Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TIME OUT : May 2, 1999
Relax, it's just another deadline
A little over six years ago I illustrated, for the Hindu Literary Review, a feature entitled "Pain: best cure for writer's cramp?" It was a discussion between several leading Western critics on why national or personal suffering always produces a higher standard of writing. They agreed that there was a connection between suffering and creativity - but none of them voted to go and settle down in Russia or Argentina.
Now since we do not in India live under conditions of tyranny (though who knows how true that will be 20 years from now), any suffering has to be artificial; a newspaper deadline, or a publisher's contract, or a swift kick in the pants from a friend.
And once the self-imposed task is over - the chapter, poem or incisive critical article written - the writer must surely relax? That is not necessarily true of the entire genus. There is an irritating breed of the animal to whom writing is relaxation.
I must admit I simply don't understand them. To find my wife Kavery coming home from a hard day's surgery and cheerfully sitting down to a couple of hours at the WP sets my teeth on edge; especially when she doesn't really mind whether those couple of hours produce fifty words or five hundred, and when I have not been able to master my indolence enough to sit down at the thing at all, let alone turn out some verbiage. And that deadline inexorably draws one day nearer....
Needless to say, those who write to relax are amateurs - who may end up selling
books, and even making money - but what distinguishes them from my own variety
of hack is that they don't have to. They don't have to live by the
word, because they are not paid by the word. One American journalist has
put it like this:
...(this book) was fun to write, and that's rare - for me, at least, because I've always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it's a bit like making love, which is only fun for amateurs. Old bawds don't do much giggling.
Our lives have become insanely complicated this century. In the 1920s, Eliot wrote that modern poetry had to be complex, because modern life was complex. But only a few years earlier, Rilke had mooned off by himself for some weeks at Duino castle and written the first couple of his transcendental elegies. Now he wouldn't find the time: his appointments with his agent and his accountant alone would have him haring back to the city twice a week.
Complexity in our daily lives certainly affects not only professionals but those who write to relax, too. There are all the odd jobs about the house, the letters to be written, the bank to be visited, the cat to be fed, the plants to be watered, the telephone calls to be made. So even for members of this unnatural species, two thousand words a day is a very healthy average. But for the most part, they have to fit them here and there between two dozen daily chores.
Come to think of it, probably luckier are those who can sit at the office all day in front of their screens, expected only to write - but that's if they have no ambition of writing the great novel which will win them the Booker, which I'm afraid all too many of us do have. And as for the really lucky ones, they're those who can write at home without needing to, and find even the household chores relaxing....
But we're supposed to be talking of ways of relaxing. There are no hard and fast rules, of course; every writer does what comes naturally to him or her. Some work in the garden; some take long walks; some have orgies; some meditate; some listen to music; and some I have heard of just switch the writing task, perhaps turning out a letter or an article between two chapters of a book.
The problem is that no serious writer really has time to relax, now. That's because the actual writing part of writing - the setting of pen to paper or fingers to keyboard - takes up a steadily diminishing part of a writer's time. In the big league, they're making arrangements for their next public appearance for lecture-tour when they're not actually doing it; and even the smaller-timers are trying to make it on to the invitation list to a literary festival or a reading, or they're writing reviews.
Another factor is that there's so much being written, even professional critics haven't the time to keep up with it. The feature I alluded to, "Pain: best cure for writer's cramp?" is punctuated by observations (from the top men in the field) like "I'm sorry, it's so many years since I read Milosz" or "I've only seen references to the articles you mean" or, incredibly, "Well, poetry's not really my subject...." Time to relax? Are you crazy?
I stopped worrying about all these things, including trying to relax, long ago; when I found that if I didn't worry all the time about actually writing, I'd never get any done. My method works.... I have often written two thousand words in one spell of two hours, and performed that feat thrice in the same day. And the product required practically no changes when I re-read it the next day. But mine is a special technique, arrived at over years of assignments and deadlines. It's no secret, because few can live with that kind of hair-trigger pressure - I don't have to boast when I say it.
My way is to take Time Out, to do all my relaxing - reading, goofing off,
dreaming, drinking - before I do any writing. Then, when 95 per cent of my
allotted time is up, and I have to do 3,000 words in a day and a half, and
I can imagine that look in the editor's eye, then I sit down.
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