(I use “literally” twice in this newsletter. Can you tell which one is correct? Answer at the end.)
There are two hard parts to writing stuff: the starting and the finishing. (Also, there’s a fiddly and often extended bit in-between, but I prefer to think of that as either finishing the start or starting the finish.)
A good routine will solve the former. You do the same thing at the same time and in the same place every day, and eventually you break your brain like a wild stallion. Once your routine is engraved into your neurons, starting work is simple: You do your routine and you’re literally writing before you know it.
So what makes a good routine? Coffee, mug. Butt, chair. Then, throw in a mantra. Orson Welles, in this 1974 interview, shares a good one:
Do you know what Shirley Temple’s mother used to say to her before every take? She used to say, “Sparkle, Shirley!”
The choreographer Bob Fosse—or at least his fictional alter-ego—had his own mantra for popping the morning pills: “It’s showtime, folks!”
Your mantra doesn’t have to be complicated or profound. Just choose a few words to jumpstart the old noggin and warm up the old key-ticklers. I haven’t settled on one myself, yet. Still on the fence between The Thing’s “It’s clobberin’ time!” and “There is no spoon.” from The Matrix. (Any suggestions?)
Get yourself a mantra. Say it every morning before you start writing. And if you need a more elaborate ritual, consider a pentagram. That way, you cover all your bases.
Finishing is harder.
Believe it or not, I exercise. (True fact: David Brenner taught me how.) When you lift weights, they say the magic happens in the last rep. You lift that same stupid dumbbell over and over again, but if you don’t crank out that one last repetition, the one that pushes your muscles to the limit of their current capacity…nothing much happens. Your body’s like, “Great, more proof that Dave has just enough muscles. We’ve really optimized those quads!” You’ve wasted your effort.
On the other hand, if the challenge is sufficiently tough—and sometimes sitting down to write is literally a fifty-pound dumbbell—a single rep can be far enough outside your comfort zone to stimulate genuine growth.
So where’s the last rep in your own work? How do you know you’ve pushed yourself as far as you can go—and just a little bit farther? This applies both to both the day’s writing and the project as a whole. When have you gone from bailing to simply finishing?
The editor William Sloane forever regretted passing on Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The manuscript was massive, meandering, without form or structure. After 200,000 words or so, Sloane capitulated. Max Perkins, on other hand, persevered. He got far enough into the draft to spot a book worth excavating in the back half of the manuscript.
If only Sloane had carried through. When he threw in the towel, he might have been only a few words away from the passage that won Perkins over.
You know you can stop when you’ve passed through the discomfort. It’s a bit like that scene with the lye in Fight Club. Tyler doesn’t let himself go until he gives up: “It’s only when we’ve lost everything that we can do anything.” As soon as you stop wanting to flee the manuscript, you’re welcome to stop working for the day.
To start, make it automatic. To finish, outlast the discomfort. Get to that last, muscle-building rep before you walk away.
p.s. The Sloane anecdote comes from his book, The Craft of Writing, a slim guide I’m currently reading. I didn’t realize when I started reading it that I’d actually read Sloane’s two well-received novels of “cosmic horror,” collected as The Rim of Morning. They’re good. Unfortunately, Sloane petered out as a novelist, too. Life’s too short to peter out, folks.
p.p.s. speaking of the genre of geometry-bending outer-dimensional demons and the puny mortals who tend to go insane just by looking at them, start HBO’s Lovecraft Country if you haven’t already. I very much enjoyed the book, which I read long before it was cool or woke because I liked Ruff’s Sewer, Gas, and Electric. (And I only read that, years and years ago, because the back cover said he’d gone to my high school.) The show is off to a very good start.
p.p.p.s. A slew of great 1970s-era interviews like the Welles above have been bubbling up on YouTube for me. Not sure what I did to trigger the algorithm in this delightful way, but if you’re not seeing them, too, start searching for Dick Cavett, Michael Parkinson, and the like. It’s another world. The interviews breathe. People speak in paragraphs. You don’t have Jimmy Fallon or Marc Maron rushing every minute to cut the person off with a joke or offer their own take. The interviewers sit quietly, listen respectfully, and respond thoughtfully. Can we get a podcast like this, please?
p.p.p.p.s. Both uses of literally are just fine. Relax. Go finish your manuscript.