Writing Rituals: Black Clock 17 Edition—Featuring Henry Bean, Antonia Crane, Dayna Dunne and Andrew Nicholls
When it comes to writing, we each have particular rules and rituals, habits and quirks, methods and madnesses. Certainly, there is no “one-pen-fits-all” formula for creative productivity, yet still, it is hard not to be curious about the creative lives of others, especially those whom we read.
For our inaugural installment of “Writing Rituals,” we peek into the worlds of Black Clock 17 contributors Antonia Crane, Dayna Dunne, Henry Bean, and Andrew Nicholls, each of whom you may recognize from our recent launch parties in LA and NYC. I solicited these excerpts via email, simply asking the writers to share small snippets that give readers insight into their respective creative worlds. The responses are delightful. Read on to learn about Henry’s discipline, Andrew’s penchant for envisioning an abstract end mood, Dayna’s method of turning the writing process into a fun game, and Antonia’s seductive wooing of her inspiration muse.
Then, fellow readers and writers, do tell: What are your creative rituals? Please share your own quirks and habits in the comments section below!
I have a bulletin board of hope that contains inspirational images, quotes and cards from people I love and admire. I have a note from Sy Safranksy smack dab in the middle of my board that says “Dig Deeper. After that, dig even deeper. You can never really go deep enough.” I write first thing in the morning when I’m fresh and never with any music (because I love music too much and it steals my attention). I always light a candle—a dressed candle from New Orleans is preferable. I have a couple of talismans that I keep within reach: Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and Cheryl Strayed’s essay, “The Love of My Life.” I use them to nudge me forward. If those don’t get me going, I turn to Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey. I write on napkins, on the inside of books and in airports. I keep bits of paper in my wallet and dig them out when I sit down to write. Then I am surrounded by ripped scraps like a nut case and dive in. Inspiration comes when she comes and I’ve learned to never wait for her—also never keep her waiting. She’s capricious.
On the day the Challenger exploded, on the day that John Lennon died, I wrote jokes. I’ve written through kidney stones, food poisoning, Christmas, July 4th, multiple Thanksgivings. My writing partner and I once Sharpie-scrawled a comedy bit directly onto the cue-cards for a variety show sketch that had already begun taping. Production schedules have saved me from most of the pencil-sharpening quirks that plague writers, but I’ve developed one of my own, tricky to articulate. I need to know the end feeling, the shape or color of a thing, before I start it. Whether it’s a one-liner, a short story or a three-act play, I need to know if it’s aiming to be a modernist building or a landscape, if it’s Badfinger or Radiohead, a parfait or a steak. I need to know the feeling that having read it will generate. For “String” (Black Clock 17), I aimed at a shadowy purplish color, the humiliation of old clothes, a ropy texture, a smart sexy girl, metal and rain. If I get lost, armed with this feeling I can step backwards through my own snowprints and look for where I went off the trail. Though sometimes I belatedly realize the end-feeling was too subtle for words, or for my words; that it was a scent fugitive as a dream landscape.
When I set out to become a writer, I gave myself rules. I had to arrive at the desk by nine each morning and work for three hours. During that time I was not allowed to eat, drink (except the coffee I’d come with), read (except what I’d written), make phone calls or talk to my housemates. I was permitted one trip to the bathroom. The discipline did not come easily; most mornings, by eleven I was counting the minutes. Twelve months later, I could do it for five hours. Soon, I had no trouble writing from morning to night; the hard part was stopping. I worked like that for thirty years.
I’m tempted to say, I’m such a novice. Call me in ten years. Maybe I’ll know more then. But here goes.
I work best when I stay fluid. I don’t like authority (even my own) so it’s impossible for me to do the same thing or be in the same place every day without some inner pilgrim seizing up or freaking out and walking off trail. I have to make a game of this, an exploration, a step by step what-if adventure. I work most days, beginning after noon. The way I work depends on what step I’m on. Gathering is one step. In gathering I make myself available to whatever wants to hook me, making sure I have plenty of recording devices around. Then there’s the Laying It Down step. Laying it down requires sitting somewhere comfortable. Before I sit (and before all the subsequent steps) I have to be clean, fed, walked, and have devoted some portion of my day revering something beautiful. Positioning is important. I’ve got to feel good. Balanced. So I can focus. Developing requires time to be still with my fluctuating mental/emotional/visual aperture. It feels like this: I’m writing, writing, and all the while there’s this sensual lens opening and closing, steering me. Developing can happen anywhere. It likes white noise. Sometimes I’m at home with my cat on my lap, sometimes I’m out in public. If I’m out in public I’m in an environment I trust, an environment with good beverages. Reviewing has to happen at home, in quiet, because gathering and developing like to join forces with reviewing and if it isn’t quiet (that means no music, no car alarms, no leaf blowers, no phone) the reviewer gets annoyed. Dance breaks are important, particularly in the kitchen. Dancing burns out the base and bothersome, tightens my focus, and celebrates little victories. (Celebrating little victories keeps me going.) I used to think Editing was a drag––the masculine, non-creative part of writing. I mean, who wants to be masculine? But after reading Freeplay by Stephen Nachmanovitch I find editing to be just as fun as the other steps. I feel like I’m working when I edit. It requires me to be at my desk in front of my computer with my designated To Do pile on my left, and my Have Done pile somewhere behind me where I can’t see it anymore.
By Chrysanthe Tan
a composer, violinist, writer, and Communications Editor for Black Clock