[ilds] "pretend you’re cutting wood"

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Fri Jan 8 09:17:53 PST 2010

Another Durrell sighting copied below:

> *An Irishman's Diary
> http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0108/1224261895348_pf.html
> Fri, Jan 08, 2010*
> BARRING unforeseen events, the Chilean author Isabel Allende will 
> start a new novel later today. At about 5pm, Irish time, in fact. I 
> know this, more or less for a certainty, because she does the same 
> thing every January 8th, and has done for the past 29 years.
> The habit began on this date in 1981, after she received a phone call 
> telling her that her much-loved grandfather was dying, aged 99. Sad as 
> the news was, it inspired her to write him a letter. And the letter in 
> turn grew into her first novel, The House of the Spirits .
> This was a great success, drawing comparisons with Gabriel García 
> Márquez’s magic-realist masterpiece: One Hundred Years of Solitude . 
> So ever since, Allende has considered today’s date lucky and marks it 
> each year by starting another book (although not all the books are 
> finished).
> She also works very regular hours: Monday to Saturday from 9am until 
> at least seven in the evening. And last I heard, she lived in 
> California. So, allowing for the eight-hour time difference, her first 
> sentence should be taking shape around 5pm GMT, as Irish office 
> workers are trudging home through the snow.
> It might be more information than most readers need to know. But any 
> struggling writers among you, who even now are putting off the evil 
> moment when you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, might 
> benefit from Allende’s advice on mood-setting. About this too she has 
> commented extensively.
> In keeping with her mystical attachment to the date, she begins each 
> January 8th with a ceremony: “I light some candles for the spirits and 
> the muses. I meditate for a while. I always have fresh flowers and 
> incense. And I open myself completely to this experience that begins 
> in that moment.”
> If all goes well, the spirits and/or muses then take over: “I try to 
> write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was 
> writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the 
> whole book. It’s a door that opens into an unknown territory that I 
> have to explore with my characters.
> “And slowly [. . .] the story seems to unfold itself, in spite of me.” 
> I have to admit, with my head bowed in shame, to having no idea how 
> well this regimen has served Allende so far in her career, having read 
> none of her books. I intend to start rectifying the situation by 
> buying one later today. If the experience proves auspicious, maybe 
> I’ll begin reading another new one every January 8th from now on..
> But someone who has read her extensively, needless say, is this 
> newspaper’s brilliant literary critic Eileen Battersby. Who, reviewing 
> one of the more recent novels, found it compared badly with The House 
> of the Spirits , “her most original and certainly most convincing 
> performance to date”.
> In the latest effort, by contrast, “Allende seems caught between 
> wanting to write a long, leisurely period yarn, and a snappy authorial 
> impatience which seems to be telling her to wrap it all up as quickly 
> as possible. There is a weary harshness about the narrative. It is as 
> if she simply had to write this book not out of some creative urge but 
> because telling stories has become a job to be done.”
> Oh dear. Perhaps the incense and flowers were not working quite so 
> well that year. Or maybe the muses were feeling a bit rough, 
> post-Christmas. In any case, another January 8th has arrived and 
> perhaps this one will be prove luckier. Readers will no doubt join me 
> in wishing Isabel Allende well with her latest work.
> FEW AUTHORS have given us so complete a picture of the moment of a 
> book’s conception as the aforementioned. And of those who have 
> described the process, I can’t think of another writer who admits to 
> deploying flowers and incense. Jack Kerouac was probably more typical 
> of the genre. This was his approach to a book: “You think about what 
> actually happened, you tell friends long stories about it, you mull it 
> over in your mind, you connect it together at leisure, then when the 
> time comes to pay the rent again you force yourself to sit at the 
> typewriter, or at the writing notebook, and get it over with as fast 
> as you can.”
> Another American, Patrick Dennis – now forgotten but a million-selling 
> author of the 1950s – described his method even more succinctly: “I 
> always start writing with a clean piece of paper and a dirty mind.” 
> Many other writers have at least shared details of their daily working 
> habits, which make interesting comparisons. In an echo – albeit a 
> faint one – of Isabel Allende, Gore Vidal put it this way: “First 
> coffee, then a bowel movement, then the muse joins me.” *Lawrence 
> Durrell was more oblique: “The best method is to get up early, insult 
> yourself a bit in the shaving mirror, and then pretend you’re cutting 
> wood”.
> *
> And William Styron spoke for many writers – of the old school anyway – 
> when he described his routine: “I like to stay up late at night and 
> get drunk and sleep late. I wish I could break the habit but I can’t. 
> The afternoon is the only time I have left and I try to use it to the 
> best advantage, with a hangover.” Styron died in 2006, incidentally, 
> at the tragically young age of 81.
>     * fmcnally at irishtimes.com
> © 2010 The Irish Times

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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