Guest post by Charles Garabedian
I usually take my writing projects with me when I travel, like the time last spring when I stuffed a carry-on with my manuscript and flew to Durham, North Carolina in time for a family wedding. My home away from home over those twenty-four hours consisted of a spacious, clean, and nicely decorated hotel room with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking manicured gardens and a crystal clear swimming pool surrounded by planters of geraniums and impatiens. The room and its views couldn’t have been more pleasant—a beautiful ambiance to stimulate ideas for scene revision and plot pacing, I thought.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
The morning after the wedding, I set up my laptop at the desk over by the window, and sat down ready to revise a scene set in 1920’s Boston. Instead of keeping focused on the work, my attention ended up wandering from the computer screen to the fly buzzing against the window, to the birds dipping into the pool, to the hum of the air conditioner, and to the groundskeeper watering the flowers and shrubs.
I finally dragged my eyes to the manuscript, poised my fingers on the keyboard, and painfully sensed the seconds elapsing to minutes before I finally struck a letter. The few sentences I punched out made no sense whatsoever, and I quickly deleted the mess. I couldn’t think of anything to blame for my lack of concentration other than the distractions around me in a place that wasn’t my usual writing environment. I didn’t have any of my creature comforts with me—my writing props—that have become an integral part of my writing routine back home.
What is my routine, you might ask? On Mondays, Wednesdays, and most weekends, I begin writing at six o’clock in the morning and finish by eight, because my mind typically becomes mush after two hours of concentrated work. I need a cup of coffee next to me, freshly brewed, to sip as I write, and also need to settle myself at a table or counter in a relatively noisy coffee shop like Starbucks or Boston Common Coffee. The process of tuning out the commotion helps me to center my thoughts, as crazy as this sounds. The routine of starting at six a.m. with a cup of coffee at a café, helps inspire and motivate me to revise chapters or to begin writing fresh drafts.
Joyce Carol Oates said, “I write every day and I’d like to get writing as soon as I can, sometimes even before seven o’clock. My study’s up there, and it’s very quiet then. I look out the window at the garden and I have a cat who usually comes in with me and wants her breakfast actually.” (1)
“I am a completely horizontal author,” Truman Capote said. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.” (2)
Stephen King stated, “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule—in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk—exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.” (3)
Ian McEwan talked about his twelve-foot writing table and the giant computer screen, books, and papers on top. He said, “I’ve always believed that it’s important to turn up at this desk, whether you feel like it or not, whether you have ideas or not. You’ve got to have the work ethic that makes you show up. When I’ve got a piece of work going, I like to be there about half past nine. It’s very important to close off all those avenues to the outside world like the Internet, the emails, the telephones. I switch all those things off and try and get a solid bit of work done before lunchtime. And a solid bit of work for me would be somewhere between five and eight hundred words.” (4)
And John Grisham said in a December 9, 2011 interview, “Once there’s a deadline for a book I start each morning at 7; same desk, same cup of coffee, same everything. I work for four hours. It’s quiet, private, there are no phones, faxes, Internet. On a good day I’ll do eight to 10 pages; on a slow day, five or six.” (5)
Finally, Toni Morrison stated, “I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come…And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”
Morrison went on to say, “I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?” (6)
For many writers, establishing a routine is a necessary piece to the process of writing. For me, it helps to focus my attention on what needs to be written. It sets the stage. It allows that comfortable moment of privacy between me and my characters, where the familiar setting and props allow thoughts to flow more easily from my mind to the paper or computer screen. There is no right routine, in fact many writers don’t have or need a set ritual before they begin to write. Do you?
1. Video posted by Kristina Budelis in The New Yorker online, June 25, 2013.
2. The Paris Review, 1957.
3. Stephen King, On Writing, (New York: Scribner, 2000) 156-157
4. Video interview with Ian McEwan, Ian McEwan On His Writing Process, posted on Knopf Doubleday.
5. Posted on Financial Times, December 9, 2011.
6. The Paris Review, Elissa Schappell interviewer, 1993
Photo by Liz Smith
Charles Garabedian is a fiction writer represented by agent Carolyn Jenks at the Carolyn Jenks Agency. He has been a member of the Grub Street Writers’ Center in Boston for many years. His debut novel, Ivy House, was conceived during the center’s Master novel workshop mentored by New York Times bestselling author, Jenna Blum. Charles lives in Boston and enjoys playing tennis, kayaking, and spending time with family. Since 1993, he has been a pediatrician in Concord, Massachusetts.