Burning Question: What’s your writing process?
Jonathan Maberry’s recent blogs on the writing process brought me back several decades to when I was a grad student at the U of Penn, doing my Master’s thesis under Hiram Hayden, renowned fiction editor to some of the most prestigious writers of the 20th century.
My thesis explored the experience of writing and involved questioning his stable of writers. We’re talking William Styron, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke. The list goes on, full of icons of modern American literature.
I compared the writers’ answers to various theories of creativity by thinkers like Sartre, Freud, Burnshaw and Langer .
But that’s not the point.
The point is that I got to hear personally about the writing experiences of the most eminent, exalted and accomplished writers of the time. Thirty-odd years later, I still have my notes and many of the questionnaires. Here are some excerpted tidbits:
Anthony Burgess had no appetite while writing; in fact, he felt nauseous and survived on strong tea and pints of cold milk. He heard entire passages in his head “like a tape recording.”
Arthur C. Clarke said he couldn’t consciously remember writing anything. When asked what “style” was, he replied, “Damned if I know.”
William Styron answered that question, “Who knows?”
And apparently, Joyce Carol Oates didn’t know either. “Good question,” she said. When asked why she wrote novels, she said, “Why ask questions about novels? Why read? Why live? Why not?”
Mario Puzo said he wrote novels “for an escape.” He rewarded himself with food after stretches of writing. His characters often defied him; he didn’t control them, and often had the sense of “being written.”
Wallace Stegner didn’t read/let others see unpublished work because, he said, “I’m scared.” He usually made his protagonists women because “women represent civilization.” His idea of style? “The man, best arrayed.” And he wrote novels “to try to make sense of my life.”
John Fowles declared that when he began a novel, he knew “the country, not the road through it.” And he didn’t have control over his work. He said, “I believe in muses.”
Jerzy Kosinski reported writing in 15-18 hour stretches during which, “There is an obvious physical stress (perspiring), and a sense of well-being ‘after.’” When he finished a segment of writing, he felt “charged with sexual energy.” While writing, he allowed no one to see his work because he “could follow advice too easily.” So he insisted on “no advice, no readers, complete secrecy.”
William Styron wrote with #2 pencils on yellow legal pads so he could make erasures. And he made a lot of them.
Kurt Vonnegut claimed not to enjoy writing, but to be “bored” during the process. He said he wrote only when he was “broke.” Whenever he finished a piece of work, he was “hilariously relieved.” And his books were “100% autobiographical, spiritually.”
Elie Wiesel said he could “see” his characters clearly, and found out where his novels were going only as he wrote them, often letting the writing emerge on its own.
Some planned their plots; others didn’t. Some wrote regularly for set periods of time; others wrote in a frenzy until they were exhausted. I searched for patterns and consistencies, common threads among the fifty or so questions each author answered.
In the end, what fascinated me most was how many of them shared the same writing experiences as the rest of us.
It seems that, whether we work with #2 pencils and yellow pads or laptops, whether inspired by real events or immortal muses, whether our books are raging successes or remarkably unnoticed, we all work the same way: word by word, line by line, page by page. No matter what century we’ve written in, sober or besotted, famous or forgotten, iconic or unknown, we each set out on the journey of writing unprotected, venturing into territory as yet uncharted, to create plots that sometimes befuddle us and characters that don’t hesitate to disobey or defy us .
Whatever differences there are in the writing process, one thing seems clear: each of us braves that beguiling and treacherous path alone.
Merry Jones is the author of the Zoe Hayes mystery series, including THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS and THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS, as well as non-fiction and humor books, including I LOVE HIM, BUT… and IF SHE WEREN’T MY BEST FRIEND I’D KILL HER.