Some years ago, I was very impressed with a piece written by a journalist friend of mine. It flowed smoothly and was both interesting and humorous. I asked him how long it had taken him to write. ” Twenty, twenty five minutes”, he told me. I was floored by his answer and not a little envious. Writing doesn’t come easy to me. To write a polished 700 word article like his would have taken me the better part of a day.
Later, I thought about this incident. Granted my friend was a trained journalist and could be expected to write fast ; still, he couldn’t be that fast. Then, the answer came to me. Before he wrote the article, my friend must have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about it, gathering his thoughts, refining them and preparing to write. The twenty or twenty-five minutes represented only the time he spent in the mechanical task of getting the words down on paper.It did not include the time he had spent getting ready to write. I don’t think my friend intentionally tried to steer me wrong; it’s just that he answered my question too narrowly.
On the other hand, there are some people who try to mislead you about the time it takes them to write something. One such was John O’Hara, author of From the Terrace, Ten North Frederick and other novels set in the mythical town of Gibbsville. Pennsylvania. He was one of my favorite authors when I was in college and I tried to read up on him whenever I could. There is a delicious story about O’Hara that Brendan Gill tells us in his marvelous book Here at the New Yorker.
O’Hara, later in his career, was a staff writer for the New Yorker. When he sat down to write an article, he would do it in one sitting, writing steadily and non-stop until the article was complete. There were no pauses, no hesitation. At the New Yorker, the walls between cubicles were very thin; the measured clacking of typewriter keys could easily be heard in adjoining cubicles. Consequently, O’Hara’s fellow writers were in awe of his seemingly effortless writing and not a few were envious of him. What they did not know was that O’Hara prepared meticulously at home, polishing each sentence, each word until all that remained was to get the words down on paper. Then he came to the office and knocked out his article in no time at all.
In my own case, I have great difficulty coming up with ideas and writing about them. However, I have developed a method that works for me. It’s like this.
As is common with many of us at this stage of our lives, I can’t sleep through the night the way I used to. No matter what time I go to bed, I wake up around 4 or 4:30 AM and just lie in bed for an hour or more until I doze off again. What I now do is to use that time to think about what I want to write. I consider various ideas until I settle on one I like; then I virtually compose it in my head. When I later sit down at the computer, all that remains is to transfer my draft to paper.
The method has several advantages. Firstly, it enables me to work faster. Less time spent writing and revising. Secondly, it reduces the time I spend sitting at the computer. As my wife reminds me, long hours sitting in one place are bad for health and can result in DVT, Deep Vein Thrombosis. Thirdly, less time at the computer frees me to do other things. And , finally, I sleep better after one of these sessions.
It took me only thirty-five minutes to write this article … but this does not include the hours I spent in the course of two nights thinking about it. If anyone tells you that writing is easy for him (or her) , don’t believe it. If it were really that easy, there would be more of us doing it.