Thursday, March 3, 2011

How We Write

"All six feet of Hemingway at work in his bedroom in Cuba. He used the bed as a place to collect his manuscripts and correspondence."

There's a great scene in a movie called HEMINGWAY (yah, with cap letters) that came out about 20 years ago in which actor Stacey Keach plays a rough, tough, marauding Ernest Hemingway who says what he means, means what he says and is wiling to prove it with his bare-knuckle fists.

The movie also portrays Papa Hemingway sitting at a pool-side table in the backyard of his Key West home, in front of his typewriter, a bottle of whiskey handy by his side. He's got the blood stained T-shirt on from his fishing adventures on the Gulf Stream, and he's pounding away at the keys of the old Remington with muscular arms and a tight but well fed belly. All around him people are swimming and drinking and having fun. His girlfriend is also present while his wife occupies the house.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hemingway never wrote with a whiskey bottle on hand, nor did he make it a habit to write outside, preferring the solitude of his bedroom, but with the door open so that he could enjoy the muffled but somehow soothing ambient noise of the daily household routine. For the Nobel Prize winning author, writing fiction was not something you did when you drank. It was something to be approached with all the dedication and clarity of mind and memory of a monk. He often wrote standing up as often as possible, having once said of his craft and lifestyle, "Travel and writing can expand the mind, but also the ass." Hemingway was six feet tall.

That said, the late noir master, Jim Crumley once commented that he liked to drink beer when he wrote. When the writing was going well, he would actually burn off the alcohol as fast as he put it in. Crumley also liked to write standing up, but found it difficult to find something that was the right height. Crumley was five feet, ten inches.

Norman Mailer used to climb a rope ladder that led the way up to a ship's mast constructed inside his Brooklyn brownstone. Once up the ladder he was forced to negotiate a gangplank that led to his small loft studio. One false move and down the Pulitzer Prize winner would go, one full story. Mailer never drank when he wrote preferring total sobriety, and the occasional candy bar. He also never wrote standing up. Mailer was five feet, eight inches tall, but slightly less than four feet sitting down.

I too try and write standing up, when I can, but like Crumley, it's tough to find something that's the right height. But like Hemingway I use my bedroom (or hotel rooms!), with the door slightly open so that I can hear what's going on with the kids. I wrote my first big novel THE INNOCENT (As Catch Can) to "Thomas the Train Engine" and Disney's famous "Fantasia." I also wrote a full draft of that novel up in an empty room inside an old insurance agency that my my friend Danny Slote offered up to me. I recall one morning he came into the room, coffee in hand and proceeded to tell me a joke about the three 'guinea pigs,' which was a kind of mafioso take on the old Big Bad Wolf and the Three Pigs nursery rhyme. That joke immediately went into my novel, and gave it a kind of tongue and cheek boost that readers often comment on with a smile. Oh, and how tall am I? Five feet, seven and a quarter inches.

I don't drink when I write, but I have written dispatches from Europe for RT and other news agencies while having a drink or two at bar or cafe. Journalism doesn't distinguish between night and day so often times you have to drop everything to get a story out. That includes dropping a pretty good buzz or a even a girlfriend if you have both going.

But as far as the fiction goes (and I'm at work on my 8th book now), I write clear headed and sometimes with music going. I prefer the romantic tones of Ralph Vaughn Williams but lately have been listening to Phillip Glass. On occasion I'll play Zoot Simms and Bucky Pitzarelli for an added noir element. I try not to write with the internet engaged, nor do I pay attention to emails. Well, ok, sometimes I do. But I don't answer IMs. I could get an IM from the Virgin Mary when I'm writing and I would still ignore it.

I asked some FB peeps how they write and the answers I received were as varied as they were interesting. One person wrote with headphones on, the music "blaring" in her ears while she sometimes drinks coffee or tea, or even wine. Another gets up at 4 in the morning, thinks through the first cup of coffee, then hits the keys for the next one. Another insists on a broad view of her garden, and yet one more stressed the importance of exercise while engaged in a novel, having walked more than 40 miles per week during a recent novel draft.

This of course leads me back to Hemingway's, and my own, expanding ass.

I too can't stress enough the importance of exercise when writing. My second wife Laura would sometimes get upset that after having to be alone to write fiction all morning I would then insist on carving out a couple of hours to run a few miles and hit the gym for some weight training, or even boxing. Things would only get worse when, at the end of a writing day, I would want to head out to the corner joint for a couple of beers so that after a day of solitude, I might socialize a little and re-enter society.

No wonder writers make lousy husbands.

Today I'm writing sitting down. In a few minutes I'll go for a run, and then hit the gym. But I won't write this afternoon since I'm leaving for Europe tomorrow, and have some domestic chores to tend to. Like laundry for instance. But tomorrow morning, while I'm waiting for the first fight to board, I'll pull out the laptop, and write a story or maybe a new blog. I'm also bringing my new manuscript along, Moonlight Rises, so that I can keep on plowing through the latest draft. My publisher is expecting it very soon. In the next ten days I will write in Munich, Innsbruck, Venice, Florence, and Rome. I'll write in hotel rooms, bars, cafes, airports, train stations, trattoriras. I'll write standing up and sitting down. I'll sometimes listen to music, and I'll drink espresso. Lots of espresso. Jet lag can be a real bitch especially when you're not fully recovered from the last bout of jet lag.

But I guess it really doesn't matter how or where I write, so long as I'm writing. Because in the words of author Jim Harrison, another writer who sometimes likes to write standing up, "your death, in those spooky terms, is stalking you every day."

Jim Harrison is five feet, ten inches.


  1. Surely the great Zandri doesn't really have domestic chores like laundry! Don't you have people to take care of that! ;) Hope you have a fabulous trip!

    Michelle V

  2. LOL! And, also, I understand your dedication to your craft and all, but if you do get that IM from the Virgin Mary, I'm thinkin' you really might want to take that one! Just that one exception, though, perhaps.

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  4. I really enjoyed this post and I love how you pointed out that there is no one way to write just like there is no one way to publish these days either.

    But you always seem to focus on male writers of the past. Are there just aren't any females?
    Or do you just not like females?

  5. I like females, Bri:)))
    I know, I was thinking the same thing...I need to include more of our sisters here....

  6. I'll believe it when you prove it.

  7. Don't back talk me woman ....:) Haahaha

  8. You're right about that "expanding ass" thing, Vincent. When the creative addiction is so powerful, working out feels like an interruption. These days I try to exercise first thing in the morning because if I pour a coffee first and then check my email, the exercise won't happen.

    Have a great time in Europe. Make sure you pack the sneakers ;)