I saw a quote going around Facebook among writing friends that shows a line drawing of a woman leaning over a typewriter. Above her, it says, “Nothing makes me want to clean, cook, fold laundry, daydream, or nap like having a writing deadline.”
Sometimes that kind of non-writing activity frees my mind to come up with a great idea; but much of the time, I’m doing those things to avoid the work of writing; it’s resistance.
Instead of cleaning, cooking, folding laundry, daydreaming, or napping, try following Raymond Chandler’s writing approach. The short of it is this. When you sit down to write, follow two simple rules: “a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else” (154, Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler).
In more detail, Chandler explains in a 1949 letter to Alex Barris:
I write when I can and I don’t write when I can’t…I’m always seeing little pieces by writers about how they don’t ever wait for inspiration; they just sit down at their little desks every morning at eight, rain or shine…. However blank their minds or dull their wits, no nonsense about inspiration from them. I offer them my admiration and take care to avoid their books. Me, I wait for inspiration, although I don’t necessarily call it by that name…The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Either write or nothing…. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself. (153, 154, ibid)
This flies in the face of the well-known quote attributed to several people, including William Faulkner:
I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.
Or what Barbara Kingsolver describes in High Tide in Tucson. She said she longs for more time of her own, and silence. She writes:
My jaw drops when I hear of the rituals some authors use to put themselves in the so-called mood to write: William Gass confesses to spending a couple of hours every morning photographing dilapidated corners of his city. Diane Ackerman begins each summer day “by choosing and arranging flowers for a Zenlike hour or so.” She listens to music obsessively, then speed-walks for an hour, every single day. (95-96, High Tide in Tucson)
Kingsolver contrasts that with her reality:
My muse wears a baseball cap, backward. The minute my daughter is on the school bus, he saunters up behind me with a bat slung over his shoulder and says oh so directly, “Okay, author lady, you’ve got six hours till that bus rolls back up the drive. You can sit down and write, now, or you can think about looking for a day job.” (p. 96, ibid)
Okay, so which is more realistic? Which will produce better writing?
Better to stare out the window and wait? Or sit down and write, now, whatever you can as best you can?
I say we conduct an experiment. We’ll try both.
First, in the week ahead, to avoid resisting the work of writing and to write inspired, I propose we try Raymond Chandler’s approach and report back.
When you set aside your four hours, or two hours, or half an hour to write, don’t sit for five minutes and then click over to check email or pop up to fold laundry. Sit there, like Chandler said. The idea is to sit and write, but you don’t have to write, and if you don’t feel like it, you shouldn’t try.
Remember, you can look out of the window, stand on your head, or writhe on the floor. But resist any other positive thing. Don’t read, write letters, glance at magazines, or check email.
Either write or nothing.
Chances are, boredom will free your mind to find inspiration after all. At least that’s my theory.
Let’s try it this week. Let’s test out Raymond Chandler’s writing approach and share how it goes. I would really like to know if you produce more or stronger work…and if you spend any time writhing on the floor.
Click on the podcast player above or use subscription options below to listen to the full episode.
- Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane. New York: Columbus University Press, 1981
- High Tide in Tucson, by Barbara Kingsolver
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