William Landay's Blog
April 6, 2016
I’m most in awe of novelists, who move sets, lights, scenery, and act out all the parts in your mind for you. My kind of writing requires collaboration with others to truly ignite. But I think of Dickens, or Cervantes, or Márquez, or Morrison, and I can describe to you the worlds they paint and inhabit. To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic.
March 5, 2016
March 2, 2016
We tend to think of procrastination as a personal failing, even a moral flaw, a sin. For novelists in particular, marooned at our lonely desks and in our heads, facing enormous tasks and distant deadlines, procrastination is a besetting danger. The web makes the problem infinitely worse, with its little cruelty of turning the writer’s workspace, his computer screen, into an endless cabinet of wonders. Distraction is always just two clicks away.
There is now a small industry churning out advice on how to stay productive in the age of distraction, but it all boils down to this: put away your toys and get to work. In his wonderful The War of Art, Steven Pressfield advises, “Be a pro.” And that, honestly, is the bottom line. Just do it.
Personally, I try to live by that advice. By nature I am lazy and undisciplined, a lifelong procrastinator, so I rely on a set of formal strategies to stay focused. I work in a barren office, on an ancient ThinkPad T23 laptop that has no internet capability. I cripple my smart phone using various apps. (I fiddle constantly with how best to disable my phone during work hours, which, yes, I know.) When all else fails, I leave the damn phone at home.
Fellow weak-willed writers, I can’t say this strongly enough: do not burn energy resisting the temptation of the web. Just turn it off completely. Unplug. Research has shown that people who exhibit strong willpower are not better at resisting temptation; they simply do not expose themselves to temptation. They do not bravely refuse to eat the ice cream in the freezer; they never go down the frozen-food aisle in the supermarket in the first place.
Once I have unplugged from the web, I focus on starting. Not writing a whole novel or even a single scene, not writing for a certain period of time or hitting some daily word-quota. Just starting. As a writer, that is the most essential and difficult thing you will do: start. You must learn to start and start and start. Every morning, despite the awesome scale of the task, despite your own mounting anxiety, you must start. You will fail, of course. All writers fail. Most writers fail most of the time. Doesn’t matter. Get up, dust yourself off, and start again. If you start enough, in some small percentage of those attempts, you will achieve the blessed, transporting, trance-like state of flow that every writer treasures, and the residue of that deeply-focused work will be words on the page.
So that is my anti-procrastination strategy. In two words: unplug and start. I do not claim there is any special wisdom there, nor do these strategies work infallibly for me. I fail all the time, and I scourge myself for it. Probably you do, too. if you are a writer. It seems to be a universal feeling in this job. But failure is part of writing. Tomorrow you will try again. What choice is there? As Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
With all that said, I would like to suggest that some procrastination is actually good. Yes, good. Sometimes a writer resists writing not because he is lazy or careless, but because the passage just isn’t ready to be written. Hemingway famously said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Sometimes the way your shit detector goes off is by refusing to allow you to write shit in the first place.
It’s a simple idea but one we are culturally conditioned to resist: sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Just wait, just stop and think. In his book Antifragile, Hassim Taleb calls this predisposition to act — to do something, anything — the “intervention bias.” He gives the example of a doctor presented with a patient suffering from a sore back. The best advice for this patient may be simply to rest, because most back pain goes away with time. But no prestige accrues to the doctor who does nothing. Instead, it is the aggressive, can-do doctor who performs an expensive surgery, however unwise, however risky to the patient, who winds up “driving the pink Rolls Royce.” Sometimes, he writes, “procrastination is our natural defense” against this cultural bias toward doing, “it is my body rebelling” against it.
Granted in the modern world my tax return is not going to take care of itself — but by … deferring the writing of a passage until my body tells me it is ready, I may be using a very potent, naturalistic filter. I only write if I feel like it and on a subject I feel like writing about — and the reader is no fool. So I use procrastination as a message from my inner self and my deep evolutionary past in my writing to resist the intervention bias. Yet psychologists and behavioral economists (these charlatans) seem to think that it is a disease to be remedied and cured. And pharmaceutical companies might one day come up with a pill for it. Few understand that, instead, one should lead a life in which procrastination is good, as a naturalistic decision-making.
Of course, you can take anything too far, and I do not mean to make an elaborate excuse for dawdling. But the fact is we procrastinate for a reason. Procrastination is not a disease, it is a symptom, a natural, instinctive response to a difficult, anxiety-provoking situation. The task for a writer is to isolate why you are procrastinating. What are you anxious about? What aspect of today’s writing assignment is freezing you up? Is it mere laziness? Is it the difficulty of the task ahead? If so, then too bad — stop whining and get to work. You want an easy job? Don’t be a writer. But consider for just a moment that maybe, just maybe, the reason you can’t seem to write is that your shit-detector is buzzing like crazy. Sometimes procrastination is not a matter of bad habits but of good taste.
February 24, 2016
December 31, 2015
December 24, 2015
September 16, 2015
July 18, 2015
A 1960 interview with Orson Welles about “Citizen Kane.”
Q: What I’d like to know is where did you get the confidence from to make the film with such —
A: Ignorance. Ignorance. Sheer ignorance. You know, there’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you’re timid, or careful or —
Q: How does this ignorance show itself?
A: I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do or the imagination could do. And if you come up from the bottom in the film business, you’re taught all the things that the cameraman doesn’t want to attempt for fear he will be criticized for having failed. And in this case I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do, so anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.
Q: You got away with enormous technical advances, didn’t you?
A: Simply by not knowing that they were impossible. Or theoretically impossible. And of course, again, I had a great advantage, not only in the real genius of my cameraman, but in the fact that he, like all great men, I think, who are masters of a craft, told me right at the outset that there was nothing about camerawork that I couldn’t learn in half a day, that any intelligent person couldn’t learn in half a day. And he was right.
Q: It’s true of an awful lot of things, isn’t it?
A: Of all things.
July 11, 2015
Looking up Boylston Street from the corner of Berkeley in the 19th century. At right is the New England Museum of Natural History, a predecessor of the Boston Museum of Science. (The building is now occupied by Restoration Hardware — sigh.) To its left is the Boston Institute of Technology, now MIT. The tower at the far left is Old South Church in Copley Square. (via) I work nearby and pass this spot every day.
May 13, 2015
Adam Gopnik’s story on Trollope in last week’s New Yorker touches on
his very Victorian work ethic: he wrote for money, and he wrote to schedule, putting pen to paper from half past five to half past eight every morning and paying a servant an extra fee to roust him up with a cup of coffee. He made a record of exactly how much each of his novels had earned, and efficiency and economy, taken together, got him a reputation as a philistine drudge.
Trollope was, in truth, merely being practical about the problems of writing: three hours a day is all that’s needed to write successfully. Writing is turning time into language, and all good writers have an elaborate, fetishistic relationship to their working hours. Writers talking about time are like painters talking about unprimed canvas and pigments.
Not sure I agree with Gopnik’s three-hour rule. Three hours a day may have been enough for Anthony Trollope to write successfully, but you, alas, are not Anthony Trollope.
It is interesting to think of writing as “turning time into language.” Of course, Gopnik is not saying that’s all writing is. He is making a simpler point about Trollope’s practicality and discipline. Because, in the end, every art form can be reduced to “turning time into” something (sculpture, music, painting, etc.). Still, it is a useful formulation. It is so easy to get psyched out by these monstrously productive Victorians, it may be better to see in them a daily reminder to turn your time into text, and be done with it.