Friday, 13 April 2012

Because it’s Friday the Thirteenth – Lily Hyde

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novels on index cards; Alexandre Dumas pere his non-fiction, fiction and poetry on different coloured paper (rose-pink, blue and yellow respectively). Edith Sitwell lay in a coffin before setting pen to paper; Colette prefaced writing by picking the fleas from her cat. Samuel Coleridge took opium, George Sand smoked cigars. Truman Capote only wrote on the sofa or in bed. John Cheever used to get up and into his only suit and take the lift down to the lobby with everyone else on their way to jobs in the office, then go to the basement, take off his suit again, and sit down in his underwear to write.

Colette: looking for fleas (by Jacques Humbert)
Superstition, habit, fetish, procrastination, ritual, magic, the muse. The Ancient Greeks burnt offerings on altars. Medieval poets had visions and fits. These modern stories (possibly apocryphal: writers make things up) of the lengths authors will go to harness their creativity are grist to the mill we keep turning out the myth of the writer as inspired, idiosyncratic genius.

But do these things really matter to writers, and to those wanting to know how to write, or are they a distraction? Surely what you need is rather more dull: to understand language, make up a story, and have the time and discipline to put that story into language. Do you really need a bizarre daily working habit, a superstition, a lucky charm, a (as people like to call it these days) ‘process’?

I need coffee; I need absinthe. I require music. I insist on silence. Special paper; my favourite pen. Only early mornings. It has to be late nights. It’s interesting that these superstitious rituals of inspiration are also generally means of repression, a way of fencing about the creative moment, defining its limits, at once trammelling and setting free. We dull our nerves with drugs so our neurons may fire, deafen our ears with music so as to hear our inner voice, confine our bodies to bed so our minds may travel far.


George Sand, sans cigar (by Eugene Delacroix)
A friend of mine sums up his prerequisite to creativity in one word: boredom. I understand that. When you’ve gone past utter boredom’s mix of frustration and desperation, and reached the knowledge that there is nothing else to do, nothing else that is good enough; when you’re the blank fog, the empty slate, then it’s almost as though there is no choice but to write.

Of all the writers’ rituals above, the one I find most convincing and moving is Cheever’s, who had to fit himself into the boring straitjacket of ‘normalcy’ (the suit, the crowded lift) that probably most of the office clones he was imitating were dying to escape, in order to achieve what they only dreamed of: being a free, Bohemian writer.


There’s a practical reason: it was his only suit; he wouldn’t want to crumple it by wearing it all day every day. But perhaps it was the fake, imposed dreary discipline he needed. Perhaps the contrast, perhaps the deception (of those office workers? Of himself?) The daily fictitious escape from boringness and boredom.

When people ask about my ‘process’, mostly I want to ask what they mean. Does an office worker have a process? A plumber? A painter?

Or else I want to tell them I light a candle and dress in layers of my grandmother’s petticoats, I lie back on a Persian carpet, slowly I let myself sink, down, down to the depths of hell, to endless acres of boredom and self-loathing and despair, mainlining coffee and plugged in to deafening dubstep… only then can I begin to write on precious strips of birch bark, in my own heart’s blood, naturally.

I’m a writer, I make things up. What’s your process?



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6 comments:

Susan Price said...

Lovely post - I enjoyed it. I don't have any set rituals, although I often use a kitchen timer to stop me worrying about all those other nagging tasks to be done. (I'll spend an hour writing and THEN I'll wash-up,change the bed, shop etc.)

Penny Dolan said...

It's intriguing to hear about the rituals of all these writers - thanks, Lily, and for the pictures!

Taking yourself to a space where there are no personal demands other than the writing task - cafe, shed, a friends empty room while they are out working - can work well if it's possible. It's not here, so I'm another one voting for the timer

Hmm. That writerly basement underwear may well have been long johns & vest rather than teeny boxers so more respectable than one imagines. Oh! Am writing this in my dressing gown . . .

Lily said...

Yes, Penny, I think an empty space away from usual distractions really helps - for me it's linked to the boredom thing; if you're in a friend's empty room or a shed, there's actually nothing else to do.

Will have to try the timer trick, Susan..

Book Maven said...

I'm really worried now about Cheever shivering in his underwear all day, even if it was more substantial than that of today's men. And I want to know if he kept on his shirt, tie, waistcoat etc or shed those too.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post, Lily! I'm amazed Colette's cat held still long enough for her to de-flea it! I imagine after that, writing fiction was a doddle...

Stroppy Author said...

The opposite! When other things are clamouring to be done, I want to ignore them and write and become protective of every minute. When there is plenty of time to write, I fritter it away until things get desperate.