“When writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out ‘Is he as crazy as I am?’” – Joyce Carol Oates
I love that quote because it’s so true – it is what we want to know. It’s the answer to the one question that – if we were given the opportunity – we’d ask. We wouldn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas from?”, we wouldn’t ask for tips on how to write or cure writer’s block or anything like that, we’d ask (if we could ask the question without sounding crazy in the first place): do you, like I, ever feel sometimes that maybe you’re slightly insane?
When I read interviews with writers, I’m not interested in how they come up with their ideas or their theories on fiction as much as I am interested in what their working day is. There are technical questions, of course. Do they write with pen and paper or on a computer? Or old school on a typewriter? Or by opening a vein and scrawling in blood on the walls of their room? (Oh. Just me then.)
But there are other – less technical – questions also. Do they write at night or in the morning? How long do they write for? How many words a day? Are they crazy party animals or solitary hermits? I love reading the writer’s work, but oftentimes when I read about a writer I’m more interested in their personality than hearing them talk about their work. Because – while there are plenty of interviews about their new book or their thoughts on fiction – interviews with writers about their day-to-day lives or their own personalities are very scarce. It’s always why they do the work, rarely howthey do the work.
In a very interesting article here http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/32/pendle.php, George Pendle tells us that
“Such disparate authors as Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, and Fernando Pessoa all wrote standing up, while Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, and Truman Capote [wrote] lying down.”
Indeed, there was even a literary spat about it. Flaubert claimed that, “One cannot think and write except when seated” to which Nietzsche responded, “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” I remember reading somewhere else that Benjamin Franklin wrote in the bath and that Edgar Allen Poe wrote with a cat sitting on his shoulder. And, most bizarrely, Robin Moore, author of The Green Berets, also wrote standing up. But naked. Which is a novel way of approaching it but probably not very feasible in the winter in Ireland.
Now all of this might seem rather trivial to some, but the fact is we’re writers. We’ve read all the writing advice and the theories on literature. But we also have to sit alone in a room and face a blank page or computer screen. And it’s at that point that you want to know if there are others like you out there and – if so – how do they do it? What is their writing day like? And, indeed, what is their writing room like?
I don’t know if Joyce Carol Oates has ever seen the regular feature “Writer’s Rooms” on the Guardian’s website (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/writersrooms) but if she has, it’s probably No. 1 in her “Favourites” folder. This has to be the ultimate in writing voyeurism: actually getting to SEE where your favourite writers do their work. There are too many writers to mention on the site but I’ll leave you with a sneak peek of one. This is Seamus Heaney’s writing room: