Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Whatever works

by Dietrich Kalteis

Agatha Christie fueled the muse by munching apples in the bathtub, Jack Kerouac typed On the Road on an endless scroll. James Joyce laid on his stomach in bed, wearing a white coat, holding a blue pencil. Are there tricks you use to get yourself into that space where everything just flows onto the page?

I start writing between four and five every morning, with music playing through the headphones. Maybe that’s a little strange, but it’s something I started doing years ago when I sought a quiet corner to write. Away from kids, cats and dogs, and phones. At first the music just cut out any noise that distracted me. Then I found it kind of worked with the rhythm of whatever I was writing. Now, it’s a habit and I never write without music; and I play tunes to suit the mood and go with the rhythm of the scene I’m working on. For Zero Avenue which is set during the early days of the West Coast punk scene, I got my hands on as much of that sound as I could find and played punk rock for nine months until the novel was done. 

And I felt less strange about it after I found out that some of the greats had some writing quirks of their own to get themselves into that space: Zora Neale Hurston hired a guy to plug her ears while she typed to give her the silence she needed. Thomas Wolf wrote leaning on his fridge. Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Wolfe, Lewis Carroll, Philip Roth wrote standing. Mark Twain, George Orwell, Marcel Proust, Robert Louis Stevenson, Truman Capote did it lying down. Edith Sitwell wrote lying down in an open coffin. 

Rudyard Kipling smoked cigars while he wrote, so did Amy Lowell, George Sand and H.L. Mencken. Maya Angelou’s fuel of choice was sherry. John Cheever and Victor Hugo wrote in their underwear. Agatha Christie, Benjamin Franklin, D.H. Lawrence, Edmond Rostand and Victor Hugo wrote in the bath. Carl Sandburg, Henry David Thoreau, Wallace Stevens and William Wordsworth took long walks before they sat down to write. William Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson did it stoned. Stephen King said in On Writing he writes with the door closed, and rewrites with the door open. 

Another habit, I carry a little notepad with me to jot down ideas that come to mind when I’m away from my desk, that way I won’t forget them, and my desk is usually littered with these little bits of paper. And I like to write first drafts and scenes in longhand before typing them into my computer. It feels somehow more organic. I also found some of the greats were particular what they wrote on: Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novels on 3X5 index cards, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on a 120 foot scroll, and Eudora Welty pasted her stories together in long strips. 

Okay, maybe getting up early, playing music and writing little notes to myself aren’t so strange, but they help get me in that space where everything flows on the page, and in the end, it just boils down to whatever works for each of us, right?


Unknown said...

Didn't Victor Hugo write big big fat books? He must have used a lot of hot water. Anyway, I admire your discipline, and wish I could get up that early too.

Paul D. Marks said...

Dieter, I think music is really helpful in getting in the mood for writing. As you say, when you wrote about the West Coast punk scene you listened to that music. I do the same kind of thing, plus sometimes it does act as white noise, blocking out other distracting sounds.