The Question... and The Answer... by Tony Daniel

I love to be asked, “How do you write?”

I mean, it’s a perfect set-up question to who-knows-how many great one-liners. It also hits me, though, as a question someone asks when they have been told “how to write” and it doesn’t work for them.

Folks hate it when they ask a question and the answer they get is another question, but, in this case, it almost demands a question back.

“How do you write?

“Well, how do you want to write?”

I’ll be the first one to tell you, I am not the person to ask when it comes to questions about rules. Long ago, I found that rules are, for the most part, more like suggestions to me. If someone tells me absolutely, positively, do not do something, you can bet your last dollar that I will be the one to try it, just to see what happens.

The same is true for me when it comes to writing. For years, I have been reading books about writing, how to write, why to write, when to write. How to write a novel in thirty days, how to write a novel from the center and work to both ends, how to write a book by starting at the end and working backwards. You name it, I have heard it. Don’t get me wrong, now. If you have a method for creating that works for you, do not change it in any way! I am a firm believer in the old standard, “If it feels good, go with it.”

That old standard was the basic set-up for my first marriage, but I digress…

How do I write? I just sit down at the keyboard and start banging. Yes, it’s that easy. Every day, I sit down, and I just start free-writing. Whatever pops into my head, I don’t let it linger – I ship the thought down to the fingers and let it hit the “paper,” so to speak. It doesn’t matter if it makes any sense, it’s just a flood from the stream of consciousness that pours out of my head. Once all that is clear and empty, it leaves plenty of room for more focused thoughts. Most importantly, though, I never just delete any of that stuff – I save it and read back over it at the end of the day, because you never know what nuggets of gold were buried under all the mud from the mine.

All that being said, let me make this known – I cannot… cannot… work in silence. Silence drives me nuts. All the “how-to” books will make it abundantly clear that your workspace should be ‘clear of any sort of distraction, be it a television, a radio, a stereo, or any other sort of interference with the clear train of thought.”

Yeah, that dog don’t hunt, as my grandfather used to say…

I have music playlists for writing. Depending on where I want to go with the day’s work, I have playlists that are high energy, some that are a slow, easy groove, and some that are a good rollercoaster mix of both. I set my own energy level to the music and let it fly. And I play it loud. Loud enough to shake the windows? Sometimes …. Other times, it is just barely audible, like white noise. But it works. I let the music drive the machine while I navigate the streets and alleyways to get where I want to go.

Here’s the kicker, though. I also have movies playing throughout the day. If you know me at all, this should not be a surprise. My self-styled addiction to all things cinema is well-known. I have a sign in my office that says, “I speak three languages – English, sarcasm, and movie quotes.” A truer statement about me has yet to be written.

My reasoning for having movies playing is not for entertainment’s sake. My worship of all things movie has allowed my almost-eidetic brain to memorize many movies, down to the sound effects and words being spoken on the screen. People refuse to watch Casablanca, Star Wars, The Godfather, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence with me because I will quote every line about five seconds before they are said onscreen, and make every gunshot, laser blast, or explosion just before they happen. So why keep such an “obvious distraction” going while I am trying to create something else?

They are clocks. It’s that easy. I don’t keep a clock on my desk because it’s too easy to glance over and think, “Jeez, I’m wasting time,” or “Lord, it’s only been an hour?”

But, let me put The Godfather in the Blu-Ray player and start writing. I don’t have to look at a clock. Michael shoots Tattaglia and the cop in the restaurant? I’m about ninety minutes in. Horse head in the bed? Only 45 minutes in. Sonny gets gunned down at the toll booth? Two hours, seventeen minutes in. All I must do is take a moment to listen to whatever movie is on the screen behind me, and I can set my mental clock for a while. Added bonus? It is a lot of fun making all the machine gun sounds while you work, but you do end up having to wipe the screen off at some point.

So, curiosity begs me ask – am I the only one who has these quirks about how they want their environment to be while they write? Surely, I am not the only one who writes to music, but do you prefer the solemnity of classical music, or do you go for AC/DC’s "Highway to Hell" on a loop for three hours? Do you like nightclub jazz? Vegas Rat Pack club music? Let me know! I could use some new playlists…


Susan Price said…
"Whatever works for you." Couldn't agree more, Tony. It's pointless struggling to work with some way that doesn't suit you. Writing is hard enough without that.

Playing films while I work wouldn't suit me, but I do often listen to music. I match the music to the atmosphere of what I'm writing: Border Ballads for the Sterkarms: Russian classics and orthodox church music for the Ghost Drum and its sequels.
Bob Newman said…
I can't write to music, but in real life I work in IT and I find that I can program or debug to music, as long as there are no words. (Or if it's Pink Floyd, who seem to be an exception.) The genre I usually work to is called post-rock, and here's a playlist for you (chosen almost at random): Pascal's Law is a particular favourite of mine. If at all possible, enjoy!
Bill Kirton said…
Nope - absolute silence is essential. If there's music, I listen to it; visuals, I watch; and even with silence, it's a effort to resist all the tempting distractions that come into my head. Maybe I should get a job, one that suits a butterfly mind.
Umberto Tosi said…
Free-writing: Sounds like Julia Cameron's "morning pages" from The Vein of Gold, three spontaneous, handwritten stream of consciousness pages each morning, I used to practice in the 1980s when her book from my old publisher, Tarcher, hit the bestseller lists. Worked for me for a good while until it became repetitious, then it was time to vary the rules... I still do various free-form writing workouts. Call them what you will. I use starters borrowed from Viola Spolin's Chicago improvisation for the theater games -- like taking off on three random words, etc. Music? I love it. I'd rather have a movie in the background because if it is music that I love - from Chopin to Coltrane - I'll lay my pen aside to immerse myself its magic, which is more powerful than anything I can write. Anyway, thank you for your thought-provoking post.
JD Peterson said…
I also prefer music or activities. Many pages were written in a coffee shop with people coming and going, talking and music playing. Sometimes overhearing a conversation can give me ideas. I find the idea of locking myself away in seclusion a stereotype, although it seems necessary for many writers.

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