5 Tips for a Writing Life from Pico Iyer

Occasionally, we post something at both The Huffington Post and here at Lofty Ambitions. The posts are not quite the same, and we’re usually more personal here. Please check out our shorter, broader post at HuffPo HERE and, of course, like it and share it there.

DeskWorkThree weeks from now, our semester will be over. This summer, for the first time, Doug has a professional development leave. We have been organizing some travel and planning our day-to-day summer together for the first time in years. Sure, we’ll have some ongoing tasks more directly related to our day jobs—Anna edits a literary journal, and Doug has an editing project too. The priority for summer, though, is writing.

A couple of weeks ago, writer Pico Iyer visited Chapman University, and his visit couldn’t have been better timed for us. Iyer participated on a panel about creativity and visited Anna’s graduate poetry class. In both venues, he talked about his own writing life and suggested possibilities for creating habits that foster writing—options that we’re likely to adapt for our own writerly purposes.

The Big Retreat

Pico Iyer spends three months of each year in a somewhat remote area of Japan, where he knows few people beyond his family, doesn’t know the language, and has no easy access to the internet. There, his obligation is to his writing. There, he’s at his desk every day.

DorlandDesk1We’ve been to writing residencies, and we have more planned, both of our own making and a return to Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. We’d like to be people who write every day, no matter where we are, no matter what other tasks we have at hand, no matter what noise surrounds us. We’re not. The big retreat is a big commitment, and that ups the ante. We don’t require a retreat in order to write, but we write a lot more when we have that time away from our daily routine, and that extended focus fuels our bigger projects.

The Device Sabbath

One day a week, Pico Iyer takes a day of rest from the most modern technology that we’ve come to take for granted over the last few decades. No phone, no iPad, no Kindle, no computer. He pointed out that the most productive people in the tech industry tend to be the most interested in unplugging for a while. Instead of thinking of this weekly respite as filled with restriction, it can become a day of renewal and reward.

Our Chancellor, who was also on the panel about creativity during Iyer’s visit, tried a device Sabbath in his home that following weekend, though his family still watched television because he’s no extremist and has school-age children. Because the end of the semester feels busy and because we are in the midst of booking summer plans, we haven’t incorporated the day of electronic rest into our life. That we haven’t felt able to do it probably means we should. One thing it is likely to encourage for us is reading books, and that’s certainly a good thing.

The Online Delay

LaptopPico Iyer spends five hours at his writing desk every day. He allows himself to go online only after he’s completed this time at his desk. He is especially leery of googling for detail research as he writes because it’s easy to become caught up in one search leading to another and then to checking email. Instead, he uses “TK” as a placeholder, as a note to check a specific fact that he’s written through. When he does his daily writing, Iyer wants to keep going as far as he can in one sitting.

One semester a few years ago, Anna instituted a personal policy of not going online until after noon. Not only did it foster writing and reading early in the day, but sending email messages later in the day seemed to slow down the barrage coming back the same day. Because of irregular schedules and varied tasks, it’s been difficult to repeat that online delay. Timing of tasks matters. The online delay is about what comes before. Writing before email and Facebook—it’s time to reorder our tasks, to manipulate time.

The Brief Getaway

When Pico Iyer is in Japan, he walks to the gym, exercises, then walks home. He talks of this activity more as part of his thinking and writing process than as part of his desire for good physical health. Though he spends five hours at his desk, he asserted repeatedly that his best work is not done at his desk. In fact, he has come to think of his desk as the place he does detail work, sentence-level work. The breaks, he says, are for the big changes.

Doug has been doing kickboxing regularly this year, and Anna has started doing yoga once a week and plans to be more regular about other exercise that used to fit more seamlessly into her schedule. Thinking of the brief getaway as a habit to be cultivated in this workaday world, instead of as a slacking off, takes some mental reconfiguring. When we think about the brief respite as part of our thinking and writing process, we realize that our evening walks have become too infrequent. Perhaps, too, even if we return to writing, as Iyer does after his brief respite, we shouldn’t return to the internet after dinner.

Write by Hand

Edwin Hubble's Logbook, 1923
Edwin Hubble’s Logbook, 1923

Pico Iyer writes by hand. He writes notes daily by hand, and he writes whole book manuscripts by hand. His daily notes are in full sentences and paragraphs, already a draft, but one to which he now, after years of cultivating this note-taking process, returns only to check facts and recapture details. The notes, though he takes them diligently, aren’t as important as memory, so he drafts from memory. But of course, writing the notes is a way of stopping to remember and of putting the memories into words as those memories are being formed.

We’ve fallen out of the habit of writing by hand. We used to draft every blog post during writing nights, with one of us taking down by hand the sentences as we formed, revised, and agreed upon them, one by one. We know that we’re not going to switch to writing everything by hand, in part because it’s a slower process for a first draft. But we each generated part of our individual novel drafts by hand during those weekly writing nights of days gone by. That required that us each to have a sense of what’s next to write and to write for a given amount of time, perhaps an hour. It worked for thinking in scenes, for reading small parts to each other right after drafting, for revising as we typed pages onto the computer. And studies show that writing notes by hand works with memory, just as Iyer claims. We’ve already purchased big, new notebooks for the summer.

But Why Should What Works for Pico Iyer Work for Us?

Each writer has to develop his or her own habits and processes. What works for Pico Iyer might not work for us, and what worked for us five years ago might not work again. The main reason that we’re interested in these particular options is that they are both likely to help us make writing a priority in our lives and likely to make us more aware of the choices we’re making about how to spend our time and be writers.

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