Writing’s always been an integral part of my day, as natural as getting out of bed in the morning, or having breakfast. In fact, my writing time follows immediately after breakfast and extends, depending upon my teaching schedule or other obligations, into mid or late afternoon. Most days, it’s a wrap by 5 p.m.
I maintain this routine—as I have since I left grad school—seven days a week, year round. I’m fiercely protective of those hours at my desk, thinking and composing. By that I mean I make every effort to schedule appointments, classes and all other activities later in the day, so as not to interfere with it. Friends and colleagues are considerate enough not to call me in the mornings, I keep my cell phone turned off, allow no distraction from radio or TV or internet, which leaves me, happily, with no excuse for not getting something down on the page.
With a regimen like that one might think I’d be as productive as Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, though that isn’t the case. On a good day, I might produce one to two pages. On a rare very good day, maybe three or four. I console myself with the fact that an output of one page a day still comes out to a modest-sized novel a year—which is the goal I’ve set for myself these days.
Adhering to this schedule has never been a problem for me, most likely because I’ve been writing since I was a child and over time I’ve simply built up a tolerance for sitting long hours at a desk and engaging in that exercise of brain, heart and hand that results in words making sense on a page. What is a problem are those periods when ideas are in short supply, when I’m between novels, and my mind seems to have withdrawn into hibernation mode. (I won’t call it writer’s block because that term suggests victimization, as if one’s been attacked by a disease of some sort. I think of it as a period of gearing up for the next story I’m going to write.)
Those periods it’s tough to stick it out at the desk, but still I force myself to put in the time, pad open to a blank page in front of me, letting my mind run stream-of-consciousness wild, hoping something will spark and I’ll at least get to jot down a few notes, if not that often elusive first sentence.
And what is it that causes that spark to ignite?
An imponderable question. But for me, I need something—an impulse—that commands attention, that promises a reward if I pursue it. Tennessee Williams has said that it was the image of a lady in white sitting on a porch that prompted him to write A Streetcar Named Desire. The lady in white became Blanche du Bois, and the drama evolved from there. So, too, for me such an image or impulse—a woman standing a certain way by the side of the road, a hurtful memory from childhood, or whatever—is necessary for me to begin writing.
Sometimes those impulses come “freely” and spontaneously. They glide from the recesses of the mind as if on wheels, as if the story they’re attached to has already been plotted out inside me and all I have to do is write it down. When they don’t come easily, I seek out various kinds of stimulation: I read as much as possible (fiction and non-fiction), I go to movies and plays, I devour newspapers and magazines, in search of something that will incite me. And because a strong sense of place is vital to the stories I tell, I will return to places that have intrigued me, or travel to new places I’ve read or heard about. These latter trips—visiting a place I haven’t been before—serve an additional purpose. The simple act of going away for a few days or a week, leaving behind the comfort of home and the support of family and friends, wandering alone so to speak into the unknown, roils an anxiety that despite its discomfort and fears (perhaps because of them), awakens my creative spirit. So that, returning home, ideas begin to flow again and I’m back at my desk with something to scribble onto that empty page in front of me.
That’s when I know I’m fully engaged by an impulse: when one idea opens into another, when lines of dialogue, descriptions of characters, outlines of scenes, etc. begin appearing without effort on my mind’s horizon, when it seems everything I encounter in the world around me is feeding me material.
This, too, I’ve learned: it takes very little for me to begin telling a story: an impulse, an image, an opening line for a scene. It is in the act of writing itself that the story emerges—one sentence, one scene taking me to the next, the story re-defining itself each step of the way.
Philip Cioffari is Professor of English at William Paterson University where he teaches in the MFA writing program. He is the author of a collection of stories, A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt First Fiction Prize, and two novels:Catholic Boys, and Jesusville. He wrote and directed the independent feature film, Love in the Age of Dion. He can be reached at: www.philipcioffari.com.
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