The difficulty of putting words on paper

Hemingway wrote standing up. Marcel Proust wrote in bed. To become a writer, you need a fixed daily routine

Updated - December 03, 2017 04:15 pm IST

Published - December 03, 2017 12:15 am IST

Man on vintage typewriter. Vector illustration. Isolated background. writing text. Typography. Writer tool Retro manual typewriter. Figure of human

Man on vintage typewriter. Vector illustration. Isolated background. writing text. Typography. Writer tool Retro manual typewriter. Figure of human

In his autobiography Living to Tell the Tale , Gabriel Garcia Marquez says: “If you can live without writing, don’t write.” It’s blunt and it’s almost a description of himself. As a young man, Marquez was desperate to write and to be read. Often penurious, he would go from café to café, running a tab in each, working a kind of circular credit system to keep him going till he got paid his meagre salary. He carried in his pocket a roll of newsprint paper stolen from the newspaper where he worked, and sitting in the cafés he would write — stories, essays, and finally his first short novels. He would often spend the night in the press where the paper was being printed, where it was warm, and even there he would stay up writing. There would be drinking, there would be the tertulias — the addas — with older and more established writers and artists, there would be the whores and the lovers, but across the day all these activities were joined by the act of writing. Around him occurred revolutions and coups and through all this the man kept writing, often by hand at first and then transferring his writing to whatever typewriter he could borrow. Gabo, as his friends called him, lived to write, to tell the tales.

Blocks and flows

“If you can live without writing...” When I first read that sentence, I felt my heart dropping. One of my favourite things to do is to live without writing. On most days, serious writing is as much fun as pulling out a tooth. I had clearly tripped into the wrong profession and now it was too late.

Gradually, I began talking to other writers, mentioning this line. Some of them nodded enthusiastically — yes! Exactly! Writing was a calling, an obsession, an addiction! But quite a few others had reactions similar to mine. For people like us, the writing came from some other place. Yes, when the words were coming, when the prose-making joints were moving smoothly, when the word-craft sang to your tune, it was great, but surely that wasn’t an everyday thing? On most days one could live — happily— without writing. In this, my fellow blockists and I were perhaps more like Franz Kafka. His diary entry on January 29, 1915, reads: “Again tried to write, virtually useless.” February 7: “Complete Standstill. Unending torments.”

Thinking about it, there was also the issue of different kinds of writing. Like me, many of my writer-friends write under more than one hat. There is journalism, column-writing, longer non-fiction pieces, and then there is fiction. These different kinds of writing, like different lovers, often make contradictory demands on a writer. In all this I remember my father, a well-known writer in Gujarati with a large readership. He would write every day: in the morning before going to work, at the business that he owned during slow afternoons, late at night after dinner.

A daily routine

Over about thirty-five years, my father produced several novels, plays, short stories and travelogues, plus columns for the Gujarati press. When I was a kid, I once asked him: “Don’t you ever run out of ideas for stories?” He laughed. “Do you know how Somerset Maugham used to work? He would get up in the morning, have his bath, put on his suit and tie and sit down at his desk. Then, if he didn’t have any ideas, he would sit there signing his name over and over again till a story came to him. Now that is a true professional. I only write when I find a gap, and I write because it is such a pleasure.” His self-deprecation aside, my father understood what a privilege it was to be able to write, to be able to satisfy your craving and get published and be read.

All the writers I’ve spoken to have different daily routines to get them started with the day’s writing. For some, the ‘day’s writing’ is a total mislabel, for they only really start to work at night. For others it’s the crack of dawn, without changing out of their sleeping clothes. Others, like me, need substantial amounts of coffee as a cranking lever. Marcel Proust, we know, wrote in bed, as did Truman Capote (supine on his couch). Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Both Papa H and Capote needed vast amounts of alcohol, as did Marguerite Duras, who apparently sank about five bottles of wine a day, all red. (She died at the age of 82.) The routine suggested by an art teacher of mine is something that I follow, as do other writer-friends who didn’t get it from her. “When you enter your studio, don’t immediately attack the painting you left off yesterday. Clean your brushes. Organise your work space. Make coffee. Draw a bit in your sketchbook. Look at the painting, do some small work on it, and bit by bit you’ll find yourself drawn into it.” On the days I manage to escape the trap of the Internet (the equivalent of the preamble described above) and get pulled into the complex battles of writing, I’m truly happy. On those days I can feel sympathy and comradeship for the word-obsessed Gabo.

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