Passionate Habits

September 21, 2022

I have been thinking a lot about perspiration, inspiration and the maddening ebb and flow of passion in my writing life. The first line of this post came into my head this morning at 5:30 AM after six weeks capturing vague thoughts on yellow sticky notes. At her book launch a few days ago, Susanne Davis said her book Gravity Hill, started with sticky notes. At 6 AM, I rolled out of bed, and wandered in my nightie to the computer. With no breakfast or cup of black tea, words spewed from my fingers, my mind unsullied by newsfeeds or social media, my body fresh from sleep, my sub-conscious still at work.

Octavia Butler says, “First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable.”

Successful authors offer advice. Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott; Blood on the Forehead (from banging it in frustration on the keyboard) by M.E. Kerr; On Writing by Stephen King; and the drier but wise On Writing Well by William Zinsser. What About the Baby? by Alice McDermott, covered by Susan Kietzman’s wonderful post on this blog, is on my bedside table.

I once heard Don DeLillo (White Noise) and Dana Spiotta (Stone Arabia) talk about their process at a writing conference. Don worked on a typewriter from a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village with no kitchen, horrifying, but in that part of the city, everything you need is just around the corner. Both he and Dana wrote novels starting each day’s writing by reading the manuscript from page one and adding on the next chapters. A system that worked brilliantly for them. For me, a narrative nonfiction writer, structure emerges as I bend words around the subject until it speaks, like a character talking to a fiction writer. This piece started with a few musings about essays I’ve written that reveal things I never knew were inside of me. Passion rises. I write madly, cut to the bone, and reshuffle sticky notes until its inherent structure emerges, a process validated by John McPhee who writes scenes and guides the structure rise in winding spirals. He fashioned prose that made me care about the inner workings of UPS. (The New Yorker, 4/18/2004 “Out in the Sort”)

Until I heard Moshin Hamid (Exit West, The Last White Man) say that for him, writing is like digging a hole and seeing what fills it, I swung a pickaxe, sweating to unearth precious ore, chipping at granite hoping for the mother lode and ending up with dust and a few gold flakes. As if to prove him right, that sentence bloomed in my head as I played solitaire on the computer Guilt free, I cleared my thoughts by way of inane pleasure.

Yesterday, my workspace at the dining room table littered with torn notebook paper and old mail, I said, “Enough. Tomorrow you will write this draft, even if it is garbage,” knowing I will come at it with a clearer eye after an evening of laughter with friends or a rugged afternoon hike. This time all I had to do was sleep on it. My passion flows more than ebbs these days. Perhaps my habits have something to do with it.

Now it’s time for breakfast.

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