SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Of Writers and writers
BY NAVTEJ SARNA
While some have all the time in the world to just put pen to paper, there are some authors who work all day and write at night.
Judging simply from the amount of time they have at their disposal for putting pen to paper, writers can be divided broadly into two categories.
The first category could be called Writers, with a capital W. These are the recipient of those mythical-sized advances, sometimes with the first book itself, sold by an angel in the human form of a literary agent. Film contracts, translations into 25 languages, three book deals quickly follow. Life is a breezy rush from one literary festival to the next, interspersed with interviews, appearances on the lecture circuit, research trips for the next book. Of course, if the success is to be sustained a huge amount of work has to be done and they must retreat to their desks to do it, because there really is no other way. These full-time writers then develop their personalised writing routines, which also equip them to answer with complete authority when wide-eyed fans ask questions like Do you write in the morning or evening? With a pen or on the computer? Wearing airline socks or bare feet on cold marble? They can give convincing answers from real life about how they gather the energy that goes into their books, how they persevere, how they prepare, how they rewrite…each in his own way, with music or silence, with coffee or gin, at dawn or midnight.
Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, would work from 10 to one and then again from five to nine and find time to see Sartre every evening or lunchtime. C.S. Lewis would be at his desk at nine after breakfast at eight and work through till one. After lunch at precisely one, he would be out for a walk at two, usually with a friend with whom he didn't need to talk to. Tea should be waiting when he returned at exactly 4.15 and he would drink it in solitude. Then back to work from five to seven in the evening. James Thurber, who had severe eyesight problems, would spend the morning rolling over the text in his mind and then dictate 2000 words to a secretary in the afternoons. Of course he would continue to write in his head even in company and his wife had to come up to him in the middle of parties and say: “Damn it, Thurber, stop writing.” Gunter Grass would start at 10 after a long breakfast with music and then carry on till one, stop for a coffee break and go on till seven in the evening. Hemingway would begin writing at first light and go on until he came “to a place where you still have your juice and you know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again…… Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.” Haruki Murakami works from four in the morning to lunch and then trains for marathons in the afternoon, convinced that the writing of novels needs mental as well as physical strength. Amos Oz once told me that he walks into the desert in the early morning to absorb its silences and this can keep him going during those long hours at his desk.
By now you get the idea. These Writers have a tough life, for nothing finally comes easy, but they don't need to go to office at nine to do a job and bring in the monthly cheque that will keep the wolf from the door.
But what of those who write between things, let us call them the lower cap writers. These are the ones with a day-job, which may even be an interesting and demanding one. These are the desperate jugglers of two worlds who cannot help a rueful smile when they look at the advance offered by the publisher and are reconciled to the fact that write they must even though their annual royalty will never add up to one tank full of gas per month, or buy basketball shoes for two kids in the same financial year. So they slog away at the day job, writing early morning or late nights, on weekends or on trains, or in their head Thurber-like, all the time waiting for the silver bullet. Lest they lose heart, it would be nice to recall some famous names who had to do the same, at least for a while, a fact that is actually being documented by some literary journals now.
P.G. Wodehouse worked two years at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and learned to hate it. He amused himself by writing his stories in bank registers until he was well known enough to leave and bring out his first book The Pothunters. But he did use the banking experience for Psmith in the City. T.S. Elliot worked at the Lloyds Bank for eight years and, craving financial security, actually liked it. Despite efforts by Ezra Pound and others to “free” him, he continued to work there even after fame had touched his shoulder with her magic wand and he was known as the writer of Prufrock and The Wasteland, in which incidentally he had used scenes he saw on his way to work. When he did resign, the reason he gave was “domestic anxieties”, which meant his wife's deteriorating health and not the need for more time to write. John Grisham, a lawyer, would get up at 5.00 a.m. and be at his office with a yellow legal pad before him by 5.30. He would write one page a day, whether it took him ten minutes or two hours and then turn to his day job. Anthony Trollope worked as a Postal Surveyor for a long stretch of his writing life. Travelling around England, America and Ireland on work he would take along his folding desk to write his novels. He would work from 5.30 to 8.30 a.m. with a watch in front of him, set on producing 250 words every 15 minutes. No wonder he wrote 49 novels in 35 years. Kafka wrote several books while working as Chief Legal Secretary at the Workmans' Accident Insurance Institute and obviously picked up enough on the dehumanising impact of bureaucracy at his job. William Faulkner was a Postmaster at the University of Mississipi but would get off to play a round of golf in the afternoons and wrote poems later gathered in The Marble Fawn. Kurt Vonnegut sold cars, managing a Saab dealership on Cape Cod. Sylvia Plath, tellingly, worked as a receptionist at a psychiatrist hospital. Jack London was an oyster pirate, raiding farms and selling oysters in the Oakland market to make ends meet. And somehow the books kept coming.
So soldier on, all ye who work at day and write at night.