Chaotic Neutral: A Day in the Life of a Young Novelist

Artsy Fartsy | Derek Berry | April 15, 2016

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When I was 12 years old, my parents bought me a laptop because I used the family computer for upwards of four or five hours a day. My mother sometimes confronted me, pleading that I finish homework or come to dinner, but I replied haughtily, with the arrogance only a fifth grader can muster, I’m writing a novel.

During those years, I held deeply romantic views of writing life: a writer was someone who locked themselves away in their leaky, atmospheric chateau (because on a writer’s salary, they could afford such a residence) and write with fervent intensity, stopping only to sometimes take food and drink.

During the long hours spent at the family computer, I produced 100 pages of a story written in 24 size font, and I patted myself on the back for producing 100 pages. Oh, how sweet did success taste. I printed the manuscript off five times at the massive industrial printer at a local Methodist church and then handed them to each of my four family members; the final copy we sent through the post to my grandmother in Germany. My lofty ideas about what would come next never materialized: no one published my book, likely laughing at the sloppy query letters I emailed during that following year. In my mind, I had produced my magnum opus, my masterpiece, my first novel. In reality, I had written a total rip-off of Chronicles of Narnia. In other words, I was off to a great start.

11 years and six failed novels later, I scoff at the pretensions of my fifth grade self, who in the throes of productivity, actually managed to produce something. I grew up and learned life did not provide one always with a beautiful chateau or even the time for which to lock oneself away and work. Instead, I write chaotically, often in the midst of raging parties or in the small moments in between classes. When I visit high schools, I tell students the best way to become a professional writer is to treat writing as a profession: write every day, according to a strict schedule. I do not follow my own advice. This past February, I published my first novel “Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County,” and yet I feel further from becoming a writer than I did at eleven. I confess I know how to write a good story just as well as I know how to figure-skate: either way, I will fall down again and again and again.

Last week, I began reading a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. The book offers brief overviews of the writing or painting or work habits of famous historical figures, from William Faulkner to Sigmund Freud. The book has forced me to confront my own creative habits,  raising the question of whether I possess any routines. When I was in high school and even during my first two years at the College of Charleston, I worked always in the morning. I woke at around six and began writing until class. I would sometimes resume work again in the evenings after class work. But as my life has become more packed with events—I am in the process of setting up a book tour, writing my senior thesis, hosting a poetry series, writing short stories for class all while trying to graduate from college—my routines were demolished and replaced by something new.

I wake late. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I do not have class until 2 p.m. and so sometimes sleep in until 11 a.m. or noon. I must ease into the process of work. As soon as I wake, I make a pot of coffee and shower—this is to signal to my body that I must take myself seriously. If I wake sooner, I might engage in small bits of work. I read for class or for pleasure; I write a short essay; I read student stories and poems for workshop; I might take a walk to the park and write a poem in the grass. But I must ease into the workday. Rushing things won’t help because my mind’s absolutely useless in the morning. I can hold a conversation and write a political science paper analyzing the structures of power in African rebel groups, but I cannot work on anything important like fiction-writing.

In the early afternoon, I attend classes. I try to take classes that both advance my career as a political scientist and also feed my interest in the world. As I learn new stories about the world, I find always some angle at which to write a story. Several ideas for stories arise from classes wholly unrelated to writing—at times, biology, other times women and gender studies. I wrote a good portion of my second novel, which is still a work in progress, during my Russian Film class, crouched in the darkness and typing while Russian actors conversed on-screen.

After class, I dive into classwork and research. I try to work at least an hour a day on my senior thesis, which pertains to integration of migrants and refugees in Germany. Once I’m satisfied with my work and reading, I enter a period of stasis. I cook a dinner of ramen and eggs or pasta, brew a pot of coffee and invite friends over to my house. Chaos is vital to my creative process. Usually I invite upwards of seven people to the house for evening drinks, and then after engaging as a host for an hour or less, I begin working on fiction. Although I work too on a new draft of my second novel, I have been working more recently on many short fiction projects. I sometimes work until two or three in the morning, taking breaks often to drink more coffee or debate some philosophical question or lecture my opinion on some absurd political happening. The work is erratic, starting at different hours depending on my mood. There is little productivity in writing earlier, when my mind has not yet had time to stretch its legs.

Other than these nightly writings, my work comes in little bursts throughout the day. I carry always a small notebook in my pocket, so that I might mark down a choice word or phrase. I must sometimes drive myself to emotional extremes before I can write an intense scene, trying to capture whatever is being evoked in a particular story. For this reason, I might write weeping or naked or drunk at a dive bar, leaning over a sticky table and scribbling furiously. I have been known as well to leap out of bed post-coitus and begin to type on my laptop. When my lover inevitably asks what the hell I’m doing, I announce that some brilliant idea has struck me in the midst of sex.

So if you ever find yourself at my house, perhaps invited to our famous parties or visiting for afternoon tea or coming to eat a potluck dinner, you might find me somewhere, perched on my tiptoes atop the seat of a wing-backed chair. You might find me huddling in the stairwell, stabbing a notebook with a cheap pen. You might find me stopped in the street in the middle of the night writing something down on the back of a Chinese takeout receipt. You might ask, what are you doing?

I will reply haughtily with the arrogance only a fifth grader can muster, I’m writing a novel.