I was in a conversation recently with an essayist, scholar, and poet about ‘the two kinds of writer’: the prevaricating would-be who is always waiting for the perfect time to make the work, and the driven over-achiever who is always working and never really living.
Our conversation boiled down to those who do too much and those who do too little – and both were problematic.
This isn’t one of those posts where I present polar opposites and then ask ‘A or B: Which one are you?’ There is a plethora of ways of working (or not working) and these can differ day to day, if not project to project, with a whole host of challenges, approaches, and excuses in between for the individual writer.
The one thing I can confidently say about my working day is it will be unpredictable. Sometimes I’m up at my desk before I’m fully awake, head full of the next section of the project. Other days are slower, when I need to read and re-read everything I’ve written to sink back into the work through a process of what feels like hypnosis or osmosis. I can hope to make progress and will try to create the best conditions for a satisfying day of writing and thinking, but I’m ultimately not in control of my environment, especially here in Berlin (I usually live in the country). If the car alarm on the street is going to keep screaming at five minute intervals, or the children in the apartment upstairs are going to keep racing drunkenly around the hard floor in spike heels swiping at each other with socks full of heavy change (well, that’s what it sounds like), and the street musicians from the local market are going to play that addictive ‘I want to dance around and pretend to be an imaginary Edith Piaf in Paris’ accordion music in the five minute intervals when the car alarm isn’t screaming, well, there’s not a lot I can do about it, except go somewhere else or block it all out.
Some writers are lazy, some writers are workaholics, but most writers beat themselves up a lot.
So in an attempt to gee-up the slackers and cut slack for the over-achievers, here’s two quotations I came across this week:
The first, from the great writer William Faulkner:
“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”
This is another one of those quotations I want to hang above my desk to keep me focused. I like the fact that although on first reading it appears competitive, on closer reflection it reminds me in my work I am really only in relationship to myself and my own notions of ambition and success.
This next one is from Dinaw Mengestu, Guardian first book award winner and one of The New Yorker‘s ’20 under 40’. This goes out for all of those disturbed by stiletto-wearing wailing children dancing flamenco on your ceilings:
“The older I get, the fuller and more complex my life becomes with family, friends, students, and above all children. I’ve learned now not to be precious about the conditions I work in. I’ve learned not to wait for the total silence, which on the vast majority of days, will never, ever come. And so forget about hoping to find the proper weather, or the light that pleases you best of all colours (to steal a phrase from William Carlos Williams). Abandon the desire, masked as need for perfectly pressed coffee. Write in crowds, in alleys, in the back seats of crumb-filled cars. Steal time from the crowded world even if it’s only a few minutes, or a blessed hour. Take being tired and emotionally exhausted as an excuse to take excessive liberties with language, with your imagination.”
I love that – whatever the condition, humour, weather, or situation – take excessive liberties with language and imagination…….