Michael Chabon’s second novel, Wonder Boys, was actually his third. His second novel proper ran away from him, bloating and rambling as it did so. His response was to set it aside and work on a new project, which turned out to be something of a caper about a writer who couldn’t finish his second novel.
Early on in the novel the writer’s mistress remarks to an already very tall transvestite in sky high shoes that she finds high heels difficult to walk in and doesn’t know how to do it. The transvestite’s response is simple:
Painters sketch. Dancers warm up. Singers and musicians do scales. What should writers do?
Being a writer is an odd thing. Odd because everyone we know can do it, and so it seems as if it can’t be that hard. Odd because we might think we can just sit down and launch ourselves straight into the novel or story and have every sentence come out shining like a diamond.
Of course none of that is true.
I’ve learned that many successful writers have a routine that involves some form of practice to loosen both fingers and brain before they begin work. Ali Smith, for example, runs through her senses one by one and writes down what she gleans from each one, to focus herself on the world. After a while the mind becomes accustomed to your particular practice and more importantly, what comes afterwards – practising encourages and deepens focus on the work that follows.
My own way of practising is based on that of a writer I met at Arvon, Anna Burns. She collected snippets of things she saw or heard in a notebook and labelled them with PW, so that when she sat down for her session she could find a good number of things to write about without having to generate ideas. She wrote for a full five minutes on each one, and did an hour’s worth before going on to work on her novel. I like this way of working because it clears your head of troubles and worries, and means you can set down in prose factual things as well as fictional things, but all of it strengthens your ability with a sentence.
I also like to use phrases, words, half sentences, and images as prompts for my practice, and if I’m enjoying something I’ll stick with it beyond five minutes. This is how it works for me.