“Don’t be too harsh to these poems until they’re typed. I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction.” —Dylan Thomas in a letter to Vernon Watkins, March 1938
I didn’t begin writing seriously until 2002. I waited to tell anyone this until I was 45,000 words into the 70,000-word novel I was plugging away at in secret (a disjointed narrative that would eventually be shelved). And even then, when I did mention what I was working on, I did not say I was “writing seriously”. I mumbled that I was “writing something… or something.”
At that time, I had no personal preferences amongst any of the tools or writing paraphernalia I used. I used anything. I wrote in discarded sketchbooks. I wrote in terrible, 99-cent notepads that I’d acquired from clearance bins. I wrote long and sprawling and sideways on the subscription cards that fell out of magazines. I saw no need to seek out particular types of paper or pens, which makes sense because I was a.) a beginner, and b.) so blinded by the burning need to write that I barely saw what I was writing on, or what I was writing with. I decided that I would always write on anything, and never want for better or different than what was already available to me, or what was, you know… cheap. I told myself that this would be a charming attribute, but mostly it was a way to avoid making myself vulnerable to anyone who might notice, or worse, to myself.
I had been a “working artist” (only just, as I rarely made more than the cost of my supplies), and most of the people around me were artists — salt-of-the-earth types who were born and bred to be visual artists, as I’d once believed myself to be. Suddenly shifting gears from art to writing sounded awfully flaky at the outset, I knew that. And writing seemed like a luxury someone with my life didn’t deserve to enjoy. I didn’t want to invest money in it (I was still pursuing art until about 2006), and moreover, I did not want to become too attached to it in case it went away. It is much easier to act as though you aren’t devastated by the loss of something when you pretend that you never needed it in the first place.
So I snuck up on all my writing processes very casually and with a pretense of apathy, despite how deeply satisfied I was by it all. “Oh, hm. I guess I’ll write something here. I don’t care one way or another, really, but I might as well since I’m here and you’re here and nobody else is using these words right now.” It was not people I was worried about being rejected by per se, or at least not particular people. It was more the looming, nonspecific worry of being deemed a charlatan by writing itself, or by some nonexistent, collective writing authority, and being catapulted out of it like an olive pit, spat out by a hungry individual before they down the small and oily flesh. If writers were olives, then I’d hide out in this olive jar as long as possible, until someone discovered that I was a pit.
Now, a decade after I first began “writing seriously” in the most beat-up and decrepit journal I could find in my house, I have very specific fetishes for things I use to help me write, or things I use while I write. Most writers have their own variations of these affinities, or will develop them. They can range from objects, to places or rooms, to conditions under which you work best. Here are my current writing fetishes, culled from all the things I’ve tried thus far.
Times New Roman and Courier New duke it out.
Writing Fetish #1.) Times New Roman
I write best and most efficiently in a word processing program, at a computer. I actually think this is sort of an unbecoming reality of mine, or at least unromantic, because I know of writers who do entire first novel drafts longhand. How very lovely and appealing. Not realistic for me. I actually began writing, in 2002, more in longhand because I was moving over from 2D art, so working on paper was familiar. Over time I slowly transitioned more and more to drafting right at the computer, and by 2007, when I began my novel Basajaun, I was settled into something pretty close to the writing routine I use now. The very first words of Basajaun were typed at a computer, not written on paper. I think I had a page or two of very general notes I had made, but they only gave a very vague guideline of the thematic arc, as there was a lot about the story I hadn’t fleshed out yet.
I type much more quickly than I can write longhand, which makes writing on computer important and necessary. Thoughts come and words string together very fast for me when I’m working, and I need to rush to keep up, or I’ll lose them. Being able to tweak and change bits of sentences around while I’m working is also appealing. I do that a lot. Ideally, I work best when I am able to revise (to some degree) as I go, though that is not always possible in the earliest stages of a fiction work, or at any time when things are coming together more slowly.
I always, always type the first draft of a novel, as well as my nonfiction articles, in Times New Roman (12 point). I am pretty sure I got into that habit because it was the default font in Microsoft Word, when I still had a PC. I am very attached to Times New Roman now, especially from the happy experience of writing Basajaun. For some reason the default for Pages on my Mac is Helvetica. I always forget this when I begin writing on a new document, because I open it and just begin typing, and when I see the text in Helvetica my mind goes, “Ah! Wha? Gzehgbgit!” — which is the sound of my brain stalling because it has hit the font-wall. As this is going on I am usually rushing to get down whatever thoughts have spurred me to initiate a new writing document, so I hurriedly change the font to Times as quickly as possible, before my whole thought-system derails and crashes and goes up on chaos, and I lose whatever I am racing against the clock to record. I should really look at how to change that default setting, but as I am always rushing to do the actual work, I always forget that this will happen again. And when I do have time to fix the more mundane aspects of my workspace, I am morbidly disinterested in doing the things that aren’t part of the actual writing process. Which is terrible of me, I know.
The most recently revised hard copy of the new Basajaun MS, 386 pages.
That said, I always do the later drafts of my novel manuscripts in Courier New. That’s the fine, widely spaced, typewriter-y looking font. I got into this habit from converting my manuscripts to Courier for agent or publisher submission. Supposedly, Courier is The Font of Choice one is supposed to use when submitting for publication, presumably because it is the typewriter-y looking font, and we all Who Are Part of the Publishing Industry are still pretending that we do all our writing on typewriters, because that is so very much cooler.
I like this change in format when I’m doing the later revision stage, because seeing the writing in a different font will help me read it with a new eye, see errors, and just in general see it differently and identify what doesn’t work or what needs changing, clarifying, correction or rewriting. Likewise, when I do early drafts of novels in Times I do it all single-spaced, so I can see more of the text at a time, making as-I-go revising easier. When I switch to Courier I double-space it, which is the traditional submission format (leaving room for agents / editors / your mom to make notes between lines). That spacing change-up also helps me look at the work differently.
Going back even earlier in the process, one of the most crucial format change-ups to happen at all is that first time I actually print out the manuscript — in Times New Roman, single-spaced — and read, revise and work off of a hard copy for the first time. Since the entire novel will have been basically composed on a computer, the first Times printout will foster in-depth revisions. I highly recommend this part of the process for any writer: If you compose on computer, revise at some stage on a hard copy. If you compose longhand, revise at some point on computer (which you will of course do whenever you type your work up, unless it’s not a book but a novel-length manifesto or love letter to someone who enjoys that sort of thing). Every time you change method or format / font on a manuscript, you will see your writing “fresh” and will more readily decipher ways in which it can be improved.
Writing Fetish #2.) Mead Composition Books
All right, that was a lengthy explanation of why I compose most of my work on computer, but I do sometimes need to write in notebooks too. And I now only exclusively use Composition Books. Only. Ever. For a number of reasons: First, they are tape-and-stitch bound, which I find aesthetically pleasing to handle. Second, they are not spiral-bound, which I find completely icky to the touch. The metal coils get bent and make it so the pages don’t turn fluidly or consistently, which is jarring and a nuisance. Spiral-bound notebooks remind me of being in school, and that is not an association I want when I work. Composition books are also smaller — 7 1/2″ x 9 3/4″ — making them more portable, and just the right size for me when writing. 8 1/2″ x 11″ notebooks are too big — the pages are too large, it feels like too much open space. The more squarish proportions of composition books are also more appealing to me than rectangular notebooks. More succinct. I only use ruled ones, because blank, unruled pages make me feel like I should be drawing, not writing. Since I am usually buying them on the fly I always end up with the wide-ruled, but someday if I am ever together enough to order them ahead of time or something (what a novelty!), I’ll try the narrow-ruled.
I often write in my composition books — as opposed to on my computer — when I’m doing research for an interview; and I make notations for interviews heavily. Or when I’m writing in bed late at night and want to be away from the computer so I can eventually wind down and sleep. One of the main reasons I need them is so I can still write when I’m sick, or when I have a migraine, because the light from the computer plays merry hell with that. Or if I just need a break from the computer, but still want to work. I sometimes write in restaurants like a jerk, because I need to get out of my house, or I need to, like, eat, and I use the composition books then (or I bring along a chunk of manuscript for revising). I once thought I left one of them in a restaurant — one with a lot of important notes inside for my next novel. The horror. I later found it under an old sketchbook in my living room.
When I have my druthers, I use the marbled, Mead-brand Composition Books in black, navy or green. Black is nicest, but I usually have a few going at a time, so I need to know at a glance which book I’m picking up. During the mid-years of my writing when I was branching out from writing on envelopes, but not yet ready to make a commitment to supplies — not to mention part with the few bills in my wallet — I foolhardily picked up a bunch of knock-off Composition Books, because they were on clearance and much cheaper than the Mead ones. They are bright green (and white, respectively) with a red flower on the front. I hate them. I can see them there now, sitting on my shelf, waiting to be used. I have three left. I don’t mind about the knock-off brand, but the color and graphic are too bright and distracting for work. I am going to alter or color over them in some way. Or if you give me your address, maybe I will send them to you.
In my purse, I always carry a ruled Moleskine of some sort. Yeah, I’m one of those guys. But damn — they are nice.
I’m a little teapot, and I’m going to rock your world.
Writing Fetish #3.) This teapot
I love my teapot. Did you hear me, teapot? I love you. You are one of my best inanimate friends. Before you, I heated my water mug-by-mug in the microwave, like some sort of heathen or caveman. Or ape. Except when I threw my bone into the air, instead of turning into an orbiting satellite, it turned into a electric tea kettle.
The Cuisinart Electric Kettle was a 2010 Christmas gift from my very wonderful fiance, and I use it ALL THE TIME. It has six individual settings for all different sorts of tea, and a thirty-minute warming feature. I am trying now to think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound insufferable and affected, but I, uh, drink a lot of tea while I write.
As Tia says in Uncle Buck, “I’m not doing it to impress you.” I just really adore tea. A lot. I have already explained this quite sleazily in my 2011 Idler column My life in liquid: beverages I have known, loved and exploited, but the short version is: in addition to balls-out loving the taste of tea (pure and bitter, with no milk or sweetener), I also love that I can drink it all day without my heart exploding. I like that it gives me something to focus the non-writing part of my brain on, because it makes it easier to write when that surface, busy side of my mind is occupied elsewhere. Somehow, tea is also, to me, a happy substitute for smoking, as the crumbled-up tea leaves are as similar to tobacco as one can get in the annals of grown and harvested, healthy consumables. Green tea is my favorite. I feel that I write better when I drink green tea versus other kinds, but I’m pretty certain that’s just some hackneyed notion I’ve cooked up in my noggin.
I do know that I write better when I take my vitamins, though, particularly my B-50 Complex. I am not making this up. Whenever someone tells me they have writer’s block, that’s the first thing I tell them to do: take B-Complex. That’s not a fetish, just a way to up your lucidness and keep your brain lubed and operating at maximum writing efficiency.
Writing Fetishes are a good thing though — they make the process more personalized and enjoyable. Or less enjoyable, if that’s your thing. Maybe, like Mrs. Doyle, your fetish is that you like the misery.