The Inefficient Writer

Lately, I’ve noticed that I’m surrounded by efficient, productive writers. They get up at 5 A.M., write for a few hours, go on a six-mile run and finish up the morning by building a house for Habitat for Humanity. My schedule is…shall we say…less precise.

I write at night
And not at a regular pace. I have to wait for myself to sink into the delirious folds of the night before the little letters start to appear on the screen. Sometimes it takes a very long time for them to appear. If I’m lucky, I go to bed while it’s still dark, a good night’s work done—only to get back up because of a line that needs to be added. And I’ve got to do it right away, because it will not be there in the morning.

Are you awake?
Richard Wilbur said “Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely indistinguishable from catatonia.” I know the feeling. Recently, Robert Olen Butler conducted a web experiment where readers could watch him sit at his computer and write a story in real time. Now that’s a Pulitzer Prize winner kind of idea!

But I don’t think “must-see TV” has anything to fear. Contrary to what Mr. Butler says about the exercise, it’s nothing new. For example, below is a transcript of my last thrilling writing session, presented here as a Not Quite Live Web Exclusive™:
“Okay, here I go. I am a writing machine. I am the greatest! I am the greatest!”
(23 minutes of silence staring at blank Microsoft Word screen)
“Ah forget it.”

I waste paper
I recently bought a laser printer. Partially to overcome my problem with inkjet printers (did you know that inkjet type smears easily when you rest your head for a quick nap?) but also because the new printer spits out pages at an astonishing rate. I have this theory that if I get a machine that can put out crisp, clear text at incredibly high speeds, then so can I. This theory has been proven wrong in the past, but still I cling to it.

And I’ve been known to print out an entire story in order to get a feel for the pages, the flow of the work. Then I’ll fix a sentence in the middle and feel compelled to reprint the entire thing—just to get that fresh manuscript feel again. I will do this repeatedly in a single sitting.

When camping, I pack out everything I pack in—leave no trace and all that. But I killed half a tree for my last short story. John Muir wept.

Ten years of the crab
Of course, I must refer you to Italo Calvino’s fable of procrastination:
It’s a bit like the story of the great Chinese artist: the Emperor asked him to draw a crab, and the artist answered, ‘I need ten years, a great house, and twenty servants.’ The ten years went by, and the Emperor asked him for the drawing of the crab. ‘I need another two years,’ he said. Then he asked for a further week. And finally he picked up his pen and drew the crab in a moment, with a single, rapid gesture.

Ah, if only that were so. More often than not, my computer will crash just before I save my work and I end up giving it a single rapid gesture as well. I was going to title my recently completed dissertation “Ten Years of the Crab” because I love this little fable so much and it fit well with my Ph.D. struggles. But I abandoned it at the last minute because people often mistook it for “Ten Years of the Crabs” and that’s not really what you want associated with your name.

George Saunders = H2O
Despite all these bad habits, I think it’s important to keep working at it, even if only in scraps and pieces. We published an interview with George Saunders in which he talked about writing in spurts during his day job when no one was looking. While he may have been an extremely inefficient employee, his actions were quite possibly the mark of the ultra-efficient writer, one who gets in writing whenever he can. The tone of perseverance is pretty inspirational for anyone who has had to interrupt their writing in order to pay bills, avoid starving, etc.

While I will not end this editorial with the mantra of “Be like the nature of George Saunders, my friend” (at least not until his check clears), I will say that every time I read about a writer who gets writing done outside the regular Moveable Feast model, it helps. There are other writers working in odd places, less than ideal conditions, and in the dead of night. We are not alone.

This editorial was supposed to be posted last month. I apologize for the delay.

-Hoa Ngo

This article was originally published by The Missouri Review. Hoa Ngo has since moved on to new surroundings (but the pain remains the same).