March 23, 2013

"Even if you write a book in two years, sometimes you get a page a day, sometimes you get no pages..."

"... every sentence raises a problem, and essentially what you're doing is connecting one sentence to the next. And you write a sentence and you have to figure out what comes next or what doesn't come next."

Says Philip Roth, who's now retired from writing. "It was a constant mental activity, really. And now I just listen, and it's quite nice. I go home and go to sleep... It was on my shoulders all my life, so I really didn't even know it was on my shoulders."

ADDED: When you write a blog, you don't have the struggle of connecting one sentence to the next. The next post comes next, and there needn't be any connection at all.


edutcher said...

Rod Serling said something similar.

But he never quit.

YoungHegelian said...

I heard that interview this morning laying in bed, and I was surprised how much of a non-asshole Roth was. He actually sounded like a decent guy!

Are you going to tell me that I shouldn't be surprised that the author of Portnoy's Complaint turned out to be a decent guy?

m stone said...

As a published writer with three books under my belt---the first taking 12 years and the last two---writing is personal and the task subjective. Some days, a sentence or paragraph will be the product, and from others will flow two thousand words in a matter of minutes.

Some writers spend eight hours "devoted" to the art and muse for much of that time, while anguishing for the rest. It is a process not unlike cooking and perfecting the recipe.

Writing is both exhilerating and tedious---finding just the perfect sentence. It is rewarding and not for the social being.

Roth is correct, creating the book is a full-time job: it is consuming as no other.

Pitching your book to publishers is the pits.

Michael K said...

I spent three years writing a book that is non-fiction but it was still a laborious process. I have two other books that never got finished. It's a lot of work. Fortunately, the first book is still selling nine years later.

Lem said...

The next post comes next, and there needn't be any connection at all.

Not if have anything to say there needn't.

And you a philosopher.

chickelit said...

Most any lengthy composition has a sequence, including things as disparate as polymers, novels, films, or even a blog. All these different things are sequentially pieced together from smaller subunits. For polymers, the subunits are monomers, for novels they are alphabet characters, for films and videotapes, they are "frames," and for blogs, they are separate posts (which themselves comprise a smaller sequence of characters).

Anonymous said...


That approach may be too analytical, at least for creative writing. That part of your mind is put to work by the creative imagination, or subsumed by other parts, I suspect.

You won't know where you'll end up before you start.

The craft is is in stringing together words that will give pleasure for an imagined reader, and coherence of concepts from an outsider looking in.

I bet Beethoven could have been a good mathematician, but he couldn't do math at all, as that part of his reasoning ability was used for other purposes.

It's a lonely, isolated craft with one man in a room.

I suspect anyone who's had to learn how to write well understands how much practice, and near devotion, it takes for a period of time.

And it could all be for not with no one giving a shit, or a few people, sometimes for different reasons, and no one paying you for it.

ricpic said...

Sounds like a bricklayer's lot, except at the end of the day Roth didn't have to contend with the aches and pains and total tiredness that are a manual laborer's daily reward. Plus a bricklayer doesn't get time off to restore himself. Such tripe, the heavy burden mindworkers complain about.

rcommal said...

Oh, that's true for you, and it's worked out for you, and you deserve it because you've worked hard at what works for you. Which also has happened to capture a particular wave, one which, I am an honest enough person to say, you helped to create.

Any other question?

rcommal said...

It's deserved, truly it is, and that, as they say, is that.

Also, that knowledge should be enough, and so knock off acting as if it isn't would be the thing to do, if it were. It isn't though, and so it goes.

chickelit said...

Althouse wrote: The next post comes next, and there needn't be any connection at all.

Nothing but chronology.

Scythes, reapers, and sowers.

Scott M said...

Most people that sit down to write a novel don't realize the mental war that occurs every day inside an author's head. Tying sentences together is one of those battlefronts.

Writers tend to fall into two camps; the pantsers and the plotters. Pantsers are the freeform types that just sit down and off they go, discovering as they write and they tend to write more. They also tend to edit a helluva lot more. Plotters, or outliners, will spend a lot of time figuring out things ahead of time and then crafting the writing to fit. Some are rigid about their processes with scores of digital folders containing their research, their character bios, their timelines, their outlines, scenes already written, etc.

Pantsers, on the other hand...well, I don't know. I'm a plotter. I don't know how they do it.

Passive voice and adverbs are the main enemy. Kill 'em all and let Twain sort 'em out.

Scott M said...

And it could all be for not with no one giving a shit, or a few people, sometimes for different reasons, and no one paying you for it.

Absolutely agreed, but the flip side is that this is one of the absolute best times in literary history to find out.

William said...

So now the creator of Portnoy gets his sensual kicks from napping. An economical and rewarding hobby, but it doesn't provide an author with much material for his next book......I read somewhere that about half of all writers become alcoholics and another half become blocked. Probably some kind of Venn overlap there, but those are bad odds. It's a crappy vocation.... Roth seems to have reached old age in pretty good shape for a guy who spent his entire life elaborating on how wearisome and futile the journey was....I enjoyed his books, and I will miss his insights. He was funny and smart.

Anonymous said...

I love passive voice. I used to love old English novels and essays as a kid and they just went round and round, quite often in passive voice, before they got to anything resembling a point.

I feel like a lefthander who has been forced (by Word) to use only their right hand under threat of torture and write in a direct, active, modern American way against their will. Inhumane.

Now people complain that "I used to really enjoy your letters before you got on the computer. They've lost something."

Yeah. They have.

JAL said...

The next post comes next, and there needn't be any connection at all.

We noticed.

JAL said...

Michael K -- Your book is on my list to indulge in. I did buy Roy Porter's B&G ;-)

JAL said...

Scythes, reapers, and sowers.

chickelit is beginning to sound like rh.

tim in vermont said...

I worship Philip Roth as a writer.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Ever since about the age of eight I've been living my life making a conscious effort to connect each and every thought to the next. And not just my thoughts but my deeds, as well.

And not just connect them, but connect them in a way that is principled, and reasonable, and beautiful, or at least interesting, or at least entertaining.

I don't think I'm at all good at it, and I find it exhausting, but still I have persisted at it for more than forty years. All it has gotten me is the deeply inexpressible feeling that I am lonely to the core and that it is just that I suffer.

Sometimes I think it's just that I'm a relatively normal person who just got lead astray, somehow, probably by believing too much in well-intentioned school teachers at an impressionable age.

Sometimes I think of myself as a mental case who is extremely hung up -- inhibited -- who would serve the greater good best by inflicting my counterproductive and unhappy mental illness on as few people as possible.



Strelnikov said...

"ADDED: When you write a blog, you don't have the struggle of connecting one sentence to the next. The next post comes next, and there needn't be any connection at all."

That explains a lot...

Rich Rostrom said...

The experience of writing varies.

Isaac Asimov just sat down at the keyboard and the words came out.

Robert Heinlein wrote that writing became a literal physical addiction for him. He announced his retirement from writing at one time. Anthony Boucher asked him if he'd ever known a writer who actually stopped, which baffled Heinlein. But during the first weeks of his "retirement", Heinlein found his sleep, appetite, digestion, and temper all inexplicably spoiled. Then he had a story idea, sat down to write it - and almost immediately felt much better. He never tried to quit again.

It will be interesting to see if Roth actually stops writing.

(Heinlein cited a mutual acquaintance to Boucher. Boucher noted the man had stopped publishing - but had he stopped writing?)

Strelnikov said...

I'm not sure I want to take an acknowledged lifetime, serial masturbator's word on how to do anything.

Strelnikov said...

"It will be interesting to see if Roth actually stops writing."

Luckily, he already has a hobby to fall back on. Idle hands are the Devil's workshop.