Writing in Bed

The story is that Edith Wharton wrote in bed.

Whenever she would finish handwriting a page, she would drop it on the floor. Later, her secretary would gather up the sheets of story and type them.

One must have a method.

Despite the — dare I say it? — privilege inherent in the image of the heiress-author abed with her papers and laying abed with her papers and having an employee follow behind her, it must be acknowledged that Wharton found a system that worked for her. She wrote over twenty novels, countless (well, I’m not counting them) short stories, poems, and essays. If she did it from the comfort of a luxurious bed, can I really fault her for that?

Nope. Not at all. Not even a little.

A lot of writers — present company included — pay very close attention to successful writers’ processes:

Stephen King‘s 2,000-words-per-day is practically gospel now because so many writers quote On Writing.

Hemingway wrote standing up and left his writing at the most interesting part so he’d be excited to get back to it the next day. (Plus that whole “write drunk, edit sober” thing.)

Jane Austen wrote at a small desk in the sitting room and hid her pages of writing if company came over.

Anthony Trollope apparently wrote for two hours in the morning, every morning, before work.

These processes, or schedules, or rituals, or whatever-you-want-to-call them, are all valid. Obviously. Every one listed above is a demonstrably successful writer. But my point is even simpler than that.

They did whatever worked for them.

And that’s the trick. Do what works for you.

Soooooo simple.

Soooooo not simple.

In some ways, knowledge of other writers’ routines is very useful. You understand there is no one way to do this writing thing. Any time of day is valid. Any writing utensil — quill, ink, computer, typewriter — is available. The world is your oyster!

But if you choose something, and you’re not flexible, you can fuck yourself.

For example: You determine you’ll write at X amount of words at X time with X implement. You Will Be Disciplined. You Will Have Routine.

Then you oversleep one day and BAM — the bullshit fairy visits you. You Have Failed to stick to the Routine. Thus you are a Shitty Writer. Stephen King writes this way! Ernest Hemingway writes this way! Therefore, if YOU cannot write this way, then you must colossally suck.

It’s just not true.

The bad news is you didn’t get much writing done.

The good news is you figure out that you need to try something different.

I, for example, am no morning lark. My creative engine starts revving around 4:00p.m. and can go pretty steady until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. I’ve tried to get up early to write. It resulted in shitty, grouchy days and my children wondering why I’m growling at them. I leave the mornings to the birds.

Don’t feel like one person’s way of doing things is the only way. And don’t let anyone prescribe anything to you, unless they’re a doctor and you need medication. Just figure out your way of getting words on the page.

But, if a writer has discussed their process and something in it resonates with you — steal it, take it for a drive, see if it works for you too.

For example, I’ve determined that I should spend at least 10 minutes a day writing…and I’ve taken to bringing my notebook with me to bed, much like Wharton. Maybe I write before bed, or right after I wake up. But words are getting down, so that’s a good thing for me.

Just wish I had a secretary to type it all up for me….

What are some “process” things you’ve stolen from other writers? Have you ever experimented with something that didn’t work? What was that experience like?

A Castle of One’s Own

Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, despite having friends in common and despite both being talented and respected female writers working at the turn of the 20th century, apparently did not admire each other’s work. Woolf’s new-fangled modern stylings (stream-of-conscious, no distinct plot-line) didn’t resonate with Wharton. And Wharton’s style (structured storylines) was representative of writing which Woolf actively sought to reconfigure.

But, whether Wharton wanted to admit it or not, Woolf — in her 1929 extended essay “A Room of One’s Own” — pointed out two necessary things for all writers (two necessary things that women writers have lacked throughout history): money and a room of one’s own.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones — the daughter of the “keeping up with the Joneses” Joneses. (Apparently.) She was the child of Kardashian-level wealth.

This doesn’t mean that Wharton was without the struggles that confront many a writer — struggles I’ll explore a little later.

But she had that other thing we rarely talk about when it comes to writing — and the arts in general.

Money.

This November article from Vox explores the very effect cold, hard cash has on the creation of art. In it, writer and teacher E.J. Roller explains how her father sold his second company and how, from the millions he received, he gifted her with $28,000/year — and $28K, while practically a fortune to someone like me, is pennies compared to what Wharton inherited. (Please do yourself a favor and read this insightful article.)

Look, Edith Wharton was an amazingly talented writer. The money she lived off of later in life was almost entirely from her phenomenally successful writing career. I don’t want to diminish her accomplishments. But it creates an unrealistic portrait if I were to say that “she pulled herself up by her bootstraps.”

Wharton was born into a position where she would never have to go hungry, she would never have to worry about whether she could buy new clothes, she would never have to make the choice between the utility bill and gas in the car. Even today, it’s hard to comprehend the level of wealth she was born into.

She had more than a room of her own.

She had a castle of her own.

Time to be straight: We can’t all be so lucky. Most of us artists never will be. A lot of us are in debt. We have to work full time jobs and dedicate our tiny stores of free time to the surviving-of-life and, hopefully, our art. We count ourselves blessed if we have a corner of the kitchen counter to call our own, let alone an entire room.

I don’t know about you, but I read stories like Stephen King’s and J.K. Rowling’s like the wannabe Cinderella I am. I think they did it, so I can too! But, the reality is, even though they worked their butts off (typing in the corner of a trailer or government-funded flat), a lot of us work our butts off and will never have their careers or their castles.

But, since I’m kinda dumb and insist on doing this writing thing anyway…there are some things I’m trying to do to help myself.

  1. Work. The 9-5. The grind. I must accept that this is something I have to do. (This is harder for me than you would think. I hate work that I don’t put on myself.) One must eat. One must have clothing. And (apparently) children need those things too. So I must make adjustments for the 40 hours to be dedicated to executing someone else’s dream. I’ve determined that, on my worst days, I have enough energy to dedicate at least 10 minutes to writing. Sometimes the push forward is just a nudge. But forward progress is forward progress.
  2. Pay off debts. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic (a book I highly recommend for all your artsy folks out there) “debt is the abbatoir of art.” Abbatoir means slaughterhouse. I don’t want to be slaughtered. Paying off debt, like writing whatever I want, is a slower process than I would like. But I don’t use credit cards anymore. I’m paying more than the minimum on my car payment. Nudging forward. In 2018, I finished paying off my second student loan. Only two more to go. Ugh.
  3. Find a space. I kicked my children out of a so-called “playroom” that they’d both outgrown and NEVER used anyway. Quite frankly, I’m very, very lucky in the space I have. I’m surrounded by books. I have two desks that I refurbished. I have a printer that works about half of the time. To get this room, I had to remember that I’m allowed to have a space to follow my dreams. Hie thee to a corner of your trailer, your government-funded flat, or your favorite computer at your local library.

There is a space for you. It might not be a castle, but it is yours. Claim it.

What have you done to make space for your writing? How often do you worry about cashflow and does it impact what you’re doing and how you do it? I’m interested in any tips and tricks that I can steal.

Edith Wharton on Writing a War Story…or a Love Story…or a Comedic Story…or a Story Story

In September 1919, Woman’s Home Companion published a lovely little nugget of story by Edith Wharton. “Writing a War Story” is the tale of Ivy Spang, a poetess-turned-short-story-writer. Working as a nurse in France during WWI, Miss Spang is commissioned by an editor at the magazine “The Man-at-Arms.” He tells her that he wishes her to write, “A good, rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I’m sure you take my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending–that’s about the idea.”

In order to write her masterpiece, Miss Spang heads off to Brittany and moves in with an old governess of hers. And, like every writer before her and after her, Miss Spang hits a snag:

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 1

And, if only Miss Spang’s snags stopped at the beginning.

But no, Miss Spang suffers through questions about plot — “People don’t bother with plots nowadays” she explains to her governess.

Questions about deadlines:

 

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 2

Questions about where to find ideas; the difference between subject and treatment; chasing Inspiration; collaborators; what to do once the thing is published. What do you do if no one reads your story? Whose opinions should you listen to? What does it mean to be a woman writer in a world dominated by men?

If you have a hot second, it’d be well worth your time to read this short story — written by the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (1921 — for The Age of Innocence). All of the questions this short narrative poses show up a lot in Wharton’s work, which I’ll be talking about a lot in the next few weeks.

You can find a copy here,which includes a brief introduction to Wharton’s own participation in WWI relief efforts.

So, really, this blog post isn’t much more than a reading recommendation — but it’s an extremely enthusiastic reading recommendation. Let me know what you think when you’re done!