T.C. Boyle's excellent latest novel, The Terranauts, is about eight people entering E2, a sealed three-acre world that's part of the vision of a billionaire futurist. With 16 novels under his belt, Boyle shares his writing secrets.
Writing is hard work. It makes you sweat, builds your muscles and gives you a real cardiovascular workout (if you combine it, that is, with a ten-mile run, each and every day). What I'm saying is that above all, it takes discipline. To complete a project, whether it be short story or novel, you must stay after it seven days a week for as long as it takes to arrive at those last celebratory lines. Here are five tips to help you on your way:
1. Prozac. Since writing fiction is an obsessive/compulsive disorder, you must walk a fine line between exceeding the prescribed dose of Prozac (which will limit your productivity) and letting things get away from you vis a vis hand-washing, facial tics and the like. In fact, despite (or maybe because of) the examples of Faulkner and Hemingway, I’d advise writing without any such crutches, if you can possibly manage it. Sometimes a gentle tap from a ballpeen hammer applied judiciously to the base of the skull can be enough to kick-start the creative process. Me? I go naked into the muddy currents of the work, day after day, and if I wind up washing the skin off both palms or blinking to the point at which my right eye turns to stone, so be it—at least I’m moving the story forward.
2. The .357 Magnum. The second tip goes (if you’ll forgive me) hand-in-hand with the first. In recognition of the fact that all writers are manic-depressives, alcoholics, drug-addicts and fixedly specialized degenerates, it’s always helpful to keep a loaded pistol on your desk, perhaps located conveniently beside the ballpeen hammer, depending, of course, on the size of the desk. This acts as an aide-memoire, a spur to creativity and, of course, the ultimate solution to writers’ block.
3. Music. I don’t know what writers did before the advent of recorded music, aside from Poe, that is, who had his raven, but all contemporary writing begins in music, which is essential to the creative process. I have never written anything without the anodyne accompaniment of those rhythmic sounds pouring so mellifluously through the speakers perched on either side of my thinking head. When deep into the spell of composition, I may not necessarily be aware of what’s playing, but I am comforted by the fact that it is there and speaking to me on some deep level. I listen to classical and the jazz of my youth (Coltrane, Miles, etc.) while working at my art, rock and roll while doing e-mail, Twitter and the rest. Try it. Start with Mozart’s “Requiem,” as I often do, and leave it on repeat till it has played at least 10,000 times, and, most likely, you will find that you have the perfect first sentence of your 800-page novel staring back at you.
4. The Grindstone. No matter how hopeless it seems or how blocked you are, you must forge on. The middle of a long project is always the hardest part because it is at that point that you must discover what it is you have been so indefatigably working on to this point. What does it mean? Why are you doing it? What are the themes you see emerging? Where are your characters headed? Since this is impossible to address consciously, you must rely on your instincts and try not to despair. Just keep fighting it. Every day. As long as you can stand it. Resist playing golf or knitting or drinking more than maybe two or three flaming shots of 151 rum in your leisure time. In fact, don’t have any leisure time. If you are very, very lucky and keep your nose to the grindstone, you will discover the key and all will begin to fall in place.
5. Death. The making of art (and, I suppose, children) is the only thing that can begin to combat the sentence hanging over each and every one of us. Writing is a way of forgetting that death sentence for so many hours a day. Treasure those hours, because, believe me, they are not going to last forever.