A New Life in Seattle

A New Life in Seattle
August, 2018

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Can I Be Writing When I'm Not?

You've all heard the stories of writers who never go a day without writing 8-18 hours. They may take a day off each week, month or year. Likewise, you all know of actors who don't bother with breaks between films. Good for them, for all of them. You read their books and watch their films...and curse your own lack of money and time.

But today let's consider two shining contrary examples. And, at the same time, let's rethink what it means to be working in art. This post is not a poke at Literary Factories or an argument that writers should write fewer books. I've set my sights on one question:

Are some artists actually working when they appear to be idle?

In the last thirty years, Daniel Day-Lewis has starred in 15 films.--with 'down times' ranging from two to five years. Famous for his role preparations, he recharges...considers his options...prepares his acting strategies...and gets into character.

Ira (Rosemary's Baby) Levin wrote seven novels and nine plays. from 1953-1997. Levin took fourteen years after his first book to give us Rosemary's Baby. After Boys From Brazil, he took fifteen years to return with Sliver, the title reflecting the format and length. Call him the Daniel Day-Lewis of the writing business. One can imagine him playing cat-and-mouse with his famous plot twists for as long as he needed to nail them. You don't tell a writer like Levin 'Just sit down and write the book.' He'd roar back, 'Shut up--I am writing!'


Pat Conroy still takes his Southern time: six novels since 1976, with fourteen years between Beach Music and South of Broad, nine years between Prince of Tides and Beach Music. Did he work at his desk eighteen hours a day on these books exclusively? He'd have gone mad if he did. He recharged, planned ahead, and kept his motor running through efforts that pleased and relaxed him: a cookbook, a book of essays on 'military brats', a childhood memoir and a book about playing basketball at The Citadel. Six novels in four decades--but six that could not have been written any other way. Not by him.

Both writers made their fortunes through well-filmed versions of their work. So they could afford to take as long as they liked on their next books. True enough. But do recall: both writers took the years required to write books that brought Hollywood calling. And those years, we can be sure, involved some significant down time.

We all need to shake any shame we may have over down times of our own--and to lose all envy of those who work around the clock. The better we understand the nature of our own process, the more tolerant and patient we are, the more efficiently we will be able to work--yes, even when we're 'idling'.

My own mindset changed last year, After completing Red Champagne, I wanted to begin work immediately on the next Boss MacTavin mystery. But the story line hadn't come clear and my confidence level kept sinking. I spent a full month beating up on myself...while I hustled Red Champagne, paced and brooded, worked on my two blogs and worked out at the gym.

One day, at last, I felt the itch and started taking notes, not a thought in my head about how others work. It's always worked this way for me: notes first, then a detailed outline...then one day I know that I'm ready and start. The key difference for me, this time, was this: I understood that I'd been working, as a writer, all along: in the gym, on my blogs..I'd been working on my new book, in my own way.

Now, I don't have any ambition to 'sell' my style to everyone. My ambition is far simpler: to make clear that there are many ways of working on a book...and that writers who need down time should treat their working idle time with love and respect.

After all, there are saner ambitions than to end up like this:

And let this not be said because you would not take the time:

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