I’ve not been sleeping well, so I’ve been reading quite a bit through the long nights. One book I finished last night was How I write: The Secret Lives of Authors. At first glance, I didn’t like it: it looked like a coffee-table book—cool design, but no substance, I thought. I was wrong.


It’s an anthology of very short statements from over sixty authors on how they write—specifically on the wierd habits or objects that have become an essential part of their process. Johathan Lethem’s list of names, Jay McInerney‘s axe artifact, Lionel Shriver‘s toy Clippity, A.S. Byatt‘s “Antonia Writing Time!” notice, Jonathan Franzen‘s old and ugly office chair, Claire Messud‘s graph paper pad and fine .005 felt-tip pens …

I came away with a fuller understanding that the process of writing is magical, that for many writers, it requires some sort of incantation, totem or ritual. Which made me give some thought to my own:

The cork from the bottle of champagne I brought to the class party at the end of the first writing workshop I attended. I was celebrating because I’d committed to becoming a writer. The cork reminds me that I’m lucky to be doing what I’m doing.

The tiny frame of the words “1-inch square”—this a reminder from Anne Lamott, I believe: When stuck approaching a scene, imagine viewing it through a 1-inch square. Describe what you see.

Two images, both of which “describe” to me the creative process. The first is a painting of a man and a woman on a floating raft, the bedding dragging in the water. The woman is asleep, the man awake and staring. (I wish I knew the artist’s name and the name of the work.) This image evokes the unconscious at work.

The second, is Louis Lozowick’s “Granite for Monuments (For Future Monuments). For me, this image captures the feeling of “constructing” a novel.


None of these are essential to me, for I have more than one office, and I don’t carry them with me. What is essential is my computer. I love the idea of writing long-hand, and I’m hopelessly romantic about notebooks, pens and pencils, but I rarely write more than a few pages before running back to my computer … my computer which is both my friend and foe. I spend far too many hours on it not writing.