Tom Robbins: Joy in Spite of Everything

Tom Robbins leans against the roll-top desk in his writing room. Along the far wall hang prints of his novel covers: Another Roadside Attraction, which sold more than 750,000 copies; Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a million-copy bestseller; Still Life With Woodpecker, 600,000 sales; and Jitterbug Perfume, with half a million copies in print.

But none of that matters right now. What’s important is that someone — his housekeeper, probably — rearranged his table-top of toy motorcycles. They all face the same direction now. Straight. Orderly.

“This is terrible,” Robbins says. His head quivers just a bit; he might be shaking his head inside his head. “I had them all arranged how I wanted — “and now his hands move, describe crazy lopsided circles and invisible cycles careening away from each other — “in all different directions. And now they’re straight.”

It might be one of his own wild metaphors — Tom Robbins seating the description of his style on a toy motorcycle: Swerve like a madman and never let the housekeeper catch you:

The day was rumpled and dreary. It looked like Edgar Allan Poe’s pajamas.

. . . an afternoon squeezed out of Mickey Mouse’s snout, an afternoon carved from mashed potatoes and lye, an afternoon scraped out of the dog dish of meteorology.

A noisy unstoppable churning wheel of fear that rolls out of the altitudes like the flat tire off God’s Cadillac . . .

A teardrop hung out of each blue eye, like a fat lady leaning out of a tenement window.

The noise at the gates sounded like Cecil B. DeMille’s garage sale.


“Bohemian Embassy.”

That’s how he answers the phone, in the slow, measured tone of his southern Virginia upbringing, inflection leapfrogging syllables to stress the end. “Bohemian Embassy.” He might not be joking. If there is such a place, it could be Robbins’s Pacific Northwest home — shielded from a small, touristy fishing town by an unfinished Zen garden. And if there is such an ambassador, it is Robbins.

Robbins — who produced the only novel with an amoeba as a mascot, who wrote the book Elvis was reading in the bathroom before his death — began life in 1936 in North Carolina. While moving through a series of small towns near Richmond, Virginia, he discovered writing through his mother, a  nurse who wrote children’s stories for small religious magazines in her spare time.

“But no one seems satisfied with that,” Robbins says, sitting on his living room couch after the short yes-no-yes phone call. He leans forward, hands on knees. Sometimes one hand will reach to his close-cropped beard and scratch or twirl, or just rest. “Everybody wants to pin me down on my childhood introduction to magic and creativity, which I’ve never pinned down.”

The comparable adult moment would come more than 20 years later, after several unfinished college careers — including one cut short after being expelled from his fraternity for flipping peas and biscuits down the housemother’s cleavage — and jobs with the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Seattle Times. All of which left Robbins vaguely dissatisfied. “I had taken LSD very early on, in 1963, and I didn’t know anyone else who had. I had the sense some immense cultural changes were stewing, but where I was, there was no one to share them with. I was trying to keep my hand in fiction, but couldn’t put anything together. Something was missing.<

“One day, I had gone to the bank, and was hurrying back to the Seattle Times, back to my job. I was walking very fast and very intently, with my coattails flapping and my tie swinging over my shoulder. I was a harried young man, on the way up. And in the distance, I saw a figure approaching — a man with red hair, bewhiskered not like he cultivated a beard, but more like he’d been drunk for four days and hadn’t shaved. Wearing a World War II overcoat, the hem dragging the sidewalk.

“And he was singing, walking up the sidewalk singing. When he got really close to me — he was watching me all the way because I was watching him — he looked at me in the face and laughed, burst out in derisive laughter. It was as if he had seen through me, and registered all my areas of discontent, and then laughed at it all. He might have been a mesquilito, a peyote god, a Pan-like figure. I just call him the red-headed wino.<

“On Monday, I called into work well. I said, ‘I’ve been sick for a long time, but I’m well today so I can’t make it in.’ I went to New York.”

There, in the momentum of the counterculture, and later in San Francisco, Robbins found the stimulus he’d been seeking. He returned to Seattle to collect his thoughts and took a job writing art columns for Seattle Magazine. He married and he and his wife “made enough to live on — almost.” By chance, the art columns caught the attention of Luther Nichols, an editor with Doubleday, who arranged a meeting with Robbins to discuss buying a book on West Coast art.

“Without any justification, I assumed he meant a novel,” Robbins says. “He told me what he really wanted, and I was disappointed, but I told him I really wanted to write a novel. Then it was his turn to be disappointed. But we both concealed our disappointments, and he asked about the novel.

“I told him all I knew. I said, ‘It’s about the discovery of the mummified body of Christ in the catacombs under the Vatican and its subsequent theft and reappearance in America in a roadside zoo.’ His ears pricked up, and he wanted to know more. At the end of our meeting, he asked to see the manuscript.”


Fleetwood gets in the car. “Hey dad, have you seen Manhunter? This guy specializes in psychotic crimes —

“He specializes?” Robbins hoots, looking in the back seat, lifting a hand from the steering wheel and offering to shake. “Hi Fleet, I specialize in chain saws . . . “

Fleetwood, who would have been named Kubrick had he been a girl, is Robbins’s son from his now-ended marriage. Fleet’s freckled and mildly punk-haired, and working summers for a tulip factory.

“They sort tulips here, ship them to Holland, and old people import them back,” Robbins explains. Except for tennis shoes the color of faded Yellow Pages, Robbins is dressed in black. Looking at father and son, you might guess 20 years separates them. It’s closer to 40, but Robbins has the kind of Etch-a-Sketch face that shakes off lines at will, and his hair, perhaps in defiance to its graying, remains curly and unruly.

On the drive to the tulip factory, Robbins had talked about the writers he’s grouped with — Vonnegut, Pynchon, Brautigan and Heller — and those he feels closer to: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass. He had talked about the weather and grocery stores. And he had explained the serious side of whimsy.

“Hold onto your questions,” he’d said. “What I want to talk about is growing up. A number of people took the last sentence of Still Life With Woodpecker, ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,’ to mean that we shouldn’t grow up. That’s a total misinterpretation. I’m saying just the opposite. It’s really telling people to grow up. Have that happy childhood and then get on with your life. Shift that to writing: You have to do whatever it takes to get on with that happier life. There will be a struggle, all writers struggle. If you want to succeed you’ll get through.”

Mr. Million-seller. That’s easy for him to say, right? It’s easy now. It wasn’t always.

His first book, Another Roadside Attraction, was published in 1971, sold only 2,200 copies in hardcover, and was out of print in 1975. Even the paperback edition sold so slowly at first that it barely earned back its $3,500 advance. It was a tough time for Robbins and his wife. His second book, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, was nearly finished, but he received only a meager offer from Doubleday. He seemed confined to midlist success — and midlist advances.

“I got an advance I couldn’t really live on. I needed to be working full time somewhere, making a living. But I wanted to finish Cowgirls. So we made midnight shopping trips to the produce fields, stole cabbage and cauliflower and spinach out of the fields, and that was the bulk of our diet.”

His agent had been tending other fields. She showed a copy of Cowgirls to an editor at Bantam, who promptly offered a $50,000 advance — if Robbins could somehow buy back his old contract.

“I wrote Doubleday a sob story, saying I had prostate trouble, I was sitting on a blowtorch and wanted out of the contract. Two people loaned me twenty-five-hundred dollars apiece. I was a success.”

That’s where he is today, happy childhood and struggling writerhood behind him, in the middle of a fifth novel. He works steadily once he’s started a book but takes time between to travel or write an occasional short nonfiction piece. Talk of movies reminds him that he had a bit part, as a toymaker in heaven, in friend Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven. “I got to write my own dialogue,” he says. “But they took my best line and gave it to Debra Winger.”

Not to worry. There are sure to be more.


When people think of Tom Robbins, they think of metaphors and similes. How do you create images?
Maybe it’s in my DNA. My writing pulls me in that direction, but once there, I have to concentrate on evoking images. Usually, it comes from looking at what I want to describe. Either actually looking at it, or forming a picture in my mind. If I look long enough, associations reveal themselves.

 

But “the sun is an orange,” doesn’t get it. You’d elaborate on that.
Yeah, something a little more unpredictable, in order to allow a leap of consciousness to take place in the reader. You want to create an image that will surprise a reader, make him remember the story. That can’t happen with a predictable phrase.

 

How do you decide when to use imagery?
Most of it has to do with the rhythm of a sentence. I’m very concerned with the rhythm of language. “The sun came up” is an inadequate sentence. Even though it conveys all the necessary information, rhythmically it’s lacking.

The sun came up.

But, if you say, as Laurie Anderson said, “The sun came up like a big bald head,” not only have you, perhaps, entertained the fancy of the reader, but you have made a more complete sentence. The sound of a sentence.

 

Rhythm aside, how do you know if the picture you’re evoking is too ridiculous to be accepted?
Well, you know when it doesn’t work.

 

But you don’t know how you know when it doesn’t work.
No. Anything that works, works. [laughs] Anything that works is good. I don’t think there are any rules in fiction. Rules that can’t be broken.

In creative writing classes, one of the cardinal rules is “Don’t preach.” I happen to preach somewhat in my fiction.  Both of my grandfathers are Southern Baptist ministers, so I came by the pulpit naturally. But I always tried to keep the preaching to a minimum, and always felt a little guilty about it. I thought perhaps it was a flaw in my work, even though I was committed to it to the point where I couldn’t eliminate it totally.

And then it occurred to me one day: Why can’t you preach? There are epistolary novels, psychiatric case history novels, stream-of-consciousness novels — why not the sermon novel? If you can make it work. The trick is to make it work. So I very deliberately wrote a couple of sermons into Jitterbug Perfume, with the idea that I was going to make them fit into the plot so smoothly that everything would work, add to the book rather than subtract.

So, make it work is maybe the only rule.

 

That freedom to ignore strictures opens up some wonderful techniques. A description in Jitterbug Perfume of the god Pan comes to mind. Instead of a physical description, you portray him through a litany of titles: “Yes, Mr. Goat Foot . . . you, Mr. Charmer, Mr. Irrational, Mr. Instinct, Mr. Gypsy Hoof, Mr. Clown; you Mr. Body Odor, Mr. Animal Mystery . . . Mr. Bark at the Moon, Mr. Wayward Force . . .” It goes on and on;  it’s not an ordinary, physical description, but readers get a clear idea of Pan. How do techniques like that occur to you?
Boy, I wish I knew. [laughs] I wish I knew how to make that happen. I would do it a lot more than I do. It’s just this fortuitous . . . I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. I love it when it happens; I’m happy that day.
It has to do with language. Some days you just get into a particular relationship with language that’s a bit off-skew yet perfect. It probably started out, I said, “Mr. Goat Foot,” then I thought, “that’s not the only way I want to describe him, so maybe instead of Mr. Goat Foot I should say Mr. Shaggy” — or whatever. And then I thought, “Well, I like Goat Foot, too, so I’ll say Goat Foot and Shaggy,” and then, before long, I liked the way that happened, so I started adding all those others. It’s quite organic and unexpected.

 

But other writers might edit themselves at that point, not include so many titles.
You have to trust your intuition. You can’t be totally spontaneous, you’ve got to shape your material, but at the same time, if you put too many restrictions on yourself, you’re going to produce dull work. Constricted. Anal-retentive.

 

Isn’t there a danger of being too excessive? In Cowgirls, you stop the story and turn Chapter 100 into champagne so the reader can celebrate that chapter with you. For some people, that’s too much.
Well, I did that for a very sound philosophical reason. I wanted to relate to the audience in a different way than most writers relate to them. But I also wanted to poke through the narrative, pop out of the narrative, to reaffirm the concreteness of the book itself, to remind the reader that he or she was reading words on a page and, yet, it’s still valid.

 

That’s your art background showing.
Yeah — to give some substance to the physical object of a book, to call attention to the book’s physicality, and say it doesn’t have to be escapism. You don’t have to lose yourself in it for the act of reading to be totally fulfilling.

 

So the primary purpose of imagery is not to entertain, but—
To awaken in the reader his or her own sense of wonder. If you get too predictable and too symmetrical, you lull readers into a — not a literal sleep — but you put part of their brain to sleep. Even if they might stay physically awake and finish your book, their imagination, their sense of wonder, is asleep.

Again, rhythm is also a part of that. Language has to exist in an exalted state to awaken wonder. I’m not interested in colloquial language. If something doesn’t have that rhythm, it doesn’t have the radiance, the luminosity — it doesn’t have the angelic intensity. And if you need to be excessive to awaken the reader, okay. A simpler way to do that is with unexpected words.

 

I’m thinking of a line in Still Life when you use “pee-pee” in a serious sentence. The context called for “penis,” but the change startled me into a laugh.
Exactly. But you have to use the right word. You can’t just, like a surrealist, throw in “cucumber” when you mean “cat.” It’s important to use inappropriately appropriate words: words that once were used a lot and now aren’t, or words that are just kind of goofy, but yet are precise.

It’s not some kind of formula I use. I don’t say, “Okay, today I’m going to look for words that are too predictable and put in something that’s not predictable.” But as I reread a sentence, I frequently see words that are just kind of blah, just kind of conventionally sit there, and I’ll think of something else. The unexpected word.

The other thing I wanted to say when you mentioned the champagne chapter is that I’ve quit doing things like that now because it was getting to be too much of a device. At first it was very natural — it still is natural for me to write like that — but it was starting to become like a shtick. My shtick. So I didn’t do that at all in Jitterbug Perfume.

 

In Roadside, you presented yourself as a character writing the story; in Cowgirls you were a character; in Still Life you weren’t a character, but a very intrusive narrator. You were much less visible in Jitterbug.
Yeah, and equally so in the one I’m writing now.

 

Is that a progression? Are you growing as a writer?
No, I’m just tired of doing it. I don’t think my absence from the book makes it a better book, or a more mature book. It’s just different. Not any better, just different.

Is it any harder for you to stay out of the story?
It’s no harder at all. In fact, it’s probably even easier. To be able to stop the story, break the reader’s attention, make him or her think about something, and then convincingly restart the story takes a lot of control.

But you can’t keep doing something like that, because after a while it just gets cute. And that’s one of the dangers of playfulness. There’s a thin line between playful and cute, and there are often times I stray over the line into cuteness. I know I do. But that’s a risk I’m going to take, because I have what I think are really sound philosophical reasons for playfulness.

 

That’s the main criticism you receive in reviews. People say you’re more concerned about being funny than telling a story.
The word that I get most often is not “cute,” but “whimsical.” Well, in the first place, there’s nothing wrong with whimsy. Too many people mistake misery for art. You don’t have to be somber to be serious about a subject. My characters show that. One of my main themes is “Joy in spite of everything.” I don’t think that I am polly-annish; my characters suffer, they die. They experience pain, alienation, frustration — all the hardships of life that real people experience. But, my heroes and heroines, the characters with whom I most identify and who are most important to me, all insist on joy in spite of everything.

Not that this is the best of all possible worlds — it’s a pretty screwed up world — but they insist on being happy in spite of it. They aren’t whiners.

 

Critics also say your characters aren’t believable, that they exist only as tools for your philosophy and jokes.
I’m sorry some people are that shallow. The number of people who have identified with my characters astonishes me. So, if the characters are not real, there are an awful lot of people out there who are not real.

Those critics are mistaking dullness for depth. The universe is playful; quantum physics teaches us, among other things, that the universe is made up of irrevocable laws and random playfulness. Evolution is playful. It’s always going off on adventures, playing games, taking chances. Evolution frequently does things just for the hell of it — why not writers, too?

Another reason some people think my characters are flat is because I don’t develop them in the usual way. I don’t paint detailed psychological portraits. I squeeze out little bits of information about them like toothpaste out of a tube. A little dab here, a little dab there, and it’s cumulative.

I don’t always detail motives for their actions, but I give enough clues that any intelligent person can figure out that what they do is not arbitrary. I’m not interested in the dynamics of the psychological novel. It’s been done thousands of times, it’s been done extremely well by certain writers, and I simply am bored by it. I’m not saying it’s not valid — it’s extremely valid — but I’m not interested in it. It isn’t necessary to peel away psychological layers of characters, the way you peel an onion, in order for the character to be alive on the page. It simply isn’t necessary.

But I don’t want to give you the idea — [pause] You can’t be too concerned, too occupied, with conforming to a style when you write. I think this is the best way to approach writing: first of all, you have to eat your technique. You can’t write technique any more than you can speak grammar. So, you develop some technique, and then you eat it. Digest it. Eliminate it so it’s a part of yourself; it’s in your blood, but you’re not concerned with it anymore.

And then all you do is, you write a sentence and see where it takes you. You take a trip on the page. You go where sentences lead you. It’s a journey.

 

It’s a longhand journey for you, isn’t it? You periodically break into Still Life to document a feud with your typewriter, but you actually write longhand, right?
Well, I write both ways. I bought that Remington electric mentioned in Still Life as one of my ill-gotten gains from Cowgirls, and I just hated that typewriter. I ended up destroying it.

 

So the running commentary in Still Life is authentic?
Well, of course, not 100 percent [laughs]. It’s based on actual situations. One day I painted it red because I couldn’t stand to look at it any longer and it never worked right after that. I ended up beating it to pieces with a 2×4 and throwing it in a garbage can.

 

Why? Did you feel distanced from the page?
Part of it was the noise. Electric typewriters buzz. And it was like pressure on me all the time. I write very, very slowly, and it was like the typewriter was pressuring me to write faster. Or to write continuously, rather than sitting and thinking for long periods of time, which I sometimes do.

So that was the main thing. I didn’t like the color, and I missed the contact with the page. I like the idea of ink flowing out of my hand and saturating the paper. There’s something intimate bout that. It’s more like you’re making something than typing is. I’m thinking about going back to raven quill. And writing in lizard blood.

 

So how’s your writing day go now that the typerwriter’s dead?
My first two books I wrote longhand and then typed. I have an electronic typewriter now, so it’s a lot quieter, completely silent. Still Life, I wrote the descriptive passages longhand, then if there was a long section of dialogue, I wrote it on the typewriter. I can write dialogue on typewriters because it comes to me fast.

Then I pasted together the handwritten and typewritten pages, and hired Wendy the Typist to learn to read my handwriting. She did the copy I sent to the publisher from that mixture of longhand and typing, which is the same way I’m doing this book.

I work five days a week, 10 to 3, with a goal of two pages a day. Sometimes I don’t get two pages, and sometimes I get a lot more. If I’m doing dialogue, which of course takes up more space anyway, I might get five or six pages.

 

You’re writing incredibly slowly, then. You’ve said before you spend as much as a half-hour on single sentences.
In one of the first interviews I ever did I said that I didn’t rewrite, and somebody wrote a snotty essay in which they brought back to life that bitchy remark of Truman Capote’s about Jack Kerouac [Capote imitation]: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Which is probably the dumbest literary remark that has ever been given any credence.

So I don’t ever say that anymore. What I meant is that I write so slowly that I am rewriting as I go along. When you’re only doing two pages a day and you’re at your desk for up to six hours a day, that’s not just typing. I try never to leave a sentence until it’s as perfect as I can make it. I’m not one of those people who sits down and vomits out 20 to 30 pages and comes out with 18 rewritten pages.

I never work ahead of myself. I start with the first sentence — usually I start with the title; I write that on one page, then I turn the page and write the first sentence. Then I write the second sentence. It’s very linear, very chronological, although the action and the plot might not be.

 

You must have the story plotted out beforehand, then.
No. Oh no, God, no. Just a really vague idea.

 

Jitterbug Perfume jumps from century to century, city to city, and all the incidents are related. You got every loose end to fit without plotting the story out?
In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing [laughs]. That’s not true; I had some idea, but I was just following a hunch, following the characters.

Before I send sections to the typist, I double-check for accuracy. Contradictions in the act of writing a novel are like mosquitos on the tundra. You’re constantly swatting at them, they swarm. You’re always fighting the battle of contradictions. As I get sections back from my typist — this new book I’m doing is in seven parts, and I just got the third part back; I not only read that through, but I went back to the beginning to get a sense of the whole book. I’ve gone over the first three parts several times this past week and a half. That’s how I remember which ends are tied and which are open.

 

Do you set aside time for research?
Begrudgingly, yes. I do most of it here at home. I buy the books instead of searching through libraries for some of the more esoteric stuff. So I order them through the local bookstore and write it off on my income tax [laughs]. I guess that’s an advantage of success.
But I think the amount of research I do is deceptive. For Another Roadside Attraction I read 17 books on the historical Christ.

 

But maybe only a hundreth of that actually shows.
Oh, a thousandth. It’s there, it’s all there, but between the lines. The book is informed by it even though it’s not all there in the way that James Michener would put all of it in.

I try to store my information and let it marinate in my imagination and come out later. I hate to sit down one day, or one week, and research and then go try to write about that. I like as long a period as possible to elapse, so it doesn’t come out as research.

 

Frequently it comes out in your books as digressions or brief asides. You give a history of whale puke in Jitterbug.
[Laughs] Well, like the chapter of champagne, I’m being more quietly excessive now. In Another Roadside Attraction, there were a lot of digressions that contributed to the book. There was the plot, and there was the book. I described once the structure of that book as being a series of flashes strung together like beads. Some of the flashes illuminate plot, and others illuminate the reader; they weren’t intended to illuminate the plot. But that was all part and parcel of the carefully planned structure of that book.

I do that less now. Whatever research I include is part of the book. It informs the plot, and it’s a tighter fit. But you might have to read 60 or 70 pages ahead before you see where the information fits the plot.

 

Why don’t you use your characters to impart such information?
Two reasons, really. One is that you eliminate the middleman. You, the author, know more about what you want to say than the character does, and  your charactrr will change it, put it in his or her own voice, and it isn’t going to come out the same.

The other reason has to do with the rhythm of the book, the flow of information and words to the reader. It’s another way for me to orchestrate the rhythm of what the reader is experiencing: Stop the story. Think about this. Back to the story. Some more thought. I still do that. I’m doing it in the book I’m working on now.

One thing I want to stress about research is that, if you write fanciful fiction, fiction that lopes past reality — I don’t mean science fiction, although this applies there also — it must be grounded in reality. You need those 17 books on Christ to stimulate your thought. If you’re right about the true facts, people will more easily accept your made-up ones. So you need real facts as a base of departure into more fanciful facts. And you need a lot of different sources.

 

In an author’s note in Cowgirls, you say that no novel is ever written by one person.
Oh, yeah. I’m surprised at how few people are willing to acknowledge that. I mean, where do they think these things come from? I don’t know if there has ever been a novel in history that has been totally invented. Writers are taking stuff all the time. A painter, a landscape painter, looks out the window and paints what he or she sees. Writers create that way, too. They go to a cocktail party, they take home some of the language, they take home a description of a dress that a fat woman was wearing. They’re taking things from their environment constantly. It’s all a collage creation.

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as plagiarism. There was a man who took a book published in South Africa and published it in the United States under his own name. That’s plagiarism. But to take a fragment from another writer and put it within a completely different context, I don’t think is wrong. I don’t own language, I just perform with it.

[silence]

It’s hard for me to give advice. There are some writers who talk beautifully about writing, but it’s a pretty obscure process to me. One writer cannot tell another writer, or aspiring writers, what to think about or how to write. People  have different metabolisms, different body chemistry. Some people write around the clock for two days, then go to sleep for two days. People just have different habits because of their individual systems. Psychological differences.

But I think there are some concrete things I think I can tell people that would be helpful. All of these occur away from the writing desk, except the first one, which is “always write.” Whether it’s two hours a day or twenty hours a day. Or maybe one full day and a day off. People have their own patterns of activity, but always be in a writing mode.

Then there are four things that, particularly, beginning writers should do to make sure they’ll be in that mode, ready to write. it takes two hours a day, and it’s just as important as the time you spend at your desk.

Spend half an hour every day doing yoga, or aerobics, or playing handball — something physical to keep you in your physical body. Writers tend to live too much in heir heads. Too, too many thoughts. You need to be grounded in your physical body.

Two, you should spend half an hour a day reading poetry. It could be prose, as long as it’s not something that’s directly related to what you’re doing. Not research, but something that will get you excited about language. And, again, that can be different for different sensibilities.

Another half-hour a day should be spent looking at clouds, looking at the sky. Not necessarily a cloudy sky; it could be a night sky, a starry sky. The reason for this is that most of the great philosophical ideas of humankind have come from the sky. Our notions of time, our notions of change, of religion, all came from looking at stars and clouds. It’s just very good discipline, philosophically and poetically, to look at the sky.

And then you should spend thirty minutes a day looking at dirty pictures. Or thinking about sex. The purpose of this is to get yourself sexually excited, which builds tremendous amounts of energy, then carry that into your work. Get yourself in that intense state of being next to madness. Keep yourself in, not necessarily a frenzied state, but in a stage of great intensity. The kind of state you would be in before going to bed with your partner. That heightened state when you’re in a carnal embrace: Time stops and nothing else matters. You should always write with an erection. Even if you’re a woman.

 

You have time for the four-point plan, but what about people who don’t have even two hours a day of writing time?
Well, maintaining a pitch next to madness also means following Herman Hesse’s advice to avoid the bourgeois compromise. Don’t get yourself in a nice, safe comfortable bourgeois situation where you’re afraid or unable to take risks. Don’t become too middle-class. If you’re starting out, don’t go get married and have several kids and get a mortgage on a house, because you’re going to get yourself in a situation where you aren’t willing to take the kind of risks that really good writers take.

 

Those are tough words for people already married or settled. Do you mean they can’t write?
I’m not saying families are bad. You just shouldn’t dull your senses with too much furniture, with all the conventions. The social bars, the societal bars, the government bars, the religious bars, all the things we pen ourselves in with, most of which are really just abstract ideas. Don’t get in situations where you can’t steal vegetables, or listen to red-headed winos. Originality evaporates.

I own far too many things right now. I’ve got so much stuff accumulated, sometimes I secretly wish my house would burn down.

If you don’t have the two hours a day, clean everything out. Eat dinner off crates. Most writers are, at least, metaphysical outlaws anyway. They don’t make a lot of  money. They keep strange hours. They’re intimidating — eccentric if not neurotic — and the very lifestyle that’s dictated by their chosen profession makes for a way of relating to the world that is somewhat outside the social norm. The ones on university campuses — universities are like furniture — don’t get too far beyond jail. But a guy living in a house trailer or a room somewhere, trying to do what he loves best, at a typewriter, is kind of put by circumstance into a position of being at odds with much of the culture around him.

One of the hardest things for a writer to deal with is the loneliness caused by that lifestyle. And yet it’s absolutely necessary. If you spend too much time with other people, you find that you’re having only secondhand ideas, for one thing.

 

Yeah, if you share your ideas, they become diluted.
You shouldn’t talk about your work. I’ve watched people fall into that pothole. They talk all their juice away. A lot of talented writers just talk their books away, their stories away. They go to bars and talk about writing to the point where they talk all the sizzle out of them. Their work is either flat or never gets finished at all because it’s already done; they did what they had to do with it in talking rather than putting it on a page.

 

Too much input is another danger of that. If you had shared your early work with many people, they might have said it was too quirky, and advised you to tone down.
Which would have been a mistake. That’s why I say stay away from universities, because too often that’s the kind of advice you get.

Whatever it is everybody seems to hate in your work, that’s what you should focus on and develop. If it’s arousing that kind of antipathy, you can figure that that’s the thing you do best. That’s the thing about you that is unique and special.

But nothing I’ve said, nothing you do, will make a difference if you can’t face the solitude. You can take risks, and be playful, and look at the sky, and find a technique and plot, but it’s impotent if you can’t discipline yourself. Very few people can write in a crowd. This is a very solitary occupation. I have known people who were more talented than me, who never made it. And the primary reason was always that they couldn’t stand to be alone for several hours a day. Any writer worth anything has mastered the art.

The art of solitude.

[silence]

He said didactically. [laughs] See, that’s what happens when you start talking to a tape recorder.

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