Who You Gonna Call? MYTHBUSTERS!

Jeffrey Cohen
I have, over the years, interviewed quite a number of writers, both in the mystery biz and not. (Don’t worry, Elaine, I have NO intention of invading your turf here!) They have ranged in subject matter from Harley Jane Kozak (of Dating Dead Men and Dating Is Murder) to Budd Schulberg (who wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfront and the novel What Makes Sammy Run?, but as far as I know, nothing with the word “Dating” in the title), from Janet Evanovich to Spike Lee, from Phoebe Snow (hey, songwriting is writing) to Mindy Starns Clark.

Every writer, one learns, brings his/her own perspective to the task, which is what makes this a creative process and not an assembly line activity. Each one has a point of view, each one attacks the issue in a different way, and each one knows the awful feeling of staring at blankness and yearning to fill it up.

But let’s face it, some of them (not a single one I named above) are a little full of themselves.

Writing is a calling, a professional, an avocation, an art form. It’s also a job. And like any other job, its parameters are deceptively simple. When Lucy and Ethel looked at the candy conveyor belt before it starting moving, that looked like a really easy job. When the belt started to turn, not so much. Writing is like that: all you really have to do is manipulate 26 letters into the proper order, and you have written Moby-Dick. Or Macbeth. Or, for that matter, the latest episode of The War At Home. Whatever floats your boat.

Naturally, it’s not that easy. Choosing the right words, pacing the story, choosing the right story and building characters–none of these is a simple task. Creating something meaningful out of absolutely nothing at all? One of the least simple things on the planet.

But let’s be real. Some writers want you to believe that this is a mystical, paranormal process that involves communing with muses, standing in just the right spot, burning the proper incense, playing exactly the right music (which ranges from Rachmaninoff to the YeahYeahYeahs) and having exactly the proper tools. I know writers who order exactly the proper pens from Office Depot by the gross, and then write novels on a computer. Go figure.

You want to know my writing process? I get an idea–that’s the tricky part, and you can’t rush it. It ususally happens when you’re thinking about something–anything–else, often in the shower, trying to fall asleep (not at the same time) or cooking dinner. I get ideas for stories when I’m doing something that requires virtually no thought whatsoever–like the work that pays my bills.

Once there is an idea, the work doesn’t necessarily get easier, but it becomes controllable. A story idea can be built upon when you decide to think about it and you can do the actual writing at a time that makes sense for you. For me, it’s mostly after three in the afternoon, as I have to get as much real work out of the way as possible before I start trying to be creative.

It’s not that I CAN’T write before three, and it’s not that I CAN’T write whenever there is time. It’s more natural when I do it at a particular time, but it’s not impossible any other time. When I get near the end of a novel, believe me, I can write at any time of the day or night.

And I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t think there is such a thing–I think it’s writers who are doing what we do best–procrastinating–by claiming there’s a special writer’s disease that only they understand. I’m a freelance writer. If someone is paying me for an article, and it has to be handed in on Thursday, believe me, it gets written by Thursday. I’d love to tell one of my editors at a newspaper or magazine that I’d like to give them their articles, but I have writer’s block. No doubt my phone would be ringing off the hook with offers after that, no?

Here are some of the things you hear from writers in interviews that make me grind my teeth:

1. All the really successful ones will tell you they get up at four or five in the morning and write all morning. Uh-huh. Yeah, writers don’t need sleep. I’d like to stake out one of these writers’ homes at four in the morning and turn on all the lights when they don’t get up that early. I’d do it, too, but there’s no way I’M getting out of bed that early. The only difference is, I’ll admit it.

2. One of my favorites: “I really write it all out on a legal pad in longhand.” I’ve had successful mystery writers, screenwriters and novelists tell me this one. Sure, they do. In the age of computers, in which you can revise your sentence immediately without re-typing, Wite-Out or ripping pages to shreds, they work on legal pads. You hear this more from REALLY successful writers, mostly because they can then add the part about “then I get my assistant to type it out for me; honestly without (him/her), I don’t know how I’d get by.” This not only manages to preserve the “mystical process” myth of writing, it also lets you know that they can afford an assistant, and you can’t.

3. “I can only write when classical music is playing.” The converse of this myth, which is purported by those writers hoping for a younger audience, is “I can only write when (insert name of extremely loud and atonal rock band) is playing.” Neither is true. Writers can write with music, without music, in an attic, in a basement, with the ballgame on the TV in the next room (I’ve done some of these), with food, without food, in the middle of a hurricane (assuming they have a self-powered legal pad) or on the beach of a Caribbean island. Although why you’d want to waste a day on the beach of a Caribbean island writing is beyond me. Music may give you something to think about while you’re trying to procrastinate, but it’s not necessary to the writing process. If it is, what do SONGWRITERS have on when they’re writing? Audiobooks of novels?

4. “I don’t know where the ideas come from.” Oh, please. Of course you do. Characters, while they are impish creatures who do things unexpected even to their creators, do not live in an alternative universe. They’re not sitting in a giant character Holding Area waiting for the proper writer to wake up one morning and say, “hey… what about a sea captain who’s really an international jewel thief named Ramondo?” “Number 18273658! Ramondo! You’re up!”

5. “It came to me in a dream.” So did acid reflux. Dreams, once again puncturing a popular myth, take place in your MIND. That’s a physical space inside your head. If you dream about something, odds are you were thinking about a topic at least tangentially related to it. Deities did not send a story idea to you while you were sleeping, and I wouldn’t count on elves repairing your shoes while you’re taking the nightly nap, either. Maybe you got a PIECE of an idea in a dream, if you’re one of those odd souls who can remember their dreams, but trust me, a whole novel? How long were you asleep?

Writing is a noble profession, historically elevated to an art form by alcoholics. It is, indeed a calling, and people who aren’t going to do it no matter what shouldn’t attempt to do it for a living. But it’s a job. It is, in my mind, anyway, a better job than most, and the only thing I know how to do well, other than watch baseball games (I’m great at that). I’d be a sub-average guitarist, a run-of-the-mill lawyer, and for all I know a competent upholsterer, but writing is what I’ve always wanted, and people have told me I’m good at it. Enough people that, so far, I’ve been able to make my living–such as it is–at this pursuit. Luckily, my wife has a steady job.

But I haven’t ever thought of my job as a mystical event, a miracle or a message from another dimension. I’m good at making up stories, and better at telling them. That’s all it is.

6 thoughts on “Who You Gonna Call? MYTHBUSTERS!

  1. Elaine

    Oh, but I loved this, Jeff! Especially the ‘character holding room’! Uh, I do play music when I write though. But it’s great soft jazz and mostly by Keiko Matsui. It keeps me awake.

  2. Sue Trowbridge

    Those writers who talk about getting up at 4 AM to work drive me crazy, too! I’m not a writer, but I can’t get a lick o’work done before 10 AM. I suppose there truly are “morning people” out there; however, I certainly can’t relate to them!

  3. Jeff Cohen

    I don’t doubt that writers have music playing when they write, Elaine–sometimes I do, too. But I’ll bet you COULD write without it on, couldn’t you? (Personally, I don’t like to have anything on with lyrics–I’m having enough trouble coming up with my OWN words.)

  4. Elaine

    Hey, Jeff- I can’t handle lyrics while I’m working either. That’s why I love Matsui. Although I must admit there is usually one or two cuts with lyrics, but I’m used to them now and it isn’t a problem. And, yeah-I can write without music, but like I said, it helps keep me awake when I bore myself with mediocrity.

  5. Leslie Ellen Jones

    What a relief that someone else finds 3 pm the “magic hour” for writing. A few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that every single writer in the universe except me apparently has the ability to be conscious at 4 in the morning and where did that leave me (aside from unconscious at 4 am). Didn’t writers and other artistic types use to be noted for their bohemian hours, scribbling away in the garret by candle light while the rest of the respectable world slumbered, and then sleeping in until an obscene hour in the morning?


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