I have always envied, and maybe resented, writers for whom writing comes easy: it flows from their depths to their pen to the page in one silky unbroken stream. Thoughts unfold effortlessly into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into books, like one of those time-lapse recordings of a seed becoming a tree. I know a few writers whose first drafts are better than my finished ones.
It’s wondrous, bewildering, and altogether annoying.
Me, I toil at writing. I find language unruly, a coiling, thrashing, writhing beast, desperate to get away from me, resistant to all my efforts to tame it.
All the same, I keep making the effort. Other writers sometimes ask me about my writing routine – the time I commit to it, the place where I do it, the rituals I surround it with, the goals I set for it.
Two caveats before I share some of that.
One, I assume many of you are not the least bit interested in any of this. You have my glad permission to exit stage right, or left, whatever your leanings.
Two, I insist that my ways are not your ways, that one writer’s yoke is likely another writer’s shackles. I share what I do not because I think you should imitate me, but because there may be an idea or two scattered about my midden that you can pluck, retool, and employ to your own ends.
With that, my writing routine:
I write almost every Friday morning, nine ‘til noon, or just after. A mere three to four hours. That’s it. That schedule has allowed me to publish ten books in twenty years – roughly one every two years – plus write hundreds of articles, blog posts, and sundry miscellany, as well as begin and abandon six unpublished books. In short, committing to writing three to four hours a week (which usually amounts to a 1000 to 1500 words at each sitting) has been enough for me to build a reasonable stockpile.
My trick: I treat those three to four hours as part of my day job. Sometimes I actually write under contract and deadline, so guns and lawyers await any failure. But often I write on my own timeline. I keep the same pace either way. In fact, despite my second caveat above, that my ways should not become your ways, I think that any writer who does not treat their writing as necessary work will rarely if ever publish. They will dream about the book they’ll one day write, should time allow, but never actually write it. In truth, the time you need for writing is already lying in the cracks and seams of your weekly schedule, but you have to go pry it loose.
I edit as I go, more or less. Many writers will denounce this as a damper on creativity, and in my repentant moods I’m inclined to agree. But I can’t help myself. There is likely a psychological explanation for my behavior that derives from some childhood trauma or deficiency, but, alas, it is what it is. If you can let your writing rip, and happily throw down a hot mess on the page, and come back later to sift and order it, great. This has never worked for me, and I’m too old, I suspect, to reform now.
But this I do: when nearing the completion of a book, I go away for a week, usually to a place with water or mountains, or both, and hunker down ten to twelve hours a day and edit the whole thing, stem to stern. No paragraph is left unwinnowed. No sentence is left untweaked. No word is left unturned. No comma is left unexamined – even these I hold up, each and all, to a fierce and searching light, squint hard, and ask if this one is a lynchpin, holding everything together, or a grain of sand, clogging the gears.
Even after that, I would never publish a book, or even a lowly article, without one of my ruthless gestapo buddies known as editors giving the thing a once, or twice, or thrice, over. Editors are our friends. Honest. They scowl at us, mutter things that sound like cuss words,
sometimes bare their teeth in fang-like ways, or smile wanly at us, cajole us like we’re sullen children refusing dinner, assure us that our lives are not total wastelands, or at the very least look at us with that weary disbelief that our mothers sometimes use. They often commit against the high art of our writing acts that resemble vandalism. They make us kill our darlings. But we need them. They shame us privately to spare us being shamed publicly.
I have a few small writing rituals. I am not superstitious about these – they’re more force of habit than talismans. But they also help me get into the groove of writing and to keep me there. I sit in my overstuffed leather chair. I pray. I open my laptop, and start. I drink coffee and water, back and forth. I hold silence – no music, no background noise, just the sound of my fingers plunking on the keyboard, and me muttering the phrase I’m currently working on, just to hear it, to see if there’s any melody in it. Only after I have completed three to four hours, and wracked up 1000 to 1500 words, do I let myself get up.
That’s it. No ablutions, no ceremonies, no calling on the muse. I have no muse. There’s no waiting for inspiration to fall on me or rise in me. I’m just a working stiff showing up for his shift, punching the clock, slogging through to the end. I wish for all the other stuff, the magic, the angelic song, the rush of words so fast and wild that I merely hold on for dear life.
But I would never get a thing done if I depended on it.
By the way, I currently have three books in the works – one I’m co-writing with my daughter Sarah, one about a small village in France that did remarkable things during World War II, and Book Two of my trilogy of novels on King David. In the next few weeks, I’ll publish here excerpts from all three.
So to begin, here is an excerpt from Book Two of the David Trilogy, David: Reign.
I hope you enjoy.
Chapter 10 (excerpt)
“The king, he hears things, hey.”
“David. The king. Our king. He hears things. Voices. Or a voice.”
“Like a ghostwife?”
“No, different. Like, maybe like a prophet. Like old Samuel. Or Gad. But also different.”
“He uses the priest for that, right? When the priest puts on the thing with all the shiny stones?”
“The urim and thummim. Yeah, he does that. But he also doesn’t need that. Like, he can go to a place, say, maybe a cave or beside a stream or, I don’t know, anywhere, and sit there all alone. Maybe a hillside. He gets real still, you think he’s sleeping. I watched him do it before. And then God, I guess, comes and talks at him.”
“Like we’re talking now?”
“Yeah. I think so. Don’t know. Maybe. Maybe different.”
“You heard it? You heard God speak at him?”
“No, not me. I saw it, though. You can tell, when it’s happening. He’s not like a prophet, all shuddery and such. He’s not like a ghostwife, all shrieking and tossing around and stuff. He goes real still. He’s like, I don’t know, quarry and stalker all at once. Like a cony and a fox both catch each other’s scent at the exact same moment. You know? That’s the best I can describe it. He’s quarry and stalker both.”
“Huh. What a thing. I fought for Saul all them years. Saul, he wanted that so bad, to hear God speak, even once. Never did, as far I knowed. He went to real strange lengths to try to cover for it. Even drug himself up a ghostwife. But nothing. So David, our king – God talks at him? This happens, what, often?”
“Huh. What a thing.”
Two soldiers sit by firelight, eating, slow, the meat they’ve roasted over coals. Night surrounds them like a wall. Another soldier is posted just beyond the rim of light, watching for Philistines, for predators, for intruders. Since David has been crowned king of Hebron, more and more of Saul’s soldiers, and not a few Philistines, have come over to him. They come, like the men in the desert once came, one by one, or in pairs, or small groups. They arrive nursing grudges, nursing wounds. Wary, hungry, angry. Men that Abner or King Achish have no use for, don’t trust, turned away. Men David can’t trust either, but must anyhow.
“It’s not like that.”
The men turn, startled. David steps into the circle of firelight.
“My Lord, I meant no harm.”
“No harm given. May I sit?”
“My Lord, of course.”
The two men shift over on the flat rock they’re sitting on. David sits down beside them, slightly apart from them.
“My Lord, if I may ask, how did you get past our sentry?”
“I killed him.”
The two men look shocked.
“I’m joking.” David laughs. “He is safe and keeps us safe, guards us even now from Goliath’s vengeful brothers. But I am – what? Quarry and stalker both.”
“I meant no harm, my Lord”
“No harm given. But I learned long ago, from having to learn it, to be a shadow in the shadows. A wind on the wind. To the shrewd, God shows himself shrewd. But it’s not the way you describe it, when I hear God.”
The two men wait.
“I think anyone, if they want, can hear God. If they want. You listen. You listen to everything. Birdwing. Cicadas. Wind in grass. The wind in the wind. Even the creatures beneath the ground, the ones that scuttle under the earth. You listen to them. When you get that quiet, that still, you hear something else. Another voice. This one, though, is inside you. It like someone deeper in a cave that you’re already far down in. You go in there to be alone and realize you are not alone.”
“And, my Lord, it tells you what to do, this voice? This other person in the cave?”
“Hmm. It’s more a breath. A breath beside me, inside me, with me. Breath of my breath. Bone of my bone. It speaks without words. It’s louder than words. It’s clearer. Also, gentler. You know how words can be like rocks that have never sat in a creek bed, never been smoothed by water? All those sharp edges? The voice is like rocks smoothed by water. No edges. But that’s not quite it either. It’s more like the water that smooths the rocks. I hear that voice, that breath, and I know what to do. I can’t explain it more than that.”
The men are silent for a long time.
“My lord, that explains everything.”