Monday, March 1, 2010

'The Write Tools' #18 - Jeff Sparrow

Welcome to another edition of ‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.

Today's guest is author and editor, Jeff Sparrow. Jeff is the editor of the
Overland literary journal, and his latest book is Killing: Misadventures in Violence. He is now working on his fifth book.

I am a very slow writer. For me, writing has never been about flights of inspiration or bursts of creativity. Instead, it’s a matter of slowly and painfully moving words around in sentences, and then sentences around in paragraphs and ultimately paragraphs in books: difficult, painstaking and mostly unpleasant.

Writing is, in other words, work. That’s why when I think about the process, it’s usually in terms of pretty crass metaphors of labour.

For instance, a book has always seemed like a huge slab of granite by the side of the road; a piece of dumb, ugly stone that you need to transfer from one place to another. It’s so big, so solid, that, for a while, it seems like you can’t move it in the slightest. It’s the first thing you see when you wake up; when the evening comes, you can still see sitting there in the twilight, and you know it will be waiting for you in the morning.

Eventually, you discover that, if you try really hard, you can push the thing a little. But, of course, as soon as you let go, it settles back into place and it’s much more difficult to get it shifted again.

Constant progress is, in other words, the only remedy for inertia. The actual distance you push doesn’t much matter: I’ve never found page quotas terribly useful. The main thing is momentum. You must keep working, for the tiniest advance each day eventually adds up, until one day you realise you are grappling with a full-length manuscript rather than a few scattered paragraphs – and at that point everything suddenly seems much easier. That’s one way I think about the routine of writing.

The other metaphor is related but slightly different. Writing is like exercise. Now, no-one – no-one I know, anyway – actually likes jogging, at least not in the sense that they wake up on a cold drizzly morning and think, hurrah, I’ll soon be shuffling around a football field. But if you do it often enough, if you build it into your daily routine, it becomes something that you miss when, for some reason or another, running is no longer possible. Without exercise, you become twitchy, irritable, strangely dissatisfied.

If you write every day, the same thing happens. It’s not that writing becomes any more enjoyable. You don’t look at the blank screen enthusing about the prospect of filling it up. The empty page remains just as hateful as ever, possibly more so, but in some way, not confronting it becomes less possible.

Writing requires time, something that becomes more and more problematic as you get older. Like most people, I first started writing seriously when I was either studying or working part-time. I needed days – or, at least, half-days – in order to get anything done. That was partly because any writing session had to allow for my tendency to procrastinate: if I devoted an entire morning to work, I might spend half of it staring emptily at the screen but still actually get something done.

Working full-time, that’s much more difficult. I’m at Overland nine-to-five most days, and then there’s generally some kind of meeting or event in the evening. That’s not intended as a personal complaint, particularly, for such is the reality of most people’s working lives these days: in this wondrous twenty-first century, the eight hour day achieved by Melbourne stonemasons in 1856, seems like the most fantastical utopia.

Practically, though, it does mean is that the only time I can do my own writing is early in the morning.

So coffee is my friend. At one point, when I first started setting the alarm to give me a few hours writing time before work, I probably genuinely needed the caffeine to kick me into some semblance of consciousness. These days, I wake up naturally (in fact, I physically can’t sleep in anymore) and the coffee is more a psychological crutch. The routine of making a pot helps, I think.

Besides, I like the jittery nervousness that caffeine brings: it’s the appropriate physiological state in which to confront, each day, a world teetering on the verge of catastrophe.


Tristan said...

Unusual but nonetheless enlightening take on the matter.

The acknowledgement of work is a huge relief for me. Capital-W Writers typically leave 9-5 jobs out of these types of discussions. However, the small-w writer, occasionally prefixed with a kind and euphemistic 'emerging', must find gainful employment away and apart from their art. So it is nice to know that we, if I can speak on behalf of us, are not alone in the importance we place on creating time to write.

Elena said...

It's always a comfort to hear from a writer who has to work at writing. The impression from many others is that novels pour out of the psyche, and then it's a matter of pruning and editing the work.

Thanks for sharing. And the coffee stuff - so true.

Elisabeth said...

I often wonder whether there aren't certain jobs on the side that might be more conducive to writing than others.

For instance, I have a suspicion that if you were to work as a laborer in the field or tackle some other elemental physical task each day for pay, then the writing task would perhaps feel less laborious.

I may be wrong here, but I've noticed that many who earn a living through writing, whether as editors, teachers, publishers etc have an added burden: they are constantly commenting on other people's writing.

I wonder whether this process might interfere with their own writing and creativity.

Not that I'm suggesting you take on a laboring job, Jeff. It's merely an observation.

Thanks for your terrific post here, Jeff and thanks Damon for sharing it with us.

Damon Young said...

Tristan: Yes, I think you'll find most writers in Australia are your 'small-w' writers. The average earnings are something like $11,000 p/a, which suggests the need for another job.

Elena: Many of the authors in this series have written about the labour of writing. Perhaps some just enjoy it more than others.

Elisabeth: a few mates did manual labour while trying to work on writing. They were too knackered at the end of the day to get a sentence out. They were just numbed - partly by the work, partly by the culture. I don't know how generalisable this is.

Matilda said...

Jeff why torture yourself? What gives you the will power to persist?

Damon Young said...

Matilda, it's obviously lust for money, fame and glory.

That's what all writers want.