How I Write
This is not a résumé.
Nearly fourteen years ago, I drafted my first novel in twenty-five days, in manic bursts of activity—late at night, after I’d come home from my swing shift at the Billings Gazette, pouring coffee down my gullet, then returning to it in the late morning and early afternoon, before work beckoned again. I was at a small desk jammed into a corner of a small loft condo, my back to the door (bad feng shui!), and for those nearly four weeks, I did little other than work, write, sleep, write and take the dogs out. I liked to joke, after that book (600 Hours of Edward) came out, that it was the month my wife and I test-drove divorce, something that wasn’t nearly as funny after we did divorce some years later. But this isn’t about that.
I wrote my second novel (The Summer Son) in the same physical space but in a different headspace. The writing bursts weren’t bursts at all; rather, they were hard, slow-going, bear-down-and-get-it-done sessions—still late at night, for I was still at the Gazette, but not so much in the other hours, and over a much longer stretch than twenty-five days. I rewrote it three times, major revisions, over the course of nearly a year, and it remains the one I’d write again if I had a crack at it. I don’t, thank God.
Novels 3 and 4—oh, man, that was the life. I had a basement office with its own full bathroom in the bungalow my then-wife and I bought when the marriage was simultaneously dying out and still worth the effort of trying to save. Novel 3 (Edward Adrift) played off the re-release of Novel 1 by a new, bigger publisher, and Novel 4 (The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter) was supposed to be my breakout (it wasn’t, but that’s not what this is about).
I was making enough money writing to not have to do the daily journalism grind, so I granted myself release and wrote Novel 5 (This Is What I Want) back in that one-bedroom loft condo, my desk still jammed in that corner, my back still to the door (bad, bad feng shui), because the marriage was over—the kind of over that hurts at the time, as it should, but everybody’s happier now, no hard feelings, and there are occasional friendly notes or chance meetings somewhere. It's nice to say it's all good and mean it. I finished that novel in a hotel room in Missoula, Montana, where I’d gone to lick my wounds and get away from my upstairs neighbor, my father, who, well intentioned as he was, couldn’t have understood the way my heart at the time was afflicted and inflicted, no matter how many ways I might have tried to tell him. But this isn’t about that, either.
Let’s get through this quickly now:
Novel 6: Edward Unspooled, the companion to Novels 1 and 3, was written in a new office with its own full bathroom, in a new house, with the support of my wife, who did me the service of turning my desk around to face the door (good, good feng shui). I published that baby myself, and it saved our bacon that year.
Novel 7: Julep Street, also written in that new office in the new house, also published myself, saved considerably less bacon the following year. I wrote it in fits and starts, for my responsibilities had shifted. I had been inspecting pipelines on the side, and that became more of a center-stage endeavor. I was taking on more freelance, trying to keep the ends coming together every month. Of all the many things Elisa and I imagined for our lives, the coincidental collapse of her writing earnings and mine wasn’t among them, which is when the universe laughs and says “OK, watch this.” But this isn’t about that, either.
Novel 8: You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky, cowritten with Elisa, here in Montana and across the continent in Maine, where we lived for two years. There, I had another office (without a full bathroom, though one was within goose-stepping distance), and again, I put my back to the door because I’m apparently just not very bright. Those were hard years for writing. When Elisa insisted on moving my desk, I got moving on Novel 9 (And It Will Be a Beautiful Life) and wrote most of a play (still unproduced), so maybe there’s something to the unlocking powers of the whole feng shui thing. But nor is this about that.
No, this is about how I write, and to a much lesser degree about where I write, and as I stare at the corner of my desk—back in our house in Montana, back in my office with the full bathroom and the desk facing the door—I look at the printed-out manuscript for Novel 10 (now titled Dreaming Northward, but who knows?), and I realize that I’m envious of anyone who has a set place and a set time to do the work.
Don’t get me wrong: I love stories about process and place. I love seeing pictures of my author friends’ writing spaces. I love matching those pictures up with the work of theirs that I so admire. When I was a boy and thinking that I might like to grow up and write books, I saw a picture of Steinbeck’s Joyous Garde at his house in Sag Harbor, and I had office envy before I even knew what office envy was. But do you know what I envy more? Anyone’s ability to consistently protect their writing time.
I would say, now, that I’m much more like the guy who wrote Novel 1 than the one who wrote Novel 4. I’m back on the swing shift five nights a week, doing journalism (and happy to be doing it, I might add). I design a quarterly print magazine, which is only my favorite gig ever. I take on freelance editing jobs, as many as I can handle, and I'm happy to have them. Up until recently, I ventured out to the pipeline from time to time, and I might well go back to it. I look after an elderly parent. I write when I can, not when I’m scheduled to, because what’s a schedule and how do I get one? I sacrifice sleep on one side or the other sometimes, just to move the plow down the field a little ways. I’ve begun to think there are more doing it the way I do it than not.
Here’s the funny thing, only I’m not laughing: The guy writing Novel 10 is way better at the job than the guy who wrote Novel 1, and that’s indisputable in every measurable way other than the marketplace. But this isn’t about that, either.
The work abides because I do. Because I get older, just like anyone else, and because I ache more than I did fourteen years ago, and because I wouldn’t dare write a book in twenty-five days now even if I thought I could (and I don’t, and it's only through sheer audacity that I ever did), and because my life is incalculably more complicated now than it was then, and it’s also incalculably better now than it was then. I’m better now than I was then. Older, yes. More broken down, surely. But better nonetheless.
And let me tell you, there’s nobody in the world more qualified to write Novel 10—to harvest the memories that inspired it, to ride the imagination that’s driving it, to peel away the story that lies within it—than the guy who’s writing it. This guy. If it gets picked up and edited and published and read, man, I’ll be thrilled. That’s great. That’s what I’m after. But that’s not what this is about.
This is about showing up. This is about doing the work.
That’s how I write. I grab the moments that are available to me, and I do it.
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Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
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