How long do you spend writing each day?
That’s a difficult question to answer, because I have to add in the time I’m spending answering this question. Also it’s difficult because it’s tricky to define exactly what’s meant by writing. My day job, which is working as an editor at the New Yorker, has lots of writing-related work: reading and refining other people’s copy, writing emails about the way that other people’s writing is read and refined. Does that count? And then there are online posts, or short critical pieces, that I am writing, but the charter calls for exposition and clarity, which separates it from my fiction or even my creative nonfiction. If we’re just talking about the time devoted to my own non-office writing, let’s say three hours a day.
What time of day do you prefer to write?
I’d prefer the evenings, but they are rotten with children. The children aren’t rotten, but the evenings are lousy with family stuff, helping my eight-year-old with homework, talking to my eleven-year-old about what he’s reading in school, not quite helping my wife enough. That means that relaxation doesn’t start until nine-thirty or ten, which means that after my brain’s been washed clear of the day, or clear enough, it’s around midnight. Sometimes I can get in about two hours then. Sometimes I cash in and try to wake up early the next morning, but that usually ends in disaster.
Do you set yourself a time limit or a word limit? No limits?
A piece limit, most often, meaning that I want to at least get to the end of the piece I’m working on, whether it’s a chapter of a book or a full short story or an essay.
Do you write with music on? If so, what music do you like to write to?
I do write with music on. In 2009, I published a funk-music novel, Please Step Back, and that book required me to listen to tons of music. For other projects, I generally listen to music without lyrics, because words distract me. That means, maybe, Miles Davis, or Leo Kottke, or something new that strikes me (last month, it was Kelan Philip Cohran & the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble). I’m not too picky in this regard, and the music is as important for what it eclipses (normal house noises) as for what it is.
How often do you check the Internet? Do you fall into Internet black holes? Or turn off your WiFi completely?
Oh, this is clearly the biggest problem, especially when I’m working on something that requires research. I try to block out a piece without the Internet’s help, so that the Internet can then serve as a kind of down-time assisting tool. I get very frustrated when it cuts into my actual composition time. And it’s not the Web, so much. It’s
the frequently updated personal things, like email or Twitter. They are maddening. They create the illusion that they are adding to your day (look! a number inside parentheses on my Gmail tab! it must be important!) when in fact they are stealing the second hand from the clock and sometimes even the minute hand.
Are you a basher or a swooper? Kurt Vonnegut characterized writers into these two camps: “Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter any more, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”
I think that I’m in a third camp, closer to the swoopers than the bashers, but somewhere in the middle, where i can see the campfires (and hear the agonizing cries) of both. I swoop more than I bash, but I also swoop in that second part, the going-over-what’s-there, and the result is that I either decide that something works or decide that it’s gone forever. When it goes forever, it doesn’t really disappear: it goes into a file for possible future use. Sometimes it becomes the seed of something later on, or it becomes a reminder to me of why I shouldn’t try a certain approach (an Esperanto novel, say). Vonnegut suggests that either you’re fast and then careful, or careful and then satisfied. I feel fast and carefree—I like the feel of the wind on my face when I write, so to speak—and then ruthless about releasing that thing into the wild or caging it up for a while.
Do you eat when you’re writing?
No. Computers like that even less than paper.
What’s your biggest procrastination tool? Or are you a freak who never procrastinates? Freak!
It’s the Internet, or it’s TV, or it’s going sideways into the dictionary and reading about Indo-European roots, or it’s getting waylaid by Gchat. There’s lots of procrastination and the only saving grace is that when I finally do get to something, I’m decent (at this point) about working through it.
Do you find yourself tied to the place you’ve grown accustomed to writing? Or can you just pick up and go?
I can pick up and go, but when I do, the writing changes. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. I think I’m most lucid at my desk, because I’m most secure there. I’m funny there. But I’m rarely surreal there, and rarely out of sorts in the way that produces certain unanswerable questions. This is where technology has helped: I used to carry around notepads and pencils all the time, and I scribbled like crazy on Post-It Notes and napkins. Now, the iPhone has some good tools for capturing fluttering thoughts. That’s been a big help.