Patricia Highsmith’s handbag

May 5, 2016 at 11:48 pm | Posted in creativity, writers' habits, Writing | Leave a comment
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Writers' daily rituals

Writers’ daily rituals

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), prolific author of crime novels plus the novel Carol, recently made into a film directed by Todd Haynes, was a prolific drinker and smoker as well. She smoked a packet of Gaulloises a day. Famously not very good with people, Highsmith had an intense connection with animals.

She loved cats. Snails made her feel tranquil.

‘She eventually housed three hundred snails in her garden in Suffolk, England, and once arrived at a London cocktail party carrying an enormous handbag that contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails – companions for the evening, she said (p. 12).’

Such details of writers’ habits can be found in Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Knopf, 2013), the book published from the author’s blog, Daily Routines.

I’ve noticed that many writers like cats, perhaps because they are independent and provide quiet companionship without clinginess. You never have to interrupt writing a chapter or a blog to take them for a walk.

That said, some writers love daily walks, and need no canine companion to compel them to interrupt the flow. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote in the morning, ate a quick lunch, wrote again until he had 2,000 words or more, and then walked for four hours. Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), my favourite American poet, walked for an hour at lunch and walked four miles each way to his insurance company office job. During his walks he would scribble bits of poetry on the back of an envelope and get the typist at work to type it later.

Haruki Murakami, contemporary Japanese writer, wakes at 4.00 a.m. and writes for five or six hours. Then he runs or swims or does both, does chores and reads, and is in bed by 9.00 p.m. Before developing this ritual, he had put on a lot of weight when he was running a small jazz club in Tokyo and writing. He was also smoking sixty cigarettes a day.

So he moved to the country, drank less, quit smoking and ate mainly vegetables and fish. I first read him in The New Yorker where he admitted that it did mean an end to any social life but he had done this every day for the past twenty-five years. I gained the impression that it was worth it because he was happy and healthy and now a highly successful writer.

Closer to home, prolific Canberra writer Peter Stanley insists on the efficacy of ‘Don’t get it right – get it written!’ The important thing is to get your thoughts down quickly. Refining comes later. Carry a notebook or talk into your iPhone when writerly thoughts come to you, and type them later. He’s an excellent example of the success of this method – so many books, clearly the products of a first-class intellect, and with a lively, accessible style.

I scribble in notebooks wherever I am, and then it is draft after draft until it begins to look reasonable. It’s reassuring that Swedish writer and filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) took as long as most of us to come up with something reasonable. He claimed that filmmaking was ‘[E]ight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film (p. 13).’

Most writers must put in these sorts of hours to get high quality, however I am glad I don’t dance for a living, if Twyla Tharp is anything to go by (and judging by the slenderness of most dancers, she probably is). Her daily routine begins with catching a cab at 5.30 a.m. for two hours at the gym and then a breakfast of three hardboiled egg whites and a black coffee.

Mason Currey quotes Kafka’s letter where he states that ‘time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy…’ and he shares his determination to ‘wriggle through’ life’s problems by certain subtle manoeuvres. Currey’s upbeat, entertaining book contains many ways for creative people to cope with life’s inevitable problems. As he puts it in his Introduction, ‘Here’s to wriggling through.’

What daily rituals help you to ‘wriggle through’?

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