It is not a certainty, but many historians and literary scholars have suggested that Shakespeare perhaps wrote one of his greatest and grimmest tragedies, King Lear, during the bubonic plague. Since the coronavirus pandemic has led to many quarantined in their homes, this might be an optimal time to revisit, or further, creative writing projects that had been overlooked due to lack of time. To lend some more inspiration, we decided to revisit our interviews with some of the greatest writers of our time, to get an insight into their writing process, in their own words.
Markus Zusak: Routine and discipline are really important to me. I work in the mornings, and I try to stick to the same times, if I can. I want to feel like I can rely on the world of the book just being there, next to me, when I wake up. I also like to write out lists of chapter headings in my notebooks. That’s how I organise the whole book, and have a good idea of what my structure is, and where I’m going.
James Patterson: Some of the rules I follow when writing my novels include:
A) Writing stories the way people tell them.
B) Make reading the book an “experience”.
C) I keep my chapters short.
D) I always outline the book before starting to write it.
E) I am always open to change during the writing process.
F) I write with confidence and
G) I know who I am writing for and what they want.
Mohammed Hanif: I have accepted that it’ll (writing) always be a struggle with lots of blank spaces and then something will just make you start scribbling again. I try to set targets and always fail. Every day, staring at a blank page is the lowest point of my life. Inspiration happens once or twice a year. It doesn’t usually come from a high or low point, it comes from ordinary moments in life, like crossing a Karachi road without getting run over or when you can make a roti without burning it.
Rupi Kaur: It can be vast. I think mostly it begins with just free writing. I try to write everyday with no specific purpose in mind, just to get my thoughts out. I journal, I write whatever is on my mind. Sometimes I will write a specific poem and I see something special in it. Then I will begin editing and editing and editing. Some poems have 5 drafts and some have 50. I know a poem is done when something I wrote has the power to kick me in the stomach.
Kamila Shamsie: A novel, for me, is more the consequence of curiosity than inspiration. Most of it is back-of-the-brain stuff rather than a process you can articulate and follow. You sit at your computer endlessly and bit by bit things start to happen. I was 21 when I started writing my first novel. Now I’m 40. So I hope the books have become more ambitious and have greater depth to them. But what I’m most conscious of is the change in how I think about sentences—I used to like sentences that were more obviously lyrical, and drew the readers’ attention to the words them- selves. Now I prefer language that’s more ‘transparent’ — it’s not so much saying ‘look at me’ as ‘look at what I’m saying.’
Emma Donoghue: Each is a story that I’ve burned to tell, and that I choose the genre, style, point-of- view and other formal aspects according to what that story seems to require. For instance, I wrote my first radio play, Trespasses, not because I thought it a savvy career move to get into writing for radio, but because it was about a woman accused of witchcraft, and I imagined her as a voice complaining in the dark—which struck me as a perfect subject for the radio. Of course, writing is self-expressive for the writer, but I try to keep my focus on what the project calls for, not on myself.
Paul Beatty: I don’t really know what’s going to happen in a book but I have these broad scenarios, broad ideas. Sometimes it’s a character; sometimes it’s a place. And then I just start thinking all these things together that I have been thinking about since years and just kind of mesh it all together. It takes me a long time and I don’t give any deadlines to myself. I know there is an end but I don’t give a deadline for the end. I am very slow. I have never written a book and sold it to the publisher. I write 50 pages and those pages take me years, after which I am exhausted. And then I realise that somebody has to see this and I usually send it to my agent. And if I am lucky I manage selling it.
George Saunders: It’s very intuitive and iterative. I basically just start reading the section at hand and trying to react to it spontaneously. If it’s giving me pleasure, good. If not, I want to know why not, and am okay with the idea that the answer may not be completely articulable. [That is, I don’t care about naming what’s wrong, or conceptualising about it—I just want to fix it.] So a part might just feel slow, or a phrase seems to need tightening, or something is not making logical sense. And the fixes are occurring in the language, at the line level, through revising. So I am editing, then putting in those changes, re-reading, editing, re-entering those changes…over and over, until I feel my judgment waning because I’m getting tired. Then I’ll go do some research or reading. But over the course of many years, this process gradually creates something more complex than you could have imagined, that is firing at a lot of different levels—it’s smarter than its writer, so to speak.
Pico Iyer: I don’t really think—or care—very much about what emerges from my desk; for me all the joy and adventure come in the process of writing, the luxury of getting to sit still and the excitement of seeing how much that comes out of me seems to come from what’s beyond me and outside me. I often tell friends that publication is the sales-tax that one has to pay for the great privilege of sitting at one’s desk every day.