Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers: Part Two

Courtney Maum

Writers, they’re just like us! They fret, they procrastinate, they fondle talismans, sometimes they even pray. This week, in the second part of “Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers,” we’ll get down and dirty with some seriously successful scribes. But first, I want to reintroduce you to my kneeless, odd-toed ungulate.

As I mentioned last week, I keep a plastic rhinoceros on my desk to ward off passive aggressive emails. Well, here he is up close, doing his job. He cost me $4.99. More expensive than an intern, but well worth it! Now let’s get down to business.

Jim Shepard (You Think That’s Bad , Project X ): I have all sorts of little rituals I go through before writing fiction, some of which are so humiliating there’s no way I’d put them in an article. But here’s one weird one I’ve noticed that’s developed recently: while, like most people, I give myself a little while at the beginning of my work day to check email for anything that needs immediate attention, I’ve discovered that there needs to be an even number remaining in my inbox when I shut e-mail down before I begin writing.

Janice Erlbaum (Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, Have You Found Her): I go into the bathroom, smoke half a joint, and stare at myself in the mirror until I figure out what needs to be said that day. Then I sit down at my desk and wind up writing something totally unrelated. I didn’t send you the ritual I have of masturbating to horse porn before writing.

Melissa Broder (Meat Heart, Editor of  La Petite Zine): I do most of my writing on the subway or while walking. Motion is generative. So one pre-writing ritual is getting on the A train.

Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of One Story): I have a lot of weird rituals—the trick is that they are always changing, depending on what I’m working on. I have a row of wishing stones I’ve collected from around the world, and sometimes I just sit there holding the cold rocks in my hands until they start to warm up. I have a piece of driftwood I picked up on Whidbey Island when I was in a really dark place and sometimes I spin that piece of wood in my hands. It helps me figure out what comes next. But the biggest ritual these days is taking a picture with my phone every time I walk over the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn (one of the most polluted bodies of water in the U.S.A.). My writing desk, and the One Story office, are both on the other side. I take pictures of shadows, of water, of chain link fences, of rust, of graffiti. The idea is to notice what no one else has noticed, to pull myself out of my regular way of thinking, to slow down. The canal is full of sewage and medical waste, but I find something beautiful there, every time I cross over.

Hannah’s first Gowanus picture (2010)

Matthew Salesses (The Last Repatriate, Fiction Editor at Good Men Project): I can’t write distracted, so in order to eliminate the possibility, I go on Facebook and Twitter until I am bored enough with both that I will feel okay about not checking in on other people for a while. Actually, maybe this is more about debasing myself. I think a writer has to be happy and also full of self-hatred to write at one’s best. So, basically, be in denial.

Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands): Before I sit down, I need time to wander in the unknown for awhile, either psychically or physically, somewhat aimlessly, yet in a state of awareness, allowing seeming distractions to build up some energy, maybe around an image or idea or sound, until something reveals itself: a pattern, an echo, something that resonates with whatever it is I think I’m supposed to be working on. If I simply sit down and focus, nothing unexpected reveals itself.

Heather Hartley (Knock Knock, Paris Editor of Tin House): Nail Polish. OPI. The newest addition to my desk. In a rare moment of trying out a new routine of hand care, I bought a bottle of “Gettin’Miss Piggy with It!,” a glittery red holiday shade. Although more polish made it on my computer than my nails, after that first bottle, I just kept buying and trying. From “Don’t Touch My Tutu!” to “Hearts and Tarts” to “Pedal Faster Suzi!,” I got hooked on polish. Maybe it would help improve my writing in some sparkly way—or at least get me to sit longer at my desk while the third coat of “Gouda Gouda Two Shoes” dried.  I keep adding to the miniature parade of polish lining my desk—I like to think the little bottles somehow help me concentrate better. Next on my list: “You Callin’ Me a Lyre?”

Michelle Hoover (The Quickening): I generally try to solve plot problems in my head like a weird kind of lullaby to help me fall asleep at night. I use the same plate, coffee cup, and spoon for weeks at a time to avoid any unnecessary clean-up after my usual daytime writing fare.

Simon Winchester (Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, The Man Who Loved China): I have an ancient wooden barn, 100 yards or so from the main house. Inside the barn I tend to follow an unvarying routine. First, as the dawn breaks, I spend two hours looking back over what I wrote the day before. Only when I feel satisfied that what I have on the screen represents as good a first draft as I can offer do I press the print button on the keyboard. Once that task is done I leave the barn and walk back to the house for breakfast. I read the papers, drink enough coffee to kick-start both mind and body, and, at nine exactly, I head back again, this time to write for real. For 100 days, in fact: for 100 identical days of a solitary, writerly routine that, for me at least, is the only way I know to get a book properly and fully written.

Alexander Chee (Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night): I deeply need to not be found when I write. So, if I have any remaining rituals, they involve being deceptive about where the writing is happening and when. I don’t know why this is, but I need to feel not just anonymous, like I’m no one at the cafe/library/office, and also, that no one I know can find me. Wherever I say I’m working, I’m not there. I do this because once I’m obliterated that way, it feels like anything is possible.

Darin Strauss (Half a Life, More Than it Hurts You): I’m lucky to be working now with the truly brilliant David Lipsky, so we talk almost every day. But even before we began collaborating, we often would chat before heading off into our separate projects—and he memorably called those daily talks our “Springer Motors” time, so-named for Harry Angstrom place of work through Updike’s last two Rabbit books. In the series, a lot of Rabbit’s office hours involved shooting the shit with his friend Charlie Stavros; and to me, doing that very thing feels important, when you work alone—emulating that office-cooler sort of fellowship, if just for a few minutes, even over the cell, before returning to the aloneness of the writing desk.

Adam Levin (Hot Pink, The Instructions): I eat one 6 oz. serving of Fage yogurt with a teaspoon of honey and fifteen whole almonds, then respond to email while drinking cup of tea #1, glasses #1 and #2 of water, and smoking cigarettes #s 1-3.  After that, I get more tea, more water, and then try my best to stop counting stuff.

Rituals de Levin

Justin Torres (We the Animals): There are about 13 songs for which I know every word sung, every breath, every pause. These songs cover the range of human experience. I sing these songs into an air microphone, and dance before an imagined, disinterested audience in an imagined smoky bar. I’m pouring my heart out, dancing sadly, or grandly, and no one cares. I find this prepares me perfectly for the day’s work.

Chloe Caldwell (Legs Get Led Astray): Each week or so, I make one list of what I need to get done and would like to get done. I hang it above my desk, and update it as I go. I drink black coffee with cinnamon in it and put large headphones on over my ears. There’s a mirror above my desk, so sometimes I put on a trucker hat and/or bright lipstick, so I can imagine I’m someone else. It makes me braver. When I’m writing something kind of hard or hurtful, I listen to really bad pop music to remind myself to keep my mood up, like “Lucky” by Britney Spears or “Party In The U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus. I’ve never told anyone that.

Lynne Tillman (Someday This Will Be Funny, No Lease on Life): Anxiety and compulsion propel me. First, compulsion, then anxiety, or anxiety then compulsion. Depression is no help, no use. I don’t want to die, so I feel compelled to do something. These neuroses familiarly push me out of bed, and I walk toward the kitchen, and on the way I glance at my computer. I boil water and make a pot of very strong English tea; while it steeps, I slap my face with cold water. With my favorite tea mug in my hand, I walk toward my computer and turn it on. I do this casually, as if I weren’t doing it. This is counter phobic behavior. Then I might say to myself, I’m just going to look at what I’ve already written, or if there is nothing written, I tell myself, I just have to write one line, or I just have to sit at the computer for ten minutes. Anyone can sit in front of a screen for ten minutes. Sometimes I put a CD in the computer, something that might rouse me, Aaron Copeland or Marvin Gaye. Sometimes I can’t find the music I think might help me. Then I worry that nothing can help me. And so on.

Courtney Maum is The “Celebrity Book Review” humor columnist for Electric Literature. Her work has recently appeared online in The Rumpus, Bomb Magazine, Thought Catalog, and others. A frequent reader at NY-based series and a Literary Death Match champion, she can be found on Twitter at @cmaum.