Last night I went to the Women in Cinema presentation of Hannah Arendt, a film by Margarethe von Trotta. (Click on the link to see the trailer.) The main story — well, that’s the reason to see the film. But there’s another story that unfolds, which is about how one writes. Lots of cigarettes. Lying down and closing one’s eyes. Hannah Arendt was also a professor, and she kept a pretty busy social calendar (friends with both W.H. Auden and Mary McCarthy!).
On our way home, my friend asked me how I write. She wanted to know, specifically, how it is that 15 minutes is all I can manage. “I know you read lots of books. You watch TV with your girls. Couldn’t you write more than 15 minutes a day?”
You’d think so. I didn’t know quite what to say. Don’t I love to write? Why don’t I write all the time, every spare minute? What exactly is my work habit?
I scribble more than I write. Writing the blog is a kind of scribbling, or just one step up from it. I can sit with a journal and fill page after page — when I allow myself to.
Sometimes I write in my journal about my writing. I write about how reading Frankenstein or The Witch of Blackbird Pond gave me an idea for a scene in my novel. Sometimes I’ll ask myself a question about what a character should do, or what outlandish event — that I haven’t yet thought of — I could put in.
My fifteen minute practice has been purely to do actual writing, notebook open on my lap, pen in hand, scene underway. For some reason, this invention has always been the hardest part of my process and I almost have to trick myself to get it done. Once it’s down on the page, then I have a great time fussing over it and making it better.
Oh, getting it typed up is the intermediate step, and that gives me trouble, too.
What I find with the 15 minutes of “live” writing every morning is that I tend to be more concrete in my daydreaming about the novel throughout the rest of the day. That’s my goal right now. At some point, my time will break wide open and I’ll get four or five hours and make huge progress getting clean pages typed up and printed.
I will not compare myself to Hannah Arendt, one of the great minds of the twentieth century. I can’t claim to be a great thinker (though I’d like to think I’m a good one). And I don’t smoke. But writing is one of those human activities that seems to require one to spend time doing something else — as if in a deliberate attempt to catch the mind off guard. That’s what I’m doing when I’m not doing my 15 minutes.