The room that I am writing in is my kitchen. It is also my bedroom, my living room and my dining room (though fortunately not quite my bathroom). I have recently moved to a new apartment – a sixth floor studio that looks out over the arse-end of Paris. Without the luxury of my own study or office, I have had to select a space within the 250 square feet of my new place in which to write. The corner that I’ve chosen, more by default than by preference, has already been filled with a desk, a comfortable chair, a lamp, a laptop, and all the necessary notepads and pens. Attempts to keep it uncluttered are already failing as books and letters and other apartment detritus creep in. In setting up this space, so conscious of its purpose, I have become fascinated in the spaces of writers and the routines and rituals associated with them.
I am yet to form any real ritual when I write, and learning about those of other writers has left me feeling strangely lacking. It has, however, offered me an insight into their thought process and mind set. Knowing this part of their real world world has given a fresh glimpse into their fictional worlds; to know their creative process is to know another dimension to them and their work, albeit a relatively superficial one. Since moving I have spent a lot of time sifting through hundreds of interviews with writers, both online and within the back issues of The Paris Review. I have also found it unavoidable not to ask every writer that I come across about their approach to the four fundamentals that make up any writer’s process: environment, time, behaviour and tools.
Everyone that I asked had some form of ritual or requirement, even if it was just the need for silence or a certain chair. Most that I asked preferred the early morning as their time to write, often around dawn, before the world wakes up and the noise of the day crowds in. By starting when they’re still not quite free of sleep, they say it allows them to wake up into their writing. The list of famous writers who fit this category is nearly endless, and seems to far outweigh the more leisurely late morning writers or industrious night owls. It includes the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie and W. H. Auden, who himself started each day with Benzedrine washed down with coffee. Although maybe a bit extreme, Auden was by no means alone in using stimulants to kick-start the creative process. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On the Road in a three week writing binge fuelled by alcohol and Benzedrine, and Honoré de Balzac allegedly drunk between fifty and three hundred cups of coffee each day (It is worth pointing out that they did also both die at the hands of these substances, Balzac as a result of caffeine related illnesses and Kerouac through alcoholism.)
Indeed, most notable writers that I came across had their own habits and quirks. Gertrude Stein, for example, found inspiration for her poetry whilst sat in her (parked) car, nicknamed ‘Godiva’. Victor Hugo chose to write naked, ordering his servant to hide his clothes in order to stop himself from leaving his house. Vladimir Nabakov, preferred to stand whilst writing, using a lecturn and index cards so that he could easily rearrange the order of scenes in his prose. Philip Roth also prefers to stand while writing, believing like Haruki Murakami, that a healthy body is essential to a healthy mind, and that the physical excursion of standing assists this. In contrast to this, writers like Truman Capote preferred a horizontal stance when writing, lying in bed or sprawled across a chaise longue, while T.S. Eliot found sickness to be a great source of inspiration when creating new ‘gruffer’ voices and harsher scenes. There are of course those that need nothing at all, though they seem few and far between. David Mitchell, for instance, claims, ‘the universe needs to contrive circumstances to stop me writing, rather than contrive ones to allow me to write’.
To learn from the greats, there is worse I feel I could do than to emulate their habits and traits. In trying to form my own ritual as I settle into my new place, I have been experimenting with some of theirs in an attempt to help increase my productivity, maintain flow and stave off writer’s block. Unfortunately, none have proved very successful. Waking up at dawn resulted in mild confusion, loud yawns and a heavy feeling of fatigue that followed me for the rest of the day. Standing up proved impractical due to my lack of a lectern, and lying down I fell asleep. Reasoning that great thinkers were often great drinkers, I turned to booze. By the second drink my words began to muddle and my handwriting grew messy as my hand tried furiously to keep up with my thoughts. The streaming babble flowed from my pen for hours on end, but was deleted in its entirety with the sober glance of the morning.
So it seems that I am back to where I started, which isn’t really anywhere. For me, writing is mainly a process of procrastination, interspersed sporadically with occasional thought and even more occasional moments where my pen makes acquaintance with paper. Although I hate routine, and my day job as a handyman means that I am forced to fit my writing around the irregular hours of that job, I love ritual. I am only just starting to learn that almost anything can be ritualized – from making a cup of tea, to getting ready for bed. To ritualize something is not only to make it become a familiar process that eventually becomes second nature, it is also to make it sacred. With writing, if there is a ritual associated with the way you start, such as organizing your papers in a certain way on your desk, then through conditional learning your brain associates this with the process of writing. A ritual can therefore theoretically get you into the mindset of what you are about to do and thus eliminate the dawdling and procrastination that often comes with starting.
Despite not having a ritual, there are nevertheless certain things that I require and others that I avoid when writing. For a start, I need solitude. I write at home and I write alone, as whenever I have tried writing in public places, such as a park or café, I become self-conscious and easily distracted. As a result, it is only ever at my desk that I write, often with a cup of tea by my side and a cat at my feet. If I can’t have silence when I write (due to the noise of the cats playing or building work), then I listen to music. It can be anything without lyrics, base, or beat, as otherwise my rhythm adapts to what’s playing and the words of the song drift into my writing. My sitting position is such that I have developed a cyst behind my knee from sitting on it awkwardly, and my posture has already begun to form itself into the shape of an upside down question mark. I write longhand, using a Biro (black Bic) into a bound notebook. The Biro is for its permanency and ability to be virtually smudge proof. The paper is to have something to hold and fold and, if necessary, tear, crumple and throw. For a while I wrote with a smart fountain pen that my parents gave me, but I gave it up when all my words were washed away in a rainstorm.
There is nothing special or peculiar about any of these, though without them I can easily become incapacitated. Even with the tea, the quiet and the solitude, there is no guarantee for me that I’ll get anything done. Without a routine or ritual to get me into the mindset, I am susceptible to distractions. And distractions can come in many guises. Even halfway through that last sentence, there was a ten minute interlude involving a piece of string, a cork, and a cat. It seems anything and everything can work to form a distraction from the task at hand, from the cleaning and tidying, to paying bills and fiddling around on the internet. This last one is the worst of all. The internet is the 21st century equivalent of television, newspapers, games arcades, the mailbox, the red light district, the jukebox, magazines, cinemas, and endlessly readable encyclopedias – all merged into one hellish screen. And that’s without even mentioning Facebook.
I am no David Mitchell it seems. Without a ritual I may be condemned forever to procrastination and distraction. Without my own eccentricities and odd habits, I feel that there is maybe something crucial missing that is preventing the next literary masterpiece from bursting forth from me in a single fortnight. Though probably not. Until that does or doesn’t happen, I will continue cursing the cats and staring at space, surrounded by my Biros and binders and cups of tea.