“No, no, no,” the loud voice with the unusual accent startled me, and I looked up from the legal pad I was writing on. The man stood there, shaking his head. Then he pointed to the pad of paper. “No pen and paper. No, you do this,” and he motioned as if typing on a keyboard. I laughed. I knew what he meant, that I shouldn’t be writing with pen and paper, but with a laptop or computer.
I often go to the library to write, but I’d never seen this man before.
And I always write my rough drafts on paper, have done so ever since I was a little girl with her Indian Chief tablet.
I told the stranger this, expecting him to drop the subject and move on. Couldn’t he see I was busy?
“This not 1950. Not 1960. You use computer,” he continued. Then, “You write book?”
“Well, I am working on a book, but this is an article for the newspaper,” I replied, and his eyes lit up with interest.
“They pay?” he asked.
“Yes, they pay, and I have a deadline to meet…” my voice trailed off. He took the hint, and left his backpack on a nearby table and left that area of the library.
I breathed a sigh of relief and got back to work on the essay I was actually working on. The deadline was nearly a month away, but when I go somewhere to write, I don’t like to be bothered, and most people understand deadlines. It didn’t take long before I was immersed in my writing again.
I didn’t look up when I heard coughing. If I didn’t meet his eyes, maybe he would just go away.
Coughing again, then the rifling of pages.
I looked up, and my husband was sitting at the table with the backpack on it, reading a magazine. He smiled.
“You must have really been into your writing, that you didn’t notice me come in.”
“I thought you were someone else. Someone I wanted to avoid looking at so they would leave me alone. You might meet him soon,” and I gestured toward the backpack. Then I went back to my writing, and David continued perusing the magazine, not asking any further questions. He knew me well enough to know I didn’t like my work interrupted.
Just a few minutes later, the man stood in front of my table again, a piece of paper in hand. He gave me the paper that he’d carefully copied down some computer addresses on. “You go on computer and watch these,” he insisted. “You Tube videos with
subtitles you understand. They are really good. One about liver cancer.”
Okaaaaaayyyy… David was intrigued now; his eyebrows went up with intense interest in the scene playing out before him.
I promised the man I’d check out the links, and then I looked back down at my paper, inwardly sighing. Was I ever going to be able to write in peace?
The man left the room again, and David asked, “Is that who you were trying to avoid?” I nodded, and then started gathering up my papers. “I think we should head home. I’ll go use the bathroom and wait for you at the bottom of the stairs.”
I was stopped short by the man before I even got to the stairway. He held a thin paperback book out to me. A quick glance told me it was about salesmen.
“You read this,” the man urged, “It is a very good book. The author wrote many good books.” He pressed it into my hand, insistent, and I watched him go back to his table before I headed to the 658 shelf area where he must have gotten the book. I slid it back onto the shelf, covering it up a little with some other books. I noted a book by Seth Godin nearby that I must have missed in my last search on the subject of marketing. I decided to check it out. Maybe I’d find something I could use in my book. At the desk, I glanced into the other room, where I could see the strange man, sitting at the table my husband had just vacated. His back was to me. Good. David and I walked out of the library together and headed to our respective bicycles.
“Mary! Mary!” I heard a librarian call from the door. “Did you check out the book, (and she named the book the man had urged on me)? A gentleman inside says he gave it to you to check out.”
“I returned it to the shelf,” I informed her, and she went back inside.
I looked at David. “She won’t be able to find it and will think I stole it. I snuck it between two books towards the back.”
He laughed. “I’ll go help her find it,” he reassured me and went inside.
He came out a few minutes later. “I can’t find it.”
“Look in the 658’s,” I said, and he nodded and went back in. I waited a bit, and then followed shortly afterwards where I saw him at the top of the stairs with the book held up triumphantly. I turned and headed towards the door, hearing footsteps behind
me. I was certain it was my husband so I paused as I went through the doorway, and then turned around.
It was the man, shaking his head again.
“Mary, why you not check out my book?” he asked, and I fumbled with my messenger bag, pulling out the book I did check out.
“I don’t have a lot of time to read, but thanks to you, I found this book near that one on the shelf, and it will maybe help me with my book,” the words tumbled out of me in a rush.
“It is a good book. You need to read it.”
“I looked at it a little. It didn’t look like anything that would help me,” I said lamely, at the same time realizing the incongruity of apologizing for something so bizarre. So I’d ignored a book recommendation of a virtual stranger who was intent on giving me advice I neither requested nor invited? He’d interrupted my work, criticized my method of writing, and foisted YouTube links and books upon me, and I was apologizing?
“Mary, Mary, you disappoint me,” he said sadly as he walked off. David came up behind me and asked what the man had said to me outside. We both stood there, perplexed, watching the man walk away. Why had this stranger approached me, and why did he think it was imperative that I read a book about being a salesman? Or watch a YouTube video about liver cancer? Why was it so important to him that he questioned the librarian after I’d left? How did he know my name? (Unless he heard the librarian calling it out?)
Should I take a second look at that book next time I am in the library? Could he have been the author? Will this man bother me again? These are the questions I ask myself.
This experience also got me to thinking about more than whether or not I need to find another place to write. It made me wonder about the writing habits of others.
I have my own little foibles and rituals when it comes to writing. I’ve been using legal pads for my rough drafts for at least 20 years, first the traditional yellow legal pads, and now my favorites are of the off-white variety. I am convinced, however, that I
cannot write anything of value on pastel-colored legal pad paper. I am just as picky about the pens I choose. Years ago, I used pencil on paper, but I only write with black ink pens now. Not blue, not red, but black. Right now my favorite pens are the Bic Velocity pens, with a smooth ink. I won’t use a fine point pen; it has to be a pen with a rounded end. I often play music in the background, particularly a Kenny G CD. I prefer writing with a cup of coffee nearby, or, if it is afternoon, a cup of tea. The first rough draft of anything is best written away from my house, either at a restaurant or the library. This past winter all my rough drafts were written at my mother’s empty house. Once the first rough draft is written, I type it out onto the computer, making changes as I go. Then I print that out and let it sit, either an hour or two, or overnight. I make my first edits on that typewritten sheet, again with pen, and this time the pen can be any color. Then it is back to the computer, making the changes on the computer document, and then printing it out again. I do a limited amount of editing on the document on my screen, using the Microsoft Word program to check spelling and grammar, but the majority of the editing is done on paper. When I look back on my early writing, I am amazed how little editing I did. It showed, but I didn’t know any better. Now, I just assume my first rough draft is total crap, and I go from there. The first rough draft is just a way to get started, to get something down. Some articles practically write themselves and I don’t go through many edits. The newspaper article I did on extreme couponing was like that. Other articles and essays I labor over for days, even weeks, practically sweating blood. Then there are those that require a bit of research for background, and once I have that completed the rest of the article goes smoothly. There are essays that go through the editing process over and over, until I am satisfied that they are, indeed, completed. Reading them out loud helps me catch any rough spots. My current book project? It was started in March of 2009 and I went gung-ho on it through July of 2009, and then abandoned it for a few months while I concentrated on another book project. David encouraged me to pick it up again in March of 2010, when the New York Times called couponing the “newest extreme sport.” At that time I had a general outline and three chapters. It was fairly easy to write a book proposal since I’d already written one for my cancer memoir. This proposal drew a lot more attention than that one, and by July of 2010, I had an agent. The proposal has changed a lot since then and I’ve completed most of the chapters of my book, save for the two it should be the easiest for me to written. My goal is to complete those two this month. Of course, once I have an
editor/publisher, there will be more editing and more revising, which I actually enjoy. I love playing with words. I told my daughter Emily the other day that if there was a pile of words in the middle of the floor I would play with them all day like Lego pieces. For me, editing is playing with words.
How do other writers write? In the latest issue of Mental Floss magazine (September/October 2011, page 26), the editors ask just that question in their article, “6 Freakishly Effective Ways to Court the Muse.” My favorites from this article?
German writer Fredrich von Schiller composed the 1785 poem “Ode to Joy” which Beethoven later set to music in his Ninth Symphony. The poet insisted that he needed the smell of rotten apples in the air to write, so he kept his desk drawer stocked with rotten apples.
Poet Dame Edith Sitwell cultivated a state of tranquility by lying down in a coffin every morning when she woke up. After a few hours, she’d feel calm enough to write.
Victor Hugo, the French author of realist novels that later became musicals conquered writer’s block by shutting himself in a room, completely naked, with just a desk, a pen, and paper.
Benjamin Franklin loved writing in his bathtub.
Other writer’s rituals I have heard about:
Truman Capote would write while laying down, and always in longhand for his rough drafts. Even his typewritten drafts were done lying down, with the typewriter balanced on his knees. In a 1957 Paris Review interview, he explained. “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed, or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand pencil. Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”
Philip Roth works standing up, pacing around as he thinks. He claimed to walk half a mile for every page he writes. He works at a lectern that doesn’t face the view of his studio window, to avoid distraction.
Honore de Balzac would drink up to fifty cups of coffee every single day. If it was unavailable in liquid form or if he didn’t want to wait for it to brew, he simply popped a handful of coffee beans into his mouth and chewed.
Giving new meaning to “cut and paste,” Eudora Welty straight-pinned her stories together as she wrote. In a 1953 correspondence with friend William Maxwell she wrote, “I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip that could be seen as a whole and at a glance~ helpful and realistic. When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table and pinned and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction…I
Even authors who have less “weird” habits have established some sort of schedule or ritual to their writing. Just like I now write something every single morning, even if it is a letter to a friend, these writers learned to fit writing into their lives:
Joyce Carol Oates writes in longhand, preferring to write in the mornings, before breakfast. When her writing in going well, she can work for hours without a break, finally imbibing in breakfast at 2:00 in the afternoon!
Stephen King states in his book, “On Writing” that he writes 10 pages a day without fail, even on holidays.
James Joyce prided himself in taking his time with each sentence. A friend once asked Joyce in the street if he’d had a good day writing and Joyce happily replied yes. How much had he written? Joyce replied, “Three sentences.”
I am always curious about how others write, especially my favorite authors, or those I know have large families. How did Elizabeth Berg and Jacquelyn Mitchard write surrounded by little children? Or Danielle Steele?
Every once in a while we will learn something about a famous author that makes us recognize something in ourselves. For me, that was Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007), upon reading her Crosswick Journals. In addition to novels and poetry, L’Engle wrote many nonfiction works, including the autobiographical Crosswicks Journals and other explorations of the subjects of faith and art. Never before had I read something that gave me so many “aha!” moments. I’d written her once to tell her about the effect of her words on me, but sadly, she was too ill to respond. Instead, her grand-daughter wrote me, thanking me for my letter and telling me how ill her grandmother was.
Someone once asked her if she was writing anything at the moment and Madeleine L’Engle replied, “Of course I’m writing something now. I’m not nice when I’m not writing.”
That’s me, in a nutshell.
Just ask my husband.
What about you? How do you write?
SIDENOTE: If you are wondering, did I look at the YouTube videos? I just did, and they all pertain to selling a juice that claims to cure cancer, among other things. That explains a lot. It also explains the book on salesmanship. Obviously, this man is either a distributor or a believer of this magic juice. Either way, it saddens me to think that someone probably took advantage of his limited English language skills.