After talking to novelist Sean Ferrell, author of Numb (Harper Perennial), I'm pretty sure that if he had his way, he'd move his family into a subway car. Ferrell believes strongly in the power of ritual as the key to an efficient writing process. He needs a regular and methodical routine to keep the words flowing. And for him, that means 40 minutes of writing each way on the New York City subway. This is not a new idea; writers talk often about the importance of ritual to put them in the right place emotionally to be able to write. I know the feeling: when I wrote my dissertation, I always wrote on my laptop, at our kitchen table, wearing the baseball cap of my alma mater (the only time I ever wore a baseball cap, I might add. Men with shaved heads never look good with baseball caps).
So read my interview with Sean Ferrell. You'll find out more about his rituals, how he wrote his first two novels longhand, and why he needs distance from "hot mistakes" in his revision process.
I always knew I was going to do something with storytelling; I just didn't know what shape it would take. I was interested in art and thought I was going to be an illustrator. I was very interested in comic books.
That interest in storytelling goes back to elementary school. I used to think of art and storytelling as two separate things, and through high school I was focused on going into illustration. I started college as an art major. But when I got there, I realized that the focus of my art was on storytelling. While I was looking at the world through the eyes of an illustrator, English classes became my strong suit. I've always been an avid reader. I don't know that I ever really knew I wanted to be a writer, but I knew I wanted to be a storyteller. After a while I started to realize that my interest was in my English lit classes rather than my art classes, so I became an English and philosophy major.
When I decided I wanted to pursue creative writing, I saw that, for me, it was about the marriage of philosophy and its function inside fiction, and fiction's capacity to create a worldview. With regards to the pursuit of truth as it relates to philosophy, truth is a large part of what writers pursue, and we try to figure out a way to express it. Sometimes that truth isn't best expressed by walking up to someone and saying, "I have a truth to tell." Instead, it's about expressing it through character and plot and the explorations of tension.
How do you think your experience as an illustrator helps your creative process as a writer?
The artistic endeavor and the writing endeavor are both moving towards the same thing from the opposite sides. When I sat down and drew, I found myself thinking deeply about what the non-visual elements would be that needed to be conveyed inside the illustration. What truths of the character needed to be conveyed visually that couldn't be seen? The inner character, the motivations: how do you express that? I found myself thinking of the illustrations in terms of story and character motivation, and that's when I began to see that I was coming to illustration to tell a story, as opposed to just presenting a thing to look at. My focus was the background text behind the art.
When I write, I think the same thing. And I tend to think and write visually, in terms of plot and character. When I work through a story line, I do it through a vision in my head and watching these things play out. I don't think of it in terms of a storyboard, but it's more visceral. Not quite a first-person account, but a diorama of the story . . . almost like playing with a dollhouse. That's what's in my head.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I write every day. I write on the train to work, and I used to write longhand. I build up habits and routines that make me focus. When my son was born, my first instinct was, "Oh well, there goes my free time." At that point, I wasn't doing much writing at all, but I wanted to be a writer. The irony was that, of course, before he was born I had tons of free time. So I told myself that if I was going to be a writer, I had to make it happen. So I sat down and made myself practice writing. And that practice took the form of using my commute in the morning to write--time when I would be sitting down anyway, when I would normally just read. I was convinced that I was a writer, but I was doing a lot of reading. The fact that I wasn't actually writing didn't matter, because I was always in the middle of researching something.
So each morning and afternoon, I take my laptop out for the 40 minute commute. If I don't, then I make sure I write in the evening after our son goes to sleep. When I get even 30 minutes of writing in, I feel like it's been a successful day. I used to be of the mind that in order to really write, I needed a big block of time, like two hours. But that was actually an excuse not to write, because I would look at the clock and see that I only had ninety minutes and think to myself that it was not enough time to do anything, so I wouldn't even start. Now, when I don't get even a little bit of writing in, I feel it physically. It's like caffeine withdrawal: I'm grumpy, sluggish, impatient with things. If I get even 20 minutes in, those feelings all go away. I'm a big believer in routine and building a consistent habit.
And having kids obviously makes you more disciplined. Your time is limited.
Absolutely. But I also thought about what I was going to tell my son. Somewhere down the line, did I want to tell him, "I always wanted to be a writer"? Or did I want to tell him that I wrote a few novels, even if they never got published? Did I want to tell him that I always wanted to do that thing, or I did that thing? The dream of being a full-time writer, without another job to support me, and with big blocks of time to write, is still there. But I have a feeling that tomorrow, if someone gave me money to survive so that I could write full-time, my routine would still involve getting up in the morning and writing on the subway.
That's the part of me that needs repetition. Sometimes I write in a coffee shop that's near where I used to live. Because that was once "that spot" for me, it continues to be that spot. So on the weekend, I'll take a bus to that coffee shop and write there. I need that repetitive element, that ritual.
It sounds like rituals are critical to your writing process.
Absolutely. I used to write longhand. I wrote in a certain type of journal with a certain type of pen. I needed the feeling of the pen scratching the paper to know that I was doing the work I was supposed to be doing. The problem is that once you write a couple of novels longhand, you look around at all the papers and realize that someone has to type the thing. So I had to change my process, which was a difficult thing to do. I had a knee-jerk reaction to the suggestion that if I was going to send them to an agent, I had to type it. I fought that very hard, because I knew it was going to change what and how I wrote. I think a different way when I write longhand.
But with no one to type them and without the time to do it myself, I bought a laptop and learned how to get to the right place with a keyboard instead of a pen. So now I have two novels that need to be transcribed, and I've been doing that over the past couple of years while writing new stuff. My handwriting is so atrocious that it would be impossible for anyone else to do it. And remember: my time to write is on the train, so here I am with a laptop in one hand and a journal in the other trying to fight for a seat on the train. I'm sure I looked crazy. When I wrote Numb, I was in between processes; I was writing it longhand during the day then typing it in the evening.
The first reaction that some people might have when you say that you wrote two novels longhand is that you are insane. But isn't it true that when you enter your longhand writing into your computer, that's the first step in your revision process? That is, you revise it before, or as, you type it. So it's not as inefficient as people may think.
That's true, especially since my writing differs from the page to the screen. But the nice thing about the process was when I was transcribing, I'd read something that made me think of something else I wanted to do with the novel later on. So I'd make a note of that in the Word doc, then realize a few pages later that I had, in fact, already done that same thing that I wanted to do. And it was great to see that I had a consistent road map both times, that the creative aspects of my thinking repeated. It's a reminder that what I did the first time was the right thing.
I think that speaks to my revision process. If I go back and revise something immediately after writing it, the language feels too new. It's still in my head. The faults of the language, the speedbumps that need to be fixed: small errors like that still feel right if I revise too quickly, as opposed to looking at something that I wrote a while ago. It's helpful to have that gap. So when I finish the first draft of something, I always let it sit, even for as long as nine months like I did with my first novel. I need to see it as a reader would see it, not as a writer. Otherwise, the mistakes are too hot.