Friday, May 11, 2012

The Habit of Art

Raymond Carver at work

A very good writer friend of mine recently resolved to find the time to write 300 words a day. Regardless of how busy she was with work, travelling, exercising, house guests, or social events, she was determined to make it happen. And she has. I cannot tell you how much I admire her for it.

Right now, she says she doesn’t know if what she’s writing will amount to anything, but she believes that the habit itself is important. Like playing scales on the piano, it keeps the writing mind supple and exercised and open to inspiration. And every day my friend spends time on the story that’s still emerging in her head, the characters develop a little further and the arc becomes a little clearer.

This reminds me of a time many years ago when I went to hear the short story writer Raymond Carver speak at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Carver was a big, shy man with cropped hair, wearing a large white shirt that hung loose over his waistband. He seemed uneasy about being in the spotlight and spoke so quietly it verged on mumbling. He’d had a famously difficult childhood in Washington State, married at 19 and father of two children by the age of 20. To support his family, he worked as a janitor, sawmill laborer, and delivery man, while studying creative writing with the novelist John Gardner at Chico State University in California.

At the ICA event, he told us how his life in those days was so crammed with work and family that the only time he could find time to write was in his car late at nights, using the steering wheel as a desk. And he described how a friend of his used to sit for ten minutes every day with his fingers on the typewriter keys - “to encourage the habit of art if you will.” Those words resonated with me so much that I wrote them down and so was able to find them in my journal 27 years later.

I agree absolutely that the daily “habit of art” is essential to any writer, and yet somehow I’ve never managed to do it myself. Instead I wait for chunks of time to open up – the occasional day free of commitments, a week between editing jobs, a weekend writing retreat – but, as in most lives, these are not frequent occurrences. I tell myself it’s hard for me to commit to writing every day because my work schedule is so variable but that’s just a way to rationalize my lack of courage and discipline. I need to stop making excuses and – like my friend – just do it. And I need to do it sooner rather than later.

Raymond Carver died of lung cancer in 1988 at the age of only 50. We never know how much time we have so we need to use it well – even the odd half hours between errands and working, even the hours late at night or early in the morning when it feels like your brain isn’t capable of producing a coherent sentence. It’s all time we won’t get back. As Jay McInerney wrote in an appreciation of Carver in the New York Times the year after he died, “Whatever dark mysteries lurk at the heart of the writing process, he insisted on a single trade secret: that you had to survive, find some quiet, and work hard every day.”
Let's see if I can pull that off.

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