Most days, around noon, something very strange happens to me. It starts off with a headache. My head begins to feel stuffy and there is a slight pain behind my eyes. I feel distant from my body. Then, after a few minutes, a fog of unusual thoughts settles in. I stop thinking about the thousand little practical matters that run my life and start thinking about fictional problems and fictional places. I stop being able to maintain conversations. My eyes lose focus, and I can't stop staring off into the distance. I lose interest in whatever I was doing before; it doesn't matter what. I stop being hungry, being thirsty, being tired or sick. I can't pay attention to any of my bodily needs, however basic. I fall into a sort of trance. I feel hypnotized, like I'm not really in charge of my body anymore. I drink five or six cups of coffee to help with the fogginess, take a bunch of aspirin for the headache, smoke a few dozen cigarettes, and then sit at my computer and write.
I often don't get up for 12 or 16 hours.
Every writer has a different way of doing things. Balzac would consume as many as 50 cups of coffee in a day while writing. Proust would write from bed, sleeping during the day and working at night. Stephen King bought his own radio station so he could listen to music while he worked. Hunter S. Thompson's busy schedule of cocaine, cigarettes, and Chivas Regal kept him busy, too.
But I think we'd all agree on one thing. There is a certain mental place, a zone, if you will, where a lot of the best writing gets done. The zone is different for everyone, obviously. For me, the zone is a foggy, ecstatic, energetic, empty place. It is like a steam room with no walls and no place to sit. I find myself pounding down thousands upon thousands of words with little regard to their place in the story. It doesn't matter if the chapter I'm writing won't come until the end and I've barely written the beginning. I write the story in the order it comes out of my head, fully formed.I've stopped trying to drive in my mental space, no — it drives itself.
Then, once I snap out of it after 12 or 16 hours, I go back and I take control again. I edit. I delete passages that don't add anything. I cut and paste things so they're in the right order. Sometimes I'll write whole chapters, or series of chapters, that have no context around them. They come out beautifully written, but they won't fit into the story until another 20 or 30 thousand words are written. I've never once started writing a book at the beginning. I make notes of where I need to write something different or add something or take something away. Ten thousand words of raw text become two thousand again, just like that.
If anybody could see my raw drafts, they'd think I was a madman.
No two people have the same experience with the zone. I certainly don't think most writers feel hypnotized by the act of writing the way I do. But it seems like every writer has a zone and a different technique for getting themselves there. Using drugs seems more common than not. Smoking and drinking are the favorite pastimes of most of my editors and publishers, and I'm no exception. I don't usually smoke, but when I'm writing, I can go through Marlboro reds like an old lady on a trip to Vegas. I've recently switched over to the electronic cigarettes for the sake of my upholstery, but the effect is the same. I drink coffee, too. Stimulants get me going fast enough that the momentum of the writing takes over. Soon my coffee is cold and my last cigarette has burned itself out — but the writing is there.
It isn't all chemical. A lot of writers I know like to get up extremely early and write before they do anything else in the day. I don't understand those people and can't think of anything more miserable, but God bless them. For me the afternoon and evening are the only times to write. I'll start at noon and keep going to three or six in the morning. Sometimes I'll start at nine and I'll keep going until dawn. The work happens when it happens and everything else is secondary. At night there are no distractions. There is no traffic to sit in on the way to work. There is no line at the coffee shop. There are no kids playing outside or birds humming or hot tubs bubbling to tempt me. Plus, if God had intended us to be awake before 11 a.m., he wouldn't have invented the hangover. Or brunch.
Silence and solitude are the key concepts. I can write in a public place, but I need to free myself from distractions in order to do so. I can't write with music playing or a television on in the background. I can't hold a conversation and write at the same time, and I can't get up from my computer, go eat lunch, and then come right back and work again. No, that isn't how it works. I disappear entirely into the text. I often put on sound-canceling headphones so I can't be distracted by anything short of a fire alarm. I'll sit in a coffee shop, sucking an iced Americano through a straw, not making conversation or eye contact with anyone near me. I might be in the middle of a crowded subway station, but I'm still as alone and silent as if I were at home.
None of this should be mistaken for a process, though. I didn't sit down and decide to be this way; I had to figure it out through years and years of staring into my computer screen and failing to write anything. It took ages of trying to squeeze blood from a stone before I learned that my work turns out best when I indulge that toxic mind-fog that commands me to create. I had to learn not to fight it. I had to sit down, trust myself, and let the words fall where they may.
I had to learn the process of having no process.
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Books mentioned in this post
Roger Hobbs is the author of Vanishing Games