The other day I went to pick wild blueberries with my sweetheart Nancy and our three year old daughter on Dakota Ridge on the Sunshine Coast. It’s a couple of thousand feet up and more and on that day free of other visitors, though the sun blazed in a clear September sky. We started at the place with the huts reserved for crosscountry skiing and walked on one of a number of trails, accompanied by clouds of mosquitoes and deer flies. The air was dry, and no sounds other than insect business.
We were up there for blueberries and for the view and for the exhilaration walking in mountain wilderness that is still fairly safe other than from some possibly pissed-off bears who will see their territory deberried. It’s at Nancy’s prompting, who is always ready to do something adventurous, whereas I have to first search my to-do list and loosen the clawholds of guilt at not working. But once up there—it’s wonderful.
But it would be a lie to say I’m not working. Wait, wait! I‘m not a total jerk. I am enjoying myself with Nancy, who is an awesomely fast picker, and Daphne who continues to chatter away quite happily with her now blue face, even though she is not feeling well. I am into it. And I am into the moment as much as I can be. The deer flies help here with their insistent method of reminding me where I have exposed flesh.
None of me is at the computer working on one of the unfinished projects. But a part of me is aware that moments such as the blueberry picking are important for the soul. I swear I didn’t ruin it with philosophizing. For the way I work, I need lots of excursions like this to feed my creative memory. The excursions cannot be virtual journeys or visits to bookstores or libraries. It’s like taking a shower or bath to renew the body with the important difference that afterwards you get to keep a lot of specifics from the experience, whether facts or lingering images.
In the city I would often break up my creative sessions with walks to the grocery store or through the woods. These walks were part of my working. Yeah, yeah, someone might respond skeptically. But they really were. I couldn’t sit for very long and I needed to see trees and, in this case, trees beside houses, without engaging too closely. If I was working on an art project, I would wander the alleys. At nineteen, and in university, I was once stopped by plainclothes Montreal cops in an alleyway, at 10:00 p.m., and they didn’t sound impressed with my explanation of “research.” My university i.d. card mentioned Fine Arts, so they grudgingly let me carry on with my alley walk with looks of “just a nutbar artist type.”
Writers work in different ways, but almost all have their rituals of preparation and their methods of navigating the imagination usefully. For it’s always physical too. Athletes, dancers, musicians, visual artists—all are allowed prep time and a series of props and the right materials and tools. Writers need all that too. Not just a computer.
For years, the Paris Review Interviews with Writers series have asked their writers how they have worked and some fascinating disclosures have come forth. Few people have ideal conditions, but all successful writers have found a way for working that suits them, whether, for example, it means lying in bed as was the case with Proust and Truman Capote, or standing up at a easel, as in the case of Gunter Grass.
Here are some brief anecdotes of writers at work:
- Working on 8½-by-11-inch Muji brand lined notebooks, Michael Ondaatje completes the first four drafts by hand, cutting and pasting passages with scissors and tape.
- Richard Powers wrote three novels in bed, speaking to a lap-top computer with voice-recognition software.
- When Junot Diaz needs to be alone, he retreats into the bathroom to sit on the edge of the tub. “It drove my ex crazy,” he says. “She would always know I was going to write because I would grab a notebook and run into the bathroom.”
- Colum McCann sometimes takes a printed-out a chapter or two put together in large font or in small font, stapled like a book, to read in Central Park. He finds a quiet bench and pretends he’s reading a book by someone else. He says it forces him to look at the words in a new way and examine why they’re there.
- To write “Lowboy,” Novelist John Wray rode New York City trains while he composed his first draft. He often sat in a corner near the conductor’s booth with his headphones on for up to six hours a day, for nearly a year.
- Mystery writer Laura Lippman uses color-coded sketch-books and draws charts detailing the histories of the characters and their relationships. The result is an intricate arty map of the project she is working on before she actually begins her draft.
- Edwidge Dandicat collages magazine images on the settings and subjects she will be writing about—enough to fill three or four large bulletin boards. The hands-on craft element of such preparation appeals to her.
I see that the public perception of such creative preferences is still largely bafflement. In other words, writers are weird. I guess that’s true sometimes. I like to think of it as looking for a way of working that sustains you and that leads to productivity.
It’s also about writing as practice for being and creating in the moment. Maybe because of the blueberries, I’m reminded of the 2007 Doris Dorrie film How To Cook Your Life, a documentary about Edward Espe Brown, chief cook at the Tassajara Zen Center in California. Some people were disappointed they didn’t learn more about bread-making or vegetarian recipes from this movie. The movie isn’t about that. It’s about living life in the right way and the struggle to be human. The film manages to convey the message by being thoroughly concrete and often humorous. But How To Cook Your Life is also practical in a way that some might find tough. “When you wash the rice, wash the rice.”
This beautiful and moving film is entirely relevant to the task of writing. Writing isn’t simply a mechanical operation of punching out a certain number of words a day, though there is certainly that aspect to it if you want to finish anything. Cooking isn’t simply slapping ingredients together to shove into your belly. Surely we deserve more respect than that. Food preparation, cooking, presentation, and eating are a social experience as well as a spiritual and physical one. Nutrition operates on many levels here. Writing too incorporates all these levels. Even if the writer works alone, her community waits in support. All are fed in turn. And just as every cook has utensils and movements specific to him, every writer will have to discover the rituals that support her creation. What time of day, what setting, what instruments and materials, what quality of silence, what kinds of preparation, what sustenance, what physical representations (walking, standing , sitting for hours without a break, lying down, dancing, running, playing the piano, traveling forest paths or alleyways)? Each is a continuing and sustaining question mark.
Is there something in our personal creative rituals that needs some change or amplification so that we in turn can be supported?