August 17, 2015
I was out on the East End of Long Island for the past two weeks, and I picked up one of those free magazines that are always stacked outside the supermarket. They mostly have photographs of houses that are for sale, and pictures of the famous people that are out in the Hamptons. I love to look at them mostly because my life is nothing like the articles depict and I don’t want it to be—I’d never attend a benefit, never go to a horse show, never play in the artists and writers ball game even if I were asked, and I wouldn’t be.
But in one of these “rags” as my husband and I call them, there was an interview with E. L. Doctorow by George Plimpton. It was a truncated version of the interview that took place at the 92nd Street Y in New York City that subsequently appeared in the Paris Review. (You can find it here: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2718/the-art-of-fiction-no-94-e-l-doctorow)
In the interview Doctorow was asked about his work habits—a common feature of all interview that are printed in the Paris Review. He said that he worked perhaps six hours a day but that in reality he wrote about 600 words a day. He always single-spaced his work, and a day’s work would fit on a single sheet of paper. He said, too, that if he wrote 1200 words it was an extraordinary day, but the problem with that was that the next day might not then be a good workday. Writers always have to save something for the next day.
This summer, I’ve been writing about my sister’s suicide, and I have written, here, about how I’ve deliberately written only an hour on the days I’ve been working. (It’s summer, and I’ve been taking lots of time off.) But here was another way of working for me to try out.
When I discovered the Doctorow interview, I was reading his World’s Fair. He died recently (which is why that publication was running the interview), and I have a habit of reading one of a deceased writer’s books whenever I hear about an author’s death as a way of honoring them and their work. I hadn’t read anything of Doctorow’s since I’d read Ragtime many years ago, and so it was wonderful to relax on my screened-in porch reading him again, connecting with a writer whose work I admired. World’s Fair is written as a memoir and its description of 1930s in the Bronx was the kind of summer time travel that I love.
After I read the interview, I went back to World’s Fair and saw that, yes, there is a circle of meaning or a unit of meaning every 600 words or so.
As I thought about this way of working—this slow way of working—I thought about the difference between Doctorow’s method and mine and what I might learn from his. In the last book I wrote, Chasing Ghosts: A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War I wrote myself into many, many corners, and the work was very anxiety producing because I always had a lot of pages in process and nothing really approximating finished work for many, many years. So I wondered what it might be like to work more slowly, to spend one day on, say, 500 or 600 words as Doctorow did, and to bring them to a more complete state of finish.
I’ve been doing this for just a short time, but the difference in the way I feel is extraordinary. For, usually, I carry around with me the knowledge that there is a lot of revision to be done on the work I’ve provisionally completed. And that can make me crazy. But these last several days, I know that those words that I wrote, say, yesterday, are the best I can make them right now, though I will, no doubt, revise again when I put the book together. And aiming for 600 words takes a lot of pressure off, and anything that does that, helps the work.
On our way home from the East End, we got into a massive traffic jam. We’d just started using that magical GPS ap called “Waze” and after I took a wrong turn, it routed us through the Bronx to get to the GW Bridge and so, home, and we drove through E. L. Doctorow’s part of the Bronx, where I’d never been, and where I’d never planned on being, and we came to the light, and there it was, the street sign that said “Bathgate,” and as you no doubt know Billy Bathgate is the title of one of Doctorow’s most appealing works.
Coincidence? No doubt. Still it was magical to have read the interview with Doctorow, to be reading World’s Fair, to be bailed out of a stupid driving mistake to get out of a horrific traffic jam by Waze, and to have Waze take us through the Bronx of E. L. Doctorow.