A glimpse into a writer’s life

Talk to the birds, do yoga, turn the music up, and that absorbing book will finally get published

14 December 2020 - 08:34
Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer
Image: Sunday Times

Writers have to spend much of their time writing — it’s a job, like any other. They have to show up every day. The work requires self-discipline, perseverance and application. But how many hours do writers spend “at work”? Does it feel like a chore or a joy? Is it lonely, or do they make friends with their own creations? 

Before they are established (and often afterwards), most authors are part-time writers, juggling a day job, a commute or family responsibilities with the demands of writing — and finishing — that book. Here’s how a few authors spend their working days.

Award-winning US screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Social Network) admits that he spends 90% of his time not writing. Instead, he wrestles with words, with self doubt, with stalled storylines and ungovernable characters. “I can be stuck on page 19 for two weeks. So I’ll change my routine, go for a drive, turn the music up full blast, and then something shifts.”

Sunday Times Literary Awards judge and author Ken Barris spends much of his time “thinking about writing” — until the book starts taking shape.

Haruki Murakami believes in the “mesmerising” power of routine. “When I’m in writing mode, I get up at 4am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run or swim (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation.”

Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls) recalls that, in a normal world, she’d go into a shared studio space with friends to write. “But in our plague(d) times, I log in to a video chat with two of my favourite people and we work with the video running.”

For Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Vegetable Miracle) routine becomes an essential part of her creative drive. Her morning begins “with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency.”

The routine of Benjamin Zephaniah, British author and performance poet, is more physical. “I start my day with a run or a cycle ride, then I come home to my gym and do a boxing and kung fu workout. I slow down with yoga and tai chi. I have breakfast, check my e-mails and my post. Then I start working. “Work can be sitting in my study and writing, going to my recording studio and making music, or going out to film or record a radio programme. Well, that’s how it should happen; sometimes I just hang around talking to cats and birds all day, or playing soccer with the neighbours.”

Routine also governs the days of Deon Meyer, who has 32 books under his belt. His favourite time to write is between 6am and lunch. “I stick to that for the first half of the book. After that, the hours I spend on it get longer. During the last quarter, I’ll often write late into the night.”

The vocation has its highs and lows. “Writing,” he observes, “is like any other job. You have good days and bad days. On the bad days, every sentence is an arm wrestle and you question your ability and choice of career. On good days, your fingers can’t keep up with the flow.”

Jonny Steinberg, two-time winner of the Sunday Times Literary Awards for nonfiction, notes: “Most difficult is the beginning of a new writing day when the last one ended badly. Golden rule: never allow a writing day to end badly; stop only when it’s going well.”

Is there time for health and fitness? Meyer sticks to an exercise programme: “I have to, because I love good food and have a serious sweet tooth!” Beukes works out twice a week and does online yoga. While routine may be a demanding boss, a physical space that’s conducive to creativity is a consoling necessity too.

Novelist and feminist Virginia Woolf insisted that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

Author Deon Meyer's favourite time to write is between 6am and lunch.
Author Deon Meyer's favourite time to write is between 6am and lunch.
Image: Sunday Times

Following that precept, Maya Angelou used to rent a hotel room, relishing its anonymity. “I go there around 6.30am. I have a bed, a table and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles ... I stay until 12.30pm, 1.30pm. It’s lonely and it’s marvellous.”

Lonely? Well, yes. Writing is undeniably a lonely occupation. Nadine Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel prize in Literature, acknowledged that “the solitude of writing is quite frightening. It’s quite close to madness; one just disappears for a day and loses touch.”

Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) felt much the same. “The writer cuts himself off from all others and confronts his subject alone ... It is a lonely place, even a little frightening.” 

A little libation after a day’s labour is, for some, a welcome part of the writing ritual. Kurt Vonnegut regularly had a whisky to mark the end of his working day. Angelou was partial to a glass or two of sherry, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett celebrated their literary collaborations with good wine.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀.
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀.
Image: Supplied

What about distractions? Some writers work with music or the radio whispering in the background; Meyer closes the door, lowers the blinds, and writes in complete silence. Vladimir Nabokov’s ideal was “an absolutely soundproofed flat in New York”.

A 21st century distraction lies in the seductive allure of social media. To deny its siren call, Hilary Mantel has no Twitter account; Zadie Smith eschews a smartphone; Jonathan Franzen tapes up the ports on his computers so he cannot connect to the internet; Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ hides her phone in her wardrobe.

Looking for inspiration: Most writers agree that waiting for the muse is not a reliable way to reach The End. “There is a muse,” says Stephen King, “but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy dust all over your typewriter. You have to do all the grunt labour.”

“Sometimes the muse is just on sabbatical,” says US poet Maxine Kumin. Tom Robbins is philosophical: “I show up in my writing room at 10am every morning without fail. Sometimes my muse sees fit to join me there and sometimes she doesn’t.”

The nub: author and comedienne AL Kennedy’s take on the craft is this: “Sitting alone in a room for hours while essentially talking in your head about people you made up earlier and then writing it down for no-one you know does have many aspects which are not inherently fulfilling. Then again, making something out of nothing, overturning the laws of time and space, building something for strangers just because you think they might like it — that’s fantastic. And then it’s over, which is even better.”

This article was paid for by CNA.