Tuesday, April 8, 2008


Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer Prize at age twenty-nine, once said that writing a book is like sitting up with a dying friend. George Orwell internalized the process a further degree when he likened it to a long, painful illness – something with which he had actual experience. I have never quite grasped the existential agonies that some writers put themselves through but, then, I'm not much of a writer – at least as writers go. I will grant them this, though – writing is hard. It is not as hard as teaching (readers don't interrupt while you're writing, asking you to go over that again) but it is hard enough.

Difficult things (e.g. cooking, dieting, exercising, travelling, lovemaking, learning German, deciding what to read next, dying) spawn books that promise to make them easier, and so it's not surprising that there is a whole industry producing books on how to write. Stephen King wrote one, and so did Margaret Atwood, and even, in an uncharacteristically helpful mood, did Norman Mailer. After the classics — Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and William Zinnser's On Writing Well — the best such work, in my estimation, is Richard Rhodes's How to Write. An unbeatable title, you must agree. At least it was an unbeatable title until Paul J. Silva came up with How to Write a Lot. Imagine two books, side by side in the bookstore: How to Lose Weight and How to Lose A Lot of Weight. Which would you chose?

But my enthusiasm for the book ends there. How do you write a lot? According to Silva — and brace yourself, here — the key is to write a lot. It does not, I'm afraid, amount to much more than that. (How could it? The book is 126 pages.) Schedule time, every day, to write. Make it as much a part of the daily routine as daily routines are, and it will become habitual. Word counts will mount, and these must be meticulously recorded, preferably on a spreadsheet. Don't worry too much about style, because academic peer reviewers certainly don't. By this expedient, articles and reviews will get finished and get submitted, and so will a book every couple of years or so. Silva himself claims to average something over 700 words per day.

And there you have it: the distinction between writing and typing not just blurred but erased; the ancient, honoured, and indeed sacred craft of composition played out statistically on spreadsheets, with daily mounting tolls, like victories (or perhaps losses) in a U-boat campaign.

Silva is a psychologist with an impressive slate of publications, especially for someone so young. You can't argue with results: the method works for him. Perhaps it will, too, for other social scientists who don't regard their discipline as a literary one. I prefer to chart a middle course. I don't much like the idea of bleeding myself to write, but I can see the point in devoting some care to one's craft. And there are evenings when, after a tiring day's work that has yielded just one good paragraph, I feel slightly glad to sit back, exhale, and thank goodness for small miseries


Graham Broad said...

The painting, by the way, is Vermeer's "A Lady Writing a Letter" ca. 1665, one of only 35 paintings positively attributed to him. It's in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., which is just one more reason why it's good that we never had a nuclear war.

Alison Hunter said...

I have tried to leave this comment several times, but it never shows up. Your blog does not want me to write!

There is a great benefit to just writing for writing's sake, I think - it primes you and keeps you limber for when you want to churn out the good stuff. Here are a couple of fun ways to ridiculously challenge yourself in terms of quantity (not quality!)