by Peter Ferry
What do I do when I’m having trouble writing? Well, first of all, that seldom happens to me. I’m the equivalent of the chatty uncle or loquacious neighbor you avoid; I just won’t shut up. But part of the reason is that I’ve accumulated a lot of tricks over the years to get me started or keep me going.
I write early in the day. That’s when my mind is clearest and sharpest. I do not write at night when my mind is cluttered and fuzzy. Besides, I’d rather drink a glass of beer or wine with my dinner, and I can’t write after even one of those (it always sounds wonderful then and like shit the next day).
I move. I compose in my head while walking, hiking, or biking. Something about movement seems to get my juices flowing. I carry a notebook so I can duck into a coffee shop or sit down at a picnic table and get what I’ve written down on paper.
I write on faith. I love E.L. Doctorow’s analogy that writing is like driving a car at night: you can’t see very far ahead, but you don’t have to, because by the time you get there, you’ll be able to see farther.
I warm up. I do this by reading really good writing, usually of the kind I’m working on. Lately I’ve been reading Dave Eggers, because he is a master of nuanced character development and dialogue. I also think Eggers writes big. I once heard Kurt Vonnegut say that you should believe that whatever you are writing right now is the most important thing that has ever been written. Eggers does, and it works. As Pico Iyer says, he has evolved from “telling his own stories to voicing America’s.” Dave Eggers inspires me.
I often read the final chapter of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, because I too have been writing about old people, and she does so wonderfully. And I always read the final pages of James Joyce’s The Dead because it is almost perfect, maybe perfect, certainly the best piece of prose I know.
My routine is to run alongside these writers for a while (not too long), and then let them fall away and go on alone, or maybe stay right behind them like a race car drafting, and then zip ahead when they pull over.
I translate. This is a trick I don’t often use myself but think is interesting, particularly if you are writing verse. I learned it from the poet David Lehman, who once told me that when he has writer’s block and can’t write his own stuff, he writes someone else’s. He translates something from Italian or German or Spanish.
“You speak all those languages?” I asked.
“No. Sometimes it’s better if you don’t.”
“Really? How do you do it?”
“I use a dictionary. I use cognates and roots and what I know. I figure it out. I feel my way along.”
I take a day off. That’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to take the El downtown and go to a little free concert at the Chicago Cultural Center, then treat myself to a Panini and a cup of coffee at an Italian deli called Café Baci and read some of Nick Courtright’s new book of poetry that just came in the mail. Then I’m going to start walking home along the lakefront. Chances are something will come to mind as I do.