March 31st, 2010

The Odd Job

By Ainsley Drew

Illustration by Jennifer Daniel

Pens, pencils, Sharpie, lipstick, paper, notepads, netbooks, iPhones, index cards, Post-It notes, cocktail napkins, hotel room walls…the list of utensils employed in writing is as vast as the variety of drill bits available at Home Depot. (Which is actually 425, but for metaphor’s sake, let’s just pretend it’s infinite.) When scrutinizing contrivances that lend themselves to the act of penning prose, it’s better to scope the how rather than the why. After all, if a carpenter is only as good as his hammer and nails, then that carpenter better have a sturdy toolbox. To fiddle around with metaphor again, a writer’s idiosyncrasies are likely his or her toolbox.

Alexandre Dumas is rumored to have chewed on an apple every morning at 7AM in the same spot under the Arc de Triomphe. Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Margaret Atwood writes everything out longhand and insists on creating birthdays for her characters in order to read their horoscopes. Dan Brown gets up at 4AM seven days a week, uses an hourglass timer to mark the hours, and does a fairly rigorous calisthenics routine while writing. Dickens walked over twenty miles a day and indulged in a little OCD, by placing objects on his desk in certain positions and touching them three times for luck. Faulkner’s ritual was getting tanked while writing, while Balzac gulped nearly a dozen espressos a day. Writers are known for being eccentric, but it begs the question as to which came first. Rituals and quirks are often seen as part of the writer’s personality, when, often, they are simply part of the process. Peculiar habits can serve as the architecture for their great works.

I wish I could compare myself to anyone capable of penning a magnum opus, but the only parallel I can draw between myself and those famous enough to have their tics documented is a rough patch in my youth where I called whiskey my muse. But I do have my own habits, and while I won’t call them habits of a “highly effective” person, I call them my own. In order to be the most productive, I write early, usually before 8AM. This requires a fair amount of discipline and a very loud alarm. While working, I’m known to snack compulsively, usually on frozen green grapes. I drink countless cups of tea, and break only occasionally to check my email in order to make sure nobody has gotten pregnant or died in the span of time that I’ve been writing. I always work with a minimum of four windows open (browser, not apartment,) and one of them can’t be related to work. Are these habits overly weird? No. But they’re my personal method, a system of checks-and-balances that I’m not inclined to break.

If I were forced to write at 4PM, in an office, wearing a skirt suit, I don’t know if anything brilliant would pour out of my phalanges. Just as a professional baseball player won’t change his lucky socks, or a football player might not shave or put out before the Big Game, I’m reticent to alter what works for me. For example, would I eat Cheez-Its while writing? Probably not. I hate Cheez-Its. But if I had a stroke of genius while wiping away orange crumbs of the stuff from my lips, maybe I’d start buying Nabisco in bulk. I do what worked the last time, and along the way I’ve developed a rigid protocol that at the very least allows me to feel productive. Every nail the carpenter hits doesn’t go in the right way, but if he lines it up with his hammer like he did last time, he’ll likely eventually build a house. Every sentence doesn’t fall on the far end of perfection, but I know that if I munch on frozen produce, I’m at least psychologically halfway there.

I’ve observed that this isn’t just me. My business partner will often devour pounds of candy when on a tear, and I’m told he sweats profusely while writing. I don’t. I just feel like I’m going to puke. Usually from the pervasive smell of Skittles breath.

I read an article in Psychology Today that talked about the way the brain is hardwired for procrastination. Part of the theory is that it perceives uncertainty as dangerous, and a possible cause of pain. I surmise that the particular habits and rituals that writers go through are part of making our brains feel safe. They are the tools that alleviate anxiety and allow the truly terrifying force of raw creativity to spring forth. To bring up that exhausted carpenter again, he’s probably aware that slamming a hammer and maneuvering sharp things into pieces of heavy plywood is a potentially dangerous trade, but he knows that if he brings his tools and utilizes the many safety rituals of his job, he’ll likely leave with all of his fingers. Maybe swilling doppios and applying Mitchum by the hour aren’t equivocal to strapping on safety goggles in a work-zone. But for writers, we promise, the things that craft the words you read often have nothing to do with ink and paper.