What We Can Learn From The Great Gods of Writing: It Doesn’t Matter How or Where You Write, So Long As You Do.

Frost using a makeshift table

Often, one has to just keep writing to get to the draft that one wants. Robert Frost was known for writing everywhere, whenever inspiration came, and he would scribble these lines on the strangest places. “I never write except with a writing board. I’ve never had a table in my life. And I use all sorts of things. Write on the sole of my shoe. Even when I was younger I never had a desk. I’ve never had a writing room.”1 Vladimir Nabokov wrote out his great works of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada entirely on filing cards, which are “gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they become his novels.”2 His novel Ada took up nearly two thousand filing cards. Rather than use filing cards, John Waters, the author of Role Models, would rearrange bits of his drafts with a pair of scissors and scotch tape. A selective man, he only uses the AMPAD Evidence legal pad, clear and black BIC pens and Scotch Magic Finish Tape. He cuts out various sentences and rearranges them using tape, continually doing this until he is satisfied to begin proofreading.3

Philip Roth writes standing up and paces around as he thinks. A highly energetic and frenetic author, he often writes “a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that is alive.” This so-called “alive” paragraph then becomes the first paragraph of his books and for the hundred pages that are left over, he “generally prefer[s] never to see them again.”4 In contrast to Roth, Truman Capote is a “completely horizontal author” who is unable to think unless he is “lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch.”5 His first draft is entirely written in longhand, in pencil. He follows up with a complete revision, also in longhand, also in pencil. His third draft would be typed in yellow paper, but only “a very special certain kind of yellow paper” and this has to be done in bed, with his machine balanced on his knees.6 When the yellow draft is complete, Capote puts it away for a certain period of time before taking it out to “read it as coldly as possible.”7 When he wants feedback, Capote reads his yellow draft aloud to a friend. The final version is then typed out on white paper.

A draft of Lolita

My advice: There are several lessons to be gleaned from these examples. The practice of writing in different bits and rearranging them a la Nabokov and Waters can be extremely helpful for academic papers. Especially for longer research papers or academic theses, writing different ideas and paragraphs and rearranging them can often form a very helpful outline or even the backbone of a completed paper. Roth and Capote also demonstrate another important point—sometimes you need to keep writing to get to the right words. Drafting is often an integral process to getting a satisfactory final product. There is often a lot of raw material that can be excluded from a first draft. Going over it a few times also enables more concise and sophisticated sentences. Fellow writing tutor Emily Iversen talks to herself while writing and moves her hands around in the air as she tries to get to the right sentence. “This action grounds me,” she says, “I can’t do it when other people are around because they look at me strangely, but I definitely find it helpful in thinking about my sentences.”

By Vernie Chia ’11

1 Frost, Robert. The Paris Review, Fall 1960. Interview by Richard Poirier. Print. 14 Dec 2010. 2 Nabokov, Vladimir. The Paris Review, Fall 1967. Interview by Herbert Gold. Print. 14 Dec 2010. 3 Waters, John. The Paris Review Daily. Personal Interview by Caitlin Roper. 09 08 2010. 14 Dec 2010. 4 Roth, Philip. The Paris Review , Fall 1984. Personal Interview by Hermione Lee. 14 Dec 2010. 5 Capote, Truman. The Paris Review, Summer 1957. Interview by Pati Hill. Print. 14 Dec 2010. 6 Capote, Truman. The Paris Review, Summer 1957. Interview by Pati Hill. Print. 14 Dec 2010. 7 Capote, Truman. The Paris Review, Summer 1957. Interview by Pati Hill. Print. 14 Dec 2010.

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