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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Monday, November 26, 2012
"A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."
Kurt Vonnegut's recently published daily routine made we wonder how other beloved writers organized their days. So I pored through various old diaries and interviews – many from the fantastic Paris Reviewarchives – and culled a handful of writing routines from some of my favorite authors. Enjoy.
Ray Bradbury, a lifelong proponent of working with joy and an avidchampion of public libraries, playfully defies the question of routines in this 2010 interview:
My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this. … I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.
Joan Didion creates for herself a kind of incubation period for ideas, articulated in this 1968 interview:
I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I've done that day. I can't do it late in the afternoon because I'm too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I'm really working I don't like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don't have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I'm in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I'm near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That's one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn't leave you when you're asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.
E. B. White, in the same fantastic interview that gave us his timeless insight on the role and responsibility of the writer, notes his relationship with sound and ends on a note echoing Tchaikovsky on work ethic:
I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man – they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.
I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night … also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel) … but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I'm beginning to suspect the full moon. Also I'm hung up on the number nine though I'm told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it's an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me 'unbalanced' after that. Frankly I do feel that my mind is going. So another 'ritual' as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?
Starting tomorrow – if not today:I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. ('No, I don’t go out for lunch.' Can break this rule once every two weeks.)I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much – as an escape from writing.)I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? – I have to go to the hospital anyway.)
Then, in a Paris Review interview nearly two decades later, she details her routine:
I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.[…]I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.
In 1932, under a section titled Daily Routine, Henry Miller footnotes his11 commandments of writing with this wonderful blueprint for productivity, inspiration, and mental health:
MORNINGS:If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.If in fine fettle, write.AFTERNOONS:Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.EVENINGS:See friends. Read in cafés.Explore unfamiliar sections – on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.Paint if empty or tired.Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.
In this 1965 interview, Simone de Beauvoir contributes to dispelling the "tortured-genius" myth of writing:
I'm always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o'clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o'clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I'll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it's a pleasure to work.[…]If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I've done.
I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle – it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent – you don't know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes – I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóín. The face of Borges against a dark background – Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture. I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked – but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.
Productivity maniac Benjamin Franklin had a formidably rigorous daily routine:
When I'm in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.
When I'm writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking. … As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.
I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop – I’m a serious cook – and pretend to be normal. I play sane – Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them – fifty acceptable pages – it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.
I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.
She then adds in the fifth volume, in 1948.
I write every day. … I do my best work in the morning.
For more wisdom from beloved authors, complement with Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules for a great story, Joy Williams on why writers write, David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac's 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck's 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag's synthesized learnings.
where we played Fort Apache
Cow pies baked
in the dog day
heat while we picked
what our Mama
had promised she'd turn
come supper time.
thorny hells, we risked an arm.
Then a leg. Half a torso
we stood stubborn as martyrs
we pulled our mortal flesh free,
not to spill what
By then it was noon
and so hot we lost faith
and walked home,
displaying our blackberries
domed in the pot
the way church deacons hoisted
while we sang "Gloria Patri."
The gnats smelled us coming
and haloed our heads
when we reached the backyard
where splayed in the cool dirt
they'd dug under lantana bushes
our daddy's hounds
snored like the back pews each Sunday
Monday, November 19, 2012
The secret of happiness — or of purpose, for the semantically scrupulous — is a kind of holy grail of human existence.
“Two girls discover the secret of life on a sudden line of poetry.”
The secret of happiness — or of purpose, for the semantically scrupulous — is a kind of holy grail of human existence. We probe its science and psychology, scour its geography, go after it withempirical enthusiasm, seek it in the wisdom of ourgreatest heroes.
But might the faith that happiness is possible be the very secret to its attainment? This beautiful 1964 poem by Denise Levertov (1923-1997), entitled “The Secret,” makes me infinitely happy.
THE SECRETTwo girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
poetry.I who don’t know the
the line. They
told me(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not evenwhat line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so thata thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,
forassuming there is
such a secret, yes,
most of all.
“The Secret” comes from O Taste and See: New Poems, where you can find more of Levertov’s elegant and thoughtful poetry.
The Ultimate Education Reform: Learning by Doing
November 15, 2012 |
Photo Credit: dewater via Shutterstock.com
We learn most of what we know by doing something while thinking about it—learn about cooking by cooking, learn about getting through airport security by going through airport security, learn about removing appendices by removing appendices.
No textbook ever printed, no lecture ever delivered, no computer program ever written, puts school subjects to more relevant use, more thoroughly engages every thought process, or more directly simulates creativity, than learning by doing while thinking about it.
In learning, place is important. Learning to cook is easier in kitchens than in garages. Learning airport procedures is easier in airports than in shopping malls. Learning to remove appendices is easier in hospital operating rooms than in restaurants.
Yes, place makes a difference in the quality of learning. We’d do well, then, to pay closer attention to the places we create for teaching and learning—schools.
Think back to those you attended. Recall the buildings, the classrooms, the design and arrangement of classroom furniture. More often than not what you’ll remember are physical environments that had little or nothing to do with learning by doing. Typically, the buildings, classrooms, and furniture encouraged passivity—sitting still, facing front, maintaining eye contact with a teacher, listening, speaking either when spoken to or when given permission.
Traditional schooling assumes learner passivity. That’s what gets textbooks printed, talking heads videoed, “star” teachers recruited, virtual learning ballyhooed, tough-love charter schools populated, university lecture halls furnished with hundreds of podium-facing seats.
We say, “Experience is the best teacher,” then build schools that say we don’t believe it. Point out the inconsistency, and hear the rationalizations: “Learning by experience is too inefficient.” “Kids don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” “Trial and error take so much time it’s not possible to cover the material.” “Learning by doing should come later, after essential knowledge and skills have been learned.”
I’m not saying that new ideas can’t be transferred intact from the mind of a lecturing teacher or textbook author to the minds of learners. I’m saying it rarely happens.
So I’ve a proposal. America has trillions invested in school buildings, their foundations deep underground, their shapes set in brick and reinforced concrete, networked with pipes, wires, and ducts, doors and windows permanently in place. Their designs encourage learner passivity, and there’s neither the money nor the will to change them.
Can they be re-purposed to really educate?
Yes. And it won’t cost a dime. Not a door knob, light switch, patch of carpet, or pencil sharpener needs to change.
Within homes, apartments, offices, stores, workshops, factories, on work sites, and so on, are complex social systems—groups of people sharing an aim and interacting because of that aim.
Within schools are people who sometimes interact, but they’re not really a social system, primarily because they almost never share an aim other than wanting to be somewhere else.
But they could share an aim. And if they did, kids would be learning to do better what they’re going to be doing for the rest of their lives—trying to make sense of experience. Every waking moment, consciously or unconsciously, they’re sizing up the situations in which they find themselves and trying to figure out how to make the most or the best of them.
Schools are “situations.” They’re real, vibrant slices of life. Their physical and social complexity model in miniature the world outside their walls, just do so on a smaller scale. Learners can measure them; compute their volumes; determine their locations, orientations, and methods of construction; reproduce their floor plans; trace their histories; study their climate control and communication systems; identify goods that enter and waste that exits; analyze their populations in dozens of different ways; explore parental and citizen attitudes toward them; investigate their funding; evaluate their decision-making procedures; bring their efficiencies and inefficiencies into the open; compare their claimed and actual aims.
Schools, in short, are comprehensive laboratories for the study of life. Every school subject worth teaching can be brought to bear in making sense of them, with enough raw material at hand for non-stop investigation at any level of sophistication, the task made easier by their immediacy, easy accessibility, compactness, tangibility, transparency (in theory, at least), and by adult guidance.
And because school is unfailingly relevant (even for those who are utterly bored or who hate it), the emotions without which learning never happens are dependably close. Look kids in the eyes, give them a genuinely difficult task—ask them to help make their school do what it’s supposed to do and what society desperately needs for it to do, and mean what you say—and they and their teachers will create dynamic learning communities that, finally, justify the school’s cost.
Close schools, reopen them the next day as learning organizations, allow them to move beyond the pedestrian constraints imposed by standardized testing, and they’ll revolutionize the social institution upon which so much of humankind’s chance of survival depends.
Note: For those who see potential in learning by doing that requires complex thought, click here.
This article originally appeared on The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog.Reprinted by permission of the author.
Friday, November 16, 2012
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