Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Part 2: Writing

Consider yourself warned: you may find today's entry to be a bit scatter-brained.  A big deadline for my day-job is tomorrow, and last night at 10:45 I finished the work (I think).  Today is my first day off in three weeks.  We now resume our regularly scheduled program....

I took a creative writing class in college. Maybe you did too.  Mine didn't go well.  While I can't say that I felt certain I could write anything worthwhile when I signed-up for the course, I can say that I knew at the end of the semester.  I couldn't write creatively.

The class was a disaster -- a mismatch.  Perhaps the class was poorly taught.  Perhaps I was a poor student. 

What a lesson to learn.  It soured me on the very idea of creative writing.  My own creative writing, that is.  I told myself that writing was not for me, and I didn't look back.

Until a few years ago.

At the time of my disappointment, I fortunately didn't see creative writing in my future.  I say fortunately because if I'd been betting my future on it all my hopes would have been dashed.  That's never any fun.  As it was, the disappointment didn't sting much, and it served to reinforce my decision to pursue a career as an engineer (not that I needed any reinforcement).  What a waste -- of decades.

Except that it wasn't a waste.  My career in technology has been (at times wearing but) fun, challenging and rewarding.  More importantly I wasn't ready to write until just a few years ago.  Maybe I could have written earlier; I don't know.  I feel it was only recently that circumstances combined to allow me to write.  More to the point, it was only recently that I got the urge to write.

Speaking of an urge to write, there were some very... uh... dedicated writers out there in the 1800s.  There still are, I'm sure -- just not the same ones.

Anthony Trollope (if you don't know him, he was a contemporary of Dickens, prolific writer, and inventor of the mailbox) wrote every day.  Before breakfast.  For 3 hours.  1000 words an hour.  And then he went to his day job at the post office.  He didn't believe in rewriting.  He didn't have a computer.  Or a typewriter.  If he finished a book an hour into his morning, he began the next.  Right then, before breakfast.  When asked about it, he pointed out that a shoemaker doesn't finish a pair or shoes and then take a month off -- neither should an author.  Oh how self-indulgent we've become.

We talk about Plotters and Pantsers, but Dickens and many others were Serialists.  Dickens in particular wrote much of his work for weekly publication.  He didn't generally write ahead, and often came hard-up against his deadlines (Trollope published serially, but never till the entire work written).  In fact Dickens listened to reader feedback and then steered the later parts of his stories based on popular demand.  Witness The Pickwick Papers, which starts out with one main character and plot, and then veers off into a (much better) adventure with a till-then minor character.  That's Pantsing using someone else's pants -- everyone else's.  You can forget about your characters telling you what to do when you have people stopping you on the street to tell you how they think things should turn out for their favorite character!

Balzac was the classic manic writer, consistently putting in 14 and 18 hours of writing each day, living on caffeine and cigarettes, producing something like 350 works before his death at 51 in what I can only imagine was a caffeine-triggered case of spontaneous combustion.  He is said to have drunk 50,000 cups of coffee in his lifetime.  Sounds bad, though that's only 5 cups a day for his 30 writing years.  But I digress.

Dedication helps.  I need to get me some of that.  Make sure you get yours too.


  1. 1,000 words an hour? I consider 1,000 words a successful day!!!
    And I, too, didn't start writing until later in life. (Let's hope not too late to get published!)

  2. 1000 words an hour, hand written, and he didn't rewrite!