From the Director’s Chair: The Writing Life

It should surprise no one that the life of the writer – such as it is – is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. Writers … surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper. – Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I don’t mean to put off those who come to or work in the Writing Center and have no interest in being a novelist, playwright, poet, fan fiction author, travel writer, or any other kind of scribe once their college days are over. But, because I do encounter many tutors and students who want to be “writers” of one stripe or another, I wanted to share some thoughts about what the writing life really is.

Here’s a happy thought: I don’t think the writing life is captured by the above quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard in her memoir, The Writing Life. I have great respect for Dillard, and I’ve read a lot of her work; but so much of the writing process Dillard describes is frankly tortured – holing herself up in a freezing New England cabin; sealing off the window in her library carrel to block out any view of the outside world; denying herself food and living on cigarettes and coffee while composing, agonizing through one or two sentences a day – and I think she fails to realize how much of that has to do with her personality, rather than with writing.

I am a novelist. (I write under the pen names Raven Snow and Jesse Daro; I’ll put a link to my author’s website below, if you’re interested.) I don’t say that as shameless self-promotion – okay, maybe a little bit, but mostly as evidence of my ethos. In one way or another, I have been writing since I was eight years old. That’s almost twenty-nine years of “the writing life.” I think that gives me room to talk about how a writer lives, and works.
I get up everyday at five o’clock in the morning to write. (If that sounds like torture to you, don’t worry – I’m not telling you all writers must wake up at five o’clock to write. I’m being de-scriptive here, not pre-scriptive.) The first thing I do is walk my little dog, Isabella. Then I scramble her an egg and cook myself some steel-cut oats with cinnamon and blueberries, and read a little bit while I’m enjoying breakfast. Once I’ve got my coffee and my peppermint gum – yes, I chew gum while I drink coffee; I never claimed not to be weird – I set my iPhone to “do not disturb” and set its timer for exactly one hour, 1:00:00. Then I curl up on the couch with pen and paper, and for one solid hour, I write.

Many days, this is the only writing I get done, but it is an hour’s worth of writing, everyday. I have a linear process – I start with word one of the book, and end with the last word, no jumping around or scene-skipping – but I think this process would work even if, someday, that process becomes more fragmented for me. It helps me be motivated to know I only have to write for one hour. I don’t have to meet a word count or a page count; I just have to spend one hour producing fresh prose, moving the story that much further ahead than it was the day before. One of my favorite poets and old graduate school alums, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, has said he doesn’t believe a writer needs to write everyday, especially if trying to do so gets in the way of things like exercising, spending time with your significant other, or enjoying the things in life that aren’t writing; I agree with him on almost every bit of that, except for me, I find that if I take a break from writing, even for a day, my project tends to lose steam. Here Dillard and I agree: “A work in progress quickly becomes feral…If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.” Thus my compromise is one hour a day devoted to whatever it is I’m writing.

Notice, though, that it is an hour of writing. I don’t check my email, log on to Instagram, or scroll through the headlines on the BBC. I don’t have Facebook or Twitter, but if I did, the same would hold true: I wouldn’t be messing about on those; I would be writing.

One curiosity about my writing process is that I need to compose by hand. On the weekends, either Saturday morning first thing or sometimes, if I’m tired or have other things to do, as late as Sunday afternoon, I type up whatever I’ve written by hand that week. I revise while I’m typing; it’s a good chance to see dialogue, description, pacing and characterization with fresh eyes, and the typing itself can become generative for me. Nothing is more likely to block me as a writer than the blank page. Once I have some words down, even if the words aren’t perfect, the writing comes much, much easier. Sometimes, I do get possessed of a desire to keep on writing, so once I finish transcribing my handwritten chapters into Microsoft Word, I will hunker down in my apartment and write all weekend long. Those are good times, when the creative juices are flowing and even if everything I’m writing isn’t masterful, I am really enjoying the process. I’m having fun with my creation.

That’s where Dillard and I differ so sharply in our view of “the writing life.” Our time on the planet is short, and as she says, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Why spend life miserably laboring at a task you find loathsome or energy-killing, especially if that task is writing, which only in very rare circumstances is going to make you enough of a living or win you enough accolades to be, materially speaking, worth it? Why avoid having a life because you’re writing? I am a hardcore bookworm, such that I don’t even own a television and every single time you offer me the choice, I will read the book rather than watch the movie, but as much as I love books and believe the world needs as many of them as it can get, I don’t believe a book is more important than a life. I would save you from a burning building before I would save your manuscript. I write because I take joy in it – not pleasure, exactly, because pleasure implies something easy, and writing, to quote Dillard again, is not easy:

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.
That is how I feel about writing. And if you want to become a writer, I hope you do so because you feel like this, too. And I hope you won’t be dissuaded from writing by the notion that writers have to lead “colorless” lives locked away in “small rooms.” There may be times when, in the fever of creation, I resent having to put down my pen and paper to go to work, or fantasize about living on a deserted island where texts, emails, surprise visits, lunch dates, and noisy neighbors could never intrude on my “process.” But sooner or later, I find myself feeling lonely, or exhausted, or written-out. I crave human interaction, a long walk, a day of shopping, a good dinner out, a game of Scrabble at a coffeehouse. Eventually, inevitably, I crawl out of that writing cave, back into the light of living. Because that is what the writing life really is, after all: a life.
by Dr. Sunny Hawkins, UWC Director