Not working

17 May 2010

But the interesting thing is how easy it is not to work. Yes, writing is a necessity and often a pleasure, but at the same time, it can be a great burden and a terrible struggle. In my own case, I certainly don’t walk into my room and sit down at my desk feeling like a boxer ready to go ten rounds with Joe Louis. I tiptoe in. I procrastinate. I delay. I take care of little business that I don’t have to do at that moment. I come in sideways, kind of sliding through the door. I don’t burst into the saloon with my six-shooter ready. If I did, I’d probably shoot myself in the foot.

— Paul Auster, interviewed by Jonathan Lethem in The Believer (February ’05).


It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own — all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four — this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning — I just try to write.

— John McPhee, interviewed in this spring’s Paris Review.

3 Responses to “Not working”

  1. davidhur Says:

    It’s always interesting, rather… unhelpful, to know how those that have “made it” schedule their writing. Though I suppose it is more motivating than anything that someone with similar tendencies has gotten published.

    Personally, there’s a moment that it all fits together and makes sense for me to write it out, but I did recently try my hand at blank verse and come up with something worthwhile (though on the other hand it was waiting for me to pick a form really).

    I do understand the necessary time to prepare to write, but luckily I’m still able to be productive while my kettle boils.

  2. Nora Says:

    It always irritates me to hear people who can afford to spend all day doing nothing talking about how much work it is, or how necessary. If you have to pay your rent and feed your family, yet are also compelled to write? You still write. The task expands or contracts to fill the time available, I think. Is this a more female perspective? So many of my favorite authoresses write/wrote around the edges of having kids and/or another career.

  3. Jim Sligh Says:


    Pairing the quotations does paint a kind of ‘men in their study’ picture — there’s a sense I didn’t want to give of a Platonic man of letters that gets opposed to female writers doing woman’s work & writing domestic novels, and I understand the implicit sexism of the picture.

    But that wasn’t my intention to post these as though they were advice for young writers, or normative portraits — they aren’t. For me, they’re consolation.

    It’s tremendously consoling for me that John McPhee, as prolific as he’s been over the fifty years or so of his working life, still faces new projects with a kind of terror, and spends most of the day puttering around trying to start writing. Consoling that you can not write for that many hours and still finish out your life with more than a dozen books. That it doesn’t really get that much easier.

    McPhee is lucky enough, of course, to be at the apex of his career — he teaches at Princeton, he’s written for the New Yorker for decades, he’s in his 70s. Anybody who can write Annals of the Former World and still gets nervous, anybody who teaches students as generously as he does, has my sympathy.

    I have other thoughts, but they’re a little disorganized, & I don’t want to jump too hard on your point, which is taken. But isn’t writing work, no matter what, and isn’t it a necessity for us? It’s easy to call creative types whiners who do nothing, but that puts you in league with the bankers.

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