Writing Josephine

Like many, I followed the Grafton Line challenge this summer. I had been stunned to read that the distinguished historian Anthony Grafton writes roughly 3,500 words every morning – four times a week – when he is really in the flow. I wrote my first book at a far more leisurely pace – three long paragraphs, or about 700 words a day. And I thought that was ambitious! 3,500 words a day seemed impossible. I was encouraged, though, by others who took up the challenge to match Grafton’s fecund pace. And also by the “DRAFT” column in the New York Times, which suddenly seemed terribly relevant.

I had a good reason to be interested in these considerations of our craft. There was a book to finish. A book that was in pieces, because its chief subject – the amazing Josephine Baker – seemed so elusive, so troublesome, so unconventionally provocative. A book that I cared deeply about. Now, I had a deadline to finish it, courtesy of a very patient editor who felt I needed a nudge, not to mention the looming start of an administrative job.

And, so, now it is done. Roughly 50,000 words of prose in three months. At first blush, I’d say that this was not a pace I would recommend, that it felt rushed and hurried. But then again I can also honestly confess that I saw things in my material – patterns and themes and through-lines – that I would have missed otherwise. I’m very glad that there will be time, after copy-editing is complete, to revise. I am equally glad, though, to have been pushed, to have been a silent partner in this summer’s “Grafton challenge.” The book is done. And it is far better for the concentrated burst of writing.

So how did it work? What did I learn? Can anything be digested? Let me see:

1. Cut everything down. I stayed on Facebook, but (with one exception) closed down this blog. I stopped jogging, but enjoyed friends and family. I kept roughly half of what I cared about. I put up an away message that was scary – “I am finishing a book. That is all.” – and I stuck to it. Mostly.

2. Don’t write in sequence. That is, don’t write one paragraph after another, one chapter after another. Write whatever seems easiest. When in doubt, just chose an object – a song, an event, an image – and describe it. Yes, plain old explication de texte. Even if you trim or cut later.

3. If you write with music (and I do), invest in nice, soft, headphones. At one point, I spent six straight hours listening to the same song over and over again. (Because, you know, it seemed to be working). Soft headphones. A big difference.

4. If you have the money, get the Macbook Pro with the largest possible retina screen. It costs a lot. Still, not only is the resolution so fine that you can’t see the pixels (a cute distraction for two days), but as a portable workspace it is just unbeatable. Super light. Super fast. Very easy on the eyes.

5. If you use an archive, go digital. I had a graduate student (Lydia! You are awesome!) digitize my archive and upload it to google drive. This meant that wherever I was, I had everything I needed. Everything. And this portability saved me time, and let me move around the house to change the mood or tempo whenever one spot got “stale.”

6. Get your sleep. Drink water. Your eyes will be exhausted. You’ll need your eight hours. You can’t count on staying up all night, or cheating the Sandman in the morning. You’ll write better and faster with a full night’s rest.

7. Don’t get overwhelmed by the larger goal. Don’t even think about how many chapters you need to write. Just focus on the day-to-day. On the task that is immediately in front of you. You wake up and you write. Wherever and whenever. Some days it’ll be a paragraph. Some days it’ll be a page.

8. Do not be tempted. When we all revisited the March on Washington, I spent one morning writing an op-ed bit on Baker, who muscled her way onto the stage and, wearing her Free French uniform, gave a brief, but amazing speech. The story was amazing and complex and rich. I sent it off to Salon, to the LA Times, and the Washington Post and got zip. So I kept what I wrote for the book and stopped worrying about it.

9. Live. Be human. Drink wine. Eat chocolate. Resist austerity. Do not be an ascetic. Play with your kids. Walk the dog. But keep a small notebook handy, just in case an idea comes along. On this spectrum my day-to-day writing life is much more Danticat than Lethem, full of welcome distractions, low ceilings, and stacks-on-stacks.

10. Love your book. I’m still fascinated by Josephine, by her ambitious assemblage, by her playful interventions in the civil rights movement. I feel like I could write about her forever. That I could keep digging for decades and still be thrilled with each new discovery. That won’t happen, of course. The book will be done, and I’ll move on. But the feeling matters. It sustained me. Before you start, look in the mirror and make sure you love your book.