Notes on writing

Time to write

Graham Greene

Long ago, when I was young and impressionable, I read a profile of the novelist Graham Greene. His writing routine was mentioned. Greene would write for an hour or so each morning, producing 500 words, and then stop, his day’s work done. He would then head out for an aperitif. Now that, I thought at the time, is the life for me. This was when Greene was widely regarded as the greatest living English novelist, a judgement with which I concurred. That he never won the Nobel Prize for Literature says everything that needs to be said about the value of literary prizes. But I digress. The point is that that piece planted a particular idea of the professional writer in my head.

I can’t remember now where I read the Greene profile. It certainly wasn’t in the New Yorker. But Michael Korda, a writer, editor, and friend of Greene’s, wrote a memoir for the New Yorker in 1996 which confirmed the routine. In 1950, the sixteen-year-old Korda was invited to cruise on his uncle’s yacht on the Côte d’Azur, the uncle being Alexander Korda, the film producer. Greene was a member of the cruise party and young Korda keenly observed the great novelist’s working method:

An early riser, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?”.

Greene’s self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute. Whatever else was going on, his daily writing, like a religious devotion, was sacred and complete. Once the daily penance of five hundred words was achieved, he put the notebook away and didn’t think about it again until the next morning. It seemed to me then the ideal way to live—far better than the routine followed by my father, who worked from dawn until late at night at a studio in London and then brought his work home with him.

What a seductive picture of the writer’s life that is, even now, when I am older, have published some books of my own, and know how much time it really takes. Korda doesn’t say whether he adopted Greene’s working method but it’s a reasonable bet he didn’t. Greene, I think, was exceptionally gifted and his unconscious mind must have been quite the machine, beavering away to such effect that by the time he actually picked up the pen each day it might have been like taking dictation.

My writing routine is nothing like that, even leaving aside the fact that I have a day job. Since I started writing seriously a few years ago, I’ve learnt that the only way for me is to spend time, by which I mean hours, in the chair, eyes on screen, fingers on keyboard. Of course, as someone once said, writing is not typing, but the notion that I could have produced what I have so far by using Greene’s approach is laughable. There are too many false starts, too many wrong directions, too many bum notes.

Of course, when Korda met him, Greene was a writer at the absolute top of his game. Perhaps the years of practice had brought him to the point, where writing, in terms of knowing what he wanted to put into words and how he wanted to express it, really was as effortless as that account makes it seem. I can only dream. It’s the difference between being a concert pianist and a street busker, or an opera star and a karaoke singer.

That said, the further I get into this writing business, the less I resent the hours it takes. It’s about learning a craft, not climbing a mountain or running a race. There is no peak to reach, no tape to break. It’s more like life. You have good days and bad days but you have to keep going. And you have to remember the two things Toby Litt, the writer and teacher, always tells his students:

There are no short cuts.
There are no wasted hours.