Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine & the Exquisite Torment of the Creative Life

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All writers have their routines and rituals.  While working on what would be his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, for example, established a stringent daily schedule: in the mornings and afternoons, he’d write diligently; in the evenings—if tired— he’d make time for relaxation and visit friends, go to the cinema, or read a book in a cafe.  Graham Greene, like innumerable writers throughout literary history, required himself to write a certain number of words a day (his quota of five hundred words seems rather unambitious compared to Stephen King’s, who requires himself to write ten pages a day, even on holidays).  Haruki Murakami views physical exertion as an essential part of his creative process and rises at daybreak every morning so he can run before he sits at his desk for the day.  For him, the rhythmic, monotonous movement of putting one foot after another puts his rational conscious mind in a trance so his more powerful subconscious mind can synthesize ideas in new, exciting ways.

In her soulful Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou reveals her personal routines.  Ms. Angelou comes from a long lineage of writers whose mundane daily routine takes on the consecrated status of ritual.  She regards a few things as absolutely essential: a bottle of sherry, from which she’ll perhaps sip in the morning and take a celebratory swig at night, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow writing pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.  When asked why she needed the Bible, she clarified:

“The language of all the interpretations, the translations, is musical, just wonderful, I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.

[…]

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English.  I want to hear it, so I read it aloud.  It is not so that I can imitate it.  It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.  Then I try to be particular, original.” 

“How do I become a better writer?” is the number one question of starry-eyed literary hopefuls.  No matter who you ask this perennial question— a novelist, an essayist, a poet, a playwright— the answer is the same: read.  “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write,” Annie Proulx once said.  Colossus of modernism Virginia Woolf agreed: “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.”  Stephen King put his tough love advice more bluntly: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Though we glorify writing as an inborn talent, writing is a skill, one that can be improved and refined.  How to construct compelling sentences with strong active verbs, how to spellbind our reader with the music of our language, how to convey our meaning through precise word choice: all can be learned through the devoted study of our favorite authors.  In much the same way Angelou learned to treasure the musical, poetic aspects of language by reading the Bible, we can learn how to play with words’ double meanings by reading Shakespeare or pace a story by reading a page-turning crime novel. 

I know that when I’m at my desk despairing that I have nothing to say, despising my every hideous sentence, my every careless turn-of-phrase, a good book can offer a powerful antidote.  If, the moment I feel uninspired, I feast on the sumptuous prose of Anais Nin or get intoxicated on the raw intensity of Sylvia Plath, I remember all the marvelous things language can do.  When I come across a perfect arrangement of words, a sentence where, as T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, every word has a “home,” I feel inspired to create striking sentences of my own.  Lesson?  Like Angelou, we should always keep a good book nearby to replenish and renew our soul.

Books inspire us not only to be better writers but better people.  When asked whether she read the Bible just to get inspired to write herself, Angelou added she read the holy scriptures:

“For content also.  I’m working at trying to be a Christian, and that’s serious business.  It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy: it’s serious business.  It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done.  I did it all day, hot-diggety.  The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, Hmm.  I only blew it eighty-six times.  Not bad.  I’m trying to be a Christian, and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.” 

Other than her Bible and glass of sherry, Angelou required one thing: a room of her own.  Because creative work demands a sanctuary of silence and solitude, Ms. Angelou had an eccentric habit of renting a hotel room over the course of her decades-long career.  When asked how she began her writing day, she explained:

“I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in.  I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.  To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses.  I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there.  I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.  Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets.  We think they are moldy.  But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets.  I insist that all things are taken off the walls.  I don’t want anything in there.  I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.  Nothing holds me to anything.  No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing.  I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.  I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson.  And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.  If you pull it, it says, OK.”  I remember that and I start to write.”

A firm believer that writing is work, Angelou described the long, arduous journey from an idea’s initial conception to its execution on the page:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’  I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page.  It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy.  Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer.  Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing.  I work at the language.  On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks.  When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat.  That’s that.  Not a cat.  But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you.  Come to me.  I love you.  It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.”

One of my favorite writers once said there’s a blissful obsessive-compulsive quality to creative work.  Those who endeavor to express themselves know this neurosis well.  “Should I rearrange this subordinate and independent clause?”  “Is this word too plain?  too conversational?    Should I opt for a more dignified word?”  To attempt to articulate ourselves is an exquisite form of torture.  In most things in life, it’s obvious when you’ve arrived at your goal: the mechanic knows his work is done once the engine ignites and the car propels itself forward; the carpenter, once the house can stand on its own.  But in writing, it’s hard to know.  Draft after draft, there always seems to be more we can do: an idea we can phrase more elegantly, a dull sentence we can polish further.  How do we know when the burnishing and beautifying, pruning and perfecting so essential to revision has crossed the line into helpless (not to mention unproductive) obsession?  How do we know when our work is ready to be released into the world?  To this enduring question Angelou replied:  

“I know when it’s the best I can do.  It may not be the best there is.  Another writer may do it much better.  But I know when it’s the best I can do.  I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.”  And leaving it alone.  I will not write it into the ground.  I will not write the life out of it.  I won’t do that.” 

For more brilliant conversations with our era’s finest writers, read Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Anne Sexton’s Advice to Young Writers

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“How can I become a writer?” renowned authors have been asked throughout the ages.  Ray Bradbury believed you had to be irrepressibly in love with your work, “If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life.  You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”  Henry Miller thought writing required strict schedules and single-minded commitment to your craft: “Write according to program and not according to mood!” he advised in his 11 commandments, a set of precepts meant to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Henry James maintained a writer must be attentive and turn an unflinchingly eye to the world.  “Be someone on whom nothing is lost!”  he implored.

Anne Sexton added her own counsel to the storehouse of advice on the craft in her extraordinary Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, a compendium of conversations with leading literary lights as dazzling as Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.  In response to the perennial question “What advice would you give to a young poet?”, Sexton offered the following beautifully-phrased guidelines:

1. be careful who your critics are

2.  be specific

3.  tell almost the whole story

4.  put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard

Writing as Salvation & Sustenance: Anne Sexton on How Poetry Helped Her Exorcise Her Demons & Gave Her A Sense of Purpose

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What causes suffering?  Gaston Bachelard believed the source of our first suffering “lies in the fact that we hesitate to speak…it is born in the moments when we accumulate silent things within us.”  Maya Angelou agreed.  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you,” she once wrote.  To suppress the dark side of our psyches, to enshroud our childhood traumas in a thick cloud of denial, to hide from our heartbreaks and sorrows is to hinder our ability to heal.  Our stories, no matter how devastating or disturbing, demand to be told.  Unless they find a healthy outlet, a mode of expression such as art or painting or music, our demons will destroy us.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, poetry was a transformative way to process her trauma and transmute her pain into something useful.  In her altogether illuminating interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, she suggests writing can offer salvation to the seemingly irredeemable.  Creative expression, particularly writing, which requires we make sense of our experience and give voice to our innermost selves, is a release of pent-up emotions, what the ancient Greeks called “catharsis”— a psychological discharge through which we can achieve liberation from turmoil and a state of moral and spiritual renewal.  To Sexton, one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, the page was quite literally a confessional booth, a sacred place where she could speak the unspeakable: her near unendurable struggles with depression, her dysfunctional upbringing, her childhood abuse.

When asked why she didn’t begin writing until she was almost thirty, Sexton explained she wrote as a way to cope with her demons after she had a mental breakdown:

“Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies.  I didn’t know I had any creative depths.  I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream.  All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children.  I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down.  I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me.  But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out.  The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight.  I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.”

Sexton suffered from what pioneering feminist Betty Friedan befittingly called the “problem that had no name”— a despairing but difficult-to-place existential angst that afflicted countless women in 1950s suburbia.  Stifled by her bland Wonder Bread existence as subservient, self-sacrificing housewife, Sexton became more and more unstable.  The tedious duties of domesticity— changing diapers, washing dishes, doing laundry— offered no solace to the troubled yet-to-be poet, who needed a goal to challenge her intellect and imbue her directionless life with a sense of purpose (As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, groundbreaking positive psychologist behind the theory of flow, once said, “Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”)

After her harrowing descent into madness, Anne sought the advice of her psychiatrist, who recommended she find a “difficult, worthwhile activity” to occupy herself.  Her rich imagination and agile intellect, he believed, had no outlet in the home.  Writing soon became her salvation and sustenance, a reason to continue living despite her loathing of herself and the world:

“I said to my doctor at the beginning, ‘I’m no good; I can’t do anything; I’m dumb.’  He suggested I try educating myself by listening to Boston’s educational television station.  He said I had a perfectly good mind.  As a matter of fact, after he gave me a Rorschach test, he said I had creative talent that I wasn’t using.  I protested, but I followed his suggestion.  One night I saw A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form.  I thought to myself, ‘I could do that, maybe; I could try.’  So I sat down and wrote a sonnet.  The next day I wrote another one, and so forth.  My doctor encouraged me to write more.  ‘Don’t kill yourself,’ he said.  ‘Your poems might mean something to someone else someday.’  That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was.”

A treasure chest of compelling interviews from Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya AngelouWomen Writers at Work supplies a rare behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of our era’s finest writers.  Whether you’re curious to learn how the most prolific writers seem to possess an inexhaustible spring of ideas or whether the most celebrated women of letters advocate keeping a journal, Women Writers at Work will inspire and engage you.

 

Joyce Carol Oates on the Myth of Mood

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“Write according to program and not according to mood!” Henry Miller advised in his 11 commandments of writing, a series of maxims he devised to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Jack London had a similar no-nonsense approach to the writing life: “You can’t wait for inspiration,” he insisted, “You have to go after it with a club.” 

Whether we’re rationalizing our decision to skip our regular morning run or our daily hour at the keyboard, we employ the same excuse.  “Ah, I’m just not in the mood!”  At some blissful juncture in the future (and it’s always the futurenever the present, this minute, this hour), we’ll finally be struck by that mythical lightning bolt and be able to articulate ourselves.  Until then, what’s the use?  Writing, we become convinced, depends on the “muse.”  When our muse calls on us, we’re inspired, a word literally meaning to be “breathed into.”  During these rare visitations, writing feels effortless; we’re not speaking so much as being spoken through.

But the problem is we can’t depend on the muse.  She could feel like getting to the page once a year or once an hour.  She’s erratic, mercurial.  Like a diva superstar, she’ll refuse to go onstage unless certain needs are accommodated for.  First, her requests will be eccentric but easy enough— water sourced from tropical rain and purified by equatorial trade winds, dim lighting, essential oils— but her demands inevitably get more impossible as time goes on.  Soon she’ll refuse to work unless her dressing room is exactly 78 degrees and all the yellow M&M’s are removed from her candy bowl. 

Though we believe we can only write when we’re in the “mood,” time and time again distinguished authors assert writing requires one thing: a willingness to work.  “Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn’t necessary in a long-term relationship,” Julia Cameron, creativity guru behind the perennial classic The Artist’s Way, once observed, “Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further.”  If we wait to write until we feel the irrepressible urge, we’ll never write a word.  Rather than romanticize writing as a sacred act surrounded by superstition and requiring ritual, why not begin where we are?  In writing— as in life— success is 99% showing up.

The idea that we have to be in the “mood” to write is a myth Joyce Carol Oates, novelist, poet, playwright and one of the most prolific writers of our time, cogently debunks in her thought-provoking interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work.  Complied of wide-ranging conversations with our era’s finest women writers, including Joan Didion, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Women Writers at Work has been hailed as “invaluable to students of twentieth-century literature.”  Where do you get your ideas?  Do you read your reviews?  Do you keep a journal or follow a writing schedule?  Whether you’re an aspiring writer looking to crack the code of the creative process or simply fascinated by the mysterious inner workings of the mind of the artist, these compelling conversations will illuminate the path to the writing life, not to mention inspire and instruct you.

A slender, shy woman with pale skin and otherworldly eyes, Joyce Carol Oates gives the impression, her interviewer writes, that she “never speaks in anything but perfectly formed sentences.”  Indeed of all the interviewees, Oates is perhaps the most erudite and articulate.  When asked whether she has to be in the mood to write, the phenomenally productive Oates replied: 

“One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’  In a sense, the writing will create the mood.  If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function— a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind— then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in.  Generally, I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been uttering exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for more than five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.” 

Very few writers start the day wanting to write just as few runners start the day wanting to run.  But in much the same way that “life begets life,” writing begets writing.  Writing— like all creative endeavors— is self-generative and self-sustaining: once we begin writing, we want to write; we don’t wait till we have ideas, we get ideas once we put pen to paper.  The hardest part of writing is beginning: once we overcome our initial resistance and simply start, we gain momentum and become unstoppable.  Lesson?  We have to sit at our desks no matter what.