How I Wrote It
Frederick Barthelme on Dictation, Tornadoes, Dishwashers–and Chocolate
When starting a new project I first gather all I’ve got in the way of unused text–fragments of stories, scenes cut from novels, sketches, characters, complaints I’ve jotted down, jokes once-loved, whatever. All this stuff has little in common save once it was important enough to draft. I put this mess into a single file and begin The Rewrite. It’s building a monster out of body parts. I stitch the stuff together, revising, extending, smoothing, shaping, seeing where it leads me. I change things without a thought–names, places, times–always trying to find the drama in the microscopic without losing the macroscopic, trying to remember that characters have political and social notions embedded in their lives. For me this embeddedness of beliefs in the characters and their world is the real heart of fiction, and the way fiction works. I take mismatched parts and unify them, jam them together in the middle of a dinner party at someone’s house, add a couple of disinterested guests to lively up the show, and maybe something happening out in the kitchen, where things are always happening. Then I rewrite until a sentence, a paragraph, a scene catches me in a way that seems essential. Then I move on.
This “method” often delivers wonderfully unforeseen results, strange aspects of character, angles on the world that feel fresh and enrich the story, which is what the work is turning out to be by now. For my money, the cardinal rule is keep yourself guessing, surprise yourself, as if printing a photograph that gradually reveals things you had no idea were present.
Eventually all the elements are stitched together seamlessly–these characters in these settings living these lives that resemble our own, but are, in the final balance, wholly fabricated. What we have is a story or a book, a celebration, a festival of argument and suggestion, cajolery, seduction; a gift to the reader in hopes of finding a shared world.
Where & When
I write mostly after midnight. Years ago I worked on a typewriter at a desk, a door on two sawhorses. Later I used a computer. Later still, I began dictating into a mini cassette tape recorder. I wrote anywhere and everywhere. Two Against One was the first novel entirely dictated. I did it in bed, walking around the neighborhood, in the car, in stores. I wanted to change the prose, make it messier, more inclusive, so I dictated. I liked it. It was fresh and interesting to work that way. Double Down’s first draft was done mostly in lovely darkness on the beach at Fort Morgan, Alabama, in an aluminum folding chair. Bob the Gambler was dictated while driving around town, incorporating whatever sights were to be seen in the early morning hours. Elroy Nights was also a car book. All were dictated in sequence, sometimes edited and rearranged later. Then, with Waveland, I started using the computer again to do the basic text entry.
Most of the latest novel was written in my home office (hello Internal Revenue Service), at a desk, with my feet up, on a MacBook. It’s so small you really feel connected to it in some special way, so it’s a treat to write with.
In February 2012, with a tornado coming, we hastily abandoned the house, thus were absent when the roof came off, the ceiling fell, the lovely pink insulation drifted down, and the two-by-fours flung themselves through the windows. This excitement resulted in a two-month stay at the pet friendly Candlewood Suites, where the ongoing rewrites were done in a moderately antiseptic first floor suite, brown in color. (See the photo below.) We took the first floor the better to provide access to the outdoors for Marshall, everyone’s favorite Springer spaniel.
I’m not the kind of writer to put encouraging quotes or snapshots or other small objects with special meaning around my work place. I’m afraid this kind of thing seems corny to me–the whole idea of surrounding oneself with “meaningful” tokens to spur the muse. I like the muse to keep its distance. And the knick-knacks, too, though it is certainly possible I take too hard a line on this.
By contrast, I’ll happily have the silent television running where I’m working, the better to steal some peculiar bit caught out the corner of my eye. And I will have the windows open if possible. I just don’t want a lot of preciousness around. I’m in my head when writing, and there’s a lot of stuff already in there, and that’s what I attend to. If I want something corny in the story, I want it to emerge “naturally” from my own corny heart.
With this book I downloaded Scrivener. Ordinarily I use Word like everyone else, so I cringed at the thought of special “writing” software. But once I figured out how Scrivener worked I found it very helpful. It fit my process perfectly. Easy to get things in the order I wanted, painless at text entry, good reorganization, a breeze. It was great and I now recommend it. What’s best about it is that it keeps the whole project at your fingertips in a way word processors can’t. You have all your chapters, sections, bits and pieces right there in a column on the left and the text of the moment on the right. If you want to check something, connect with a prior chapter, move a scene, remind yourself, whatever, it’s all right there in front of you. A big help for longer works. Five stars.
I like things quiet when I work, so night is good. I love the ringing in my ears and the comforting hum of the air conditioning, the hiss of cars speeding by, whatever outside sounds manage to creep into consciousness. I’ll listen to music (using earphones, because it’s the middle of the night and there are sleepers sleeping), and when I do it’s usually non-tragic, non-hysterical stuff like Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, the early Dollar Brand, many of the ECM players, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Django of course, Miles of Silent Way, and, if I’m particularly giddy, the nutball trumpet of Lester Bowie in the late I Only Have Eyes for You period. I like some classical music, old and new, and I love the sounds made by home appliances–dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, hot water heaters, coffee makers. Some years ago I proposed to the record company that we release a record of a forty-two minute gourmet recording of my dishwasher. I made a demo CD complete with attractive cover. The CD was called Great Washer and it was beautiful in every aspect. It did not fly. Now, these many years later, I note that some shallow personages are posting low quality digital files of their lesser dishwashers on the YouTube. Sleep aids, they say.