us do this??!
Complete solitude. Although I’ve made notes for things and even written synopses sitting in trains or on park benches, for the complete composition of things I need absolute solitude, preferably an empty house.
I mentioned solitude on twitter yesterday. Ev Bogue, a writer, has just posted about how important solitude is to him (having himself just read how important it was to the poet Rilke). He seeks…
A deep sense of aloneness. The vast distance between all of us, acknowledged.
Me, I’m learning more and more that success (the content, whole, still, satisfying kind) is more about letting yourself have your own little ways of doing things. Allowing this where possible. Not feeling that you have to do things as everyone else does them. And it’s about finding the best way to do things
so that you best honour your craft and your heart.
For me I allow myself to drink a coffee most days (I’d abstained for three years….now I need the feel-expansive buzz). I work better with a structure in mind (many writers don’t… they just prose it out)…and I’m playing with index cards right now (more on this to come). I turn my phone off. I write from bizarre surfaces – sitting on the floor, at the coffee table. And I stake out my solitude. Ergo, my decamping to the Byron hinterland.
One technique that worked yesterday was this: when I started to get anxious (about the enormity of what’s ahead, about not knowing if I really know what I’m doing), I took out a different notepad and wrote out what my anxiety was saying to me. So it was heard. It only took 2 minutes. It worked. It got me closer to my heart. This really is key.
What do you think? How do you ensure your solitude? Is it more important than you give it credit, perhaps?