How Writers Write: 11 LGBTQ Authors on Their Daily Writing Practices
Author: Willem Finn Harling
November 30, 2020
There’s something fascinating about the mundane. At least, the mundane in other people’s lives. We’re living in the era of the daily vlog and of series’ such as The New York Times’ “Sunday Routine,” The Cut’s “How I Get It Done,” and even Lambda’s own “Banal and Profane.” People seem to find great pleasure in reading about the ordinary aspects of lives that are not their own. And I’m no exception.
Personally, I’ve always wondered about the writing practices of professional writers. Probably for the same reasons the aforementioned series are so popular, the habits and routines of my favorite authors interest me as much as the books they write. And while the vast majority of people write, only a small fraction considers themselves writers. Many of us text, email, or even journal on a daily basis. But what makes up the day-to-day that produces our favorite books? What’s the mundane in authors’ lives that allow them to write the great works that they’re known for?
I asked some writers about how Covid-19 has affected their average daily writing practices and to share one necessary (and perhaps unexpected) component of their writing practice. Here’s what they had to say.
Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
My writing practice hasn’t changed. I still get up an hour or two before my husband, make the coffee, write, he comes down and we have breakfast. Then if I can, I keep writing and at some point by around lunchtime I begin replying to emails, take meetings, that kind of thing.
An unexpected and necessary component of my writing practice is that I will use any spare time I can get and write even on my phone, even by dictation while driving. Whatever I need to do.
Andrea Abi-Karam, co-editor of the anthology We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics
My writing practice is highly driven by the hybridity of experience and reading. I thread these axes together to form the project and focus on writing into the project until it bursts. Pre-pandemic, I had Sundays entirely blocked off to go and write at my favorite radical and community-driven cafe, Playground Coffee Shop. I would also focus on writing on 2-3 weekday mornings before ingesting any screen content, before heading to work. Since the pandemic has upended time and space, my structures and space have melded into each other and currently, my practice is very deadline driven, even more so than before, and has been much more sporadic with binges and lulls. Since my variance of experience has receded, I’ve been focused on creating self-curated reading lists and getting through them in order to dig deeper into my topics of concern, particularly the War on Terror. I have also dedicated myself to supporting the launch of this two year long project in the making that I co-edited with Kay Gabriel: WE WANT IT ALL: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics (Nightboat Books, November 2020).
Performance/ live reading [are necessary for my writing practice]. To really know if a piece is working. This is obviously much more difficult in our current world. I see the performance space as both one of collaboration and responsive. I much prefer it to the workshop space. When reading work in progress in front of a live crowd I can feel the sweeps and energy of the piece that captures and the moments that need more time to develop.
Candice Iloh, author of Every Body Looking
My writing before Covid-19 was chaotic, scattered, and constantly changing. And it’s not much different now. But I’ve begun to find a rhythm that is both compassionate toward myself and cognizant of when I would like to finish things. The main shift that’s occurred is my relationship with time and how I use it. This year has taught me a lot about priorities and the fact that there will always be something or someone vying for my time. The only way my work will get done is by becoming firm in what I need and remaining loyal to myself, first. This is a year that everything suddenly felt urgent and not urgent at the same time. At the center was still my choices and what is most important to me. I barely wrote for the first five months of the pandemic and some days I still feel like I can’t. The difference in this moment is how I honor the ebbs and flows of life so I can give myself space when I need to, then take advantage of those early mornings where I wake up ready to make something beautiful.
I almost always take a walk or take a shower before I write. Both help my brain feel like I am “getting ready” for work.
Carter Sickels, author of The Prettiest Star
Before the pandemic, I wrote about five or six days a week (my writing schedule depends on my teaching schedule, so this varies). I write in the mornings, at my desk in my home office. I’m still trying to follow that routine, but the anxiety around the virus and the election are major distractions. Even though I’m devoting the early morning to my writing, this doesn’t always mean I’m writing. I’m giving myself permission to be away from my laptop. I’m going on more walks, I’m reading—poetry, novels, essays. Reading has been rejuvenating, and on good days, the words of others coax me back to my own writing.
Like many writers, I need solitude and quiet to write, and that hasn’t changed. But the isolation is starting to wear me down. Although I only went on writing residencies about once a year, this time was always transformative—not just for the gifts of time and space, but for the connections I made with other writers and artists. I miss interacting with others in creative, imaginative, and intimate spaces. Zoom is just not the same. The pandemic has also made it pretty obvious that just because you have actual hours to work, that doesn’t mean much if you don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to do the work. This brings me back to reading as a necessary part of my writing practice—reading helps quell my anxiety and gives me more energy to write.
Emily M. Danforth, author of Plain Bad Heroines
I don’t have an “average day” writing practice. I used to be very envious of writers who do, but I’ve realized that I get my writing done how and when I get it done, and whatever gets the words out of my head and onto the page is fine. It’s what suits me. Spending time worrying that I don’t write like other writers is so silly as to be almost absurd. As a novelist, sometimes, when I’m deep into the active composing of a book, I’ll be at my computer for 8-12 hours stretches–especially if there are particular scenes I’m trying to write in full. But other times, I’m researching and reading and filling-the-well, so to speak, which isn’t the act of composition, but does contribute to my writing practice in that it readies me to sit down at my laptop again and compose. I can only sustain 8 hour writing days for so many weeks at a time. I need a lot of downtime in between. So much of my writing practice is dictated by what project I’m writing and where I’m at with it. Am I in the early planning stages of a novel? Am I deep in the weeds of a novel, trying to figure out what the book even is or will be? Am I revising or editing? I let the work guide the practice and not the other way around.
One significant change in my writing practice that’s happened since the pandemic is the collaborative work I’ve been doing with a writing partner. This is completely new to both of us, and in a genre fairly new to us both, too, so it’s been both fun and challenging to figure out just how to do it: how to write a thing together. We’ve settled on each writing individual scenes and then sending our drafts back and forth for revisions, with long zooms and phone calls in between where we talk out plot developments and revisions to each other’s material. This collaboration has been such an unexpected joy during this pandemic–creatively challenging and surprising at every turn. Mostly, though, it’s a chance to connect regularly with another writer and talk make-believe, which is very welcome to me these days.
Iced coffee [is one necessary component of my writing practice]. These days mostly brewed here at home since I’ve finally managed the right blend to make it palatable and lingering in local coffee shops is out. I drink too much of it, always, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I need that metal mug of it–extra ice–next to my laptop as I write. Also–a lot of re-reading. Like a lot of novelists, I re-read the prior day’s pages, but often I’ll go deeper than that, especially when working on a novel–I’ll hop around scenes I wrote weeks before, testing them out now that they’ve rested a while. I like those first minutes at my computer–let’s be real, sometimes well-into an hour–to be spent back in the pages of my draft, re-reading and fiddling, as I call it, with whatever it is that I’ve already written. In this way, I’m revising as I write a novel so that once I finish a complete draft, it’s not like it’s just been dumped onto the page, though often it will still need lots of larger-scale revision now that I can see its full scope.
John Fram, author of The Bright Lands
This summer was especially humbling, because as my career improved our national predicament only grew worse by the day. Before The Bright Lands came out, I still worked a full-time job, writing early in the morning and on weekends, but in the wake of the book’s success, I was fortunate enough to reduce that job to part-time and, now, no-time. If Covid affected my career at all, it likely kept me employed longer than was really useful. It’s not exactly common sense to quit your job (and your health insurance) in the midst of a pandemic.
This recent freedom to write all day has allowed me to discover when I’m at my best, creatively speaking—from 7 to 10 in the morning, and from 2 to 6 in the afternoon—leaving a lovely long gap in the middle of the day where I can take a walk, get a workout in, do some reading, or refresh my phone, ceaselessly, as we all are now.
Speaking of which, I’m not sure if this is an especially unusual component of the practice, but the only way I can get anything done, anything at all, is to turn my phone off. No Airplane Mode, no Screen Time—off. I turn it off at night before bed, turn it on for a few hours in the midday and evening, and I spend the rest of my day as far away from the damn thing as possible. I swear I sometimes see the ghost of a thirst trap or a new poll out of Iowa flit across its dark screen in the corner of my eye. When that happens, the only solution is to seal it in a drawer and walk away.
Kristen Arnett, author of Mostly Dead Things
My writing practice on an average day was a daily morning practice. I am fresher in the morning before I’ve allowed the internet to rot my brain for the day, so I would wake up, have a cup of coffee, and then I’d try to get 1000 words written. My writing practice now is different in that I don’t hold myself to a morning practice. I still try and get in a word count for myself, just because even if I don’t like what I get out, I feel the habit and practice of it feels familiar and comforting to me in a time of general upheaval.
A necessary part of my writing practice has been the need to have light and a window. I need to feel the sunshine and see the outside world when I’m trying to write anything, even if it’s something I won’t end up keeping. Part of that feels that it’s in keeping with the fact that I’m a place writer, specifically a Florida writer, and seeing Florida outside the window helps me keep it at the forefront of my mind. I can absolutely write without the window–for many years I worked in a library basement–but the window, or the image of the window and the light, lives on in my mind regardless of where I’m working.
Malcolm H. Tariq, author of Heed the Hallow
I love writing in coffee shops whenever possible. Being outside of my home environment and near strangers helps me to think outside of myself. So many new ideas come, and I get to people-watch as well, one of my favorite things. Also walking and riding the train, I used to come up with so many lines. Now that I write from home, I have to force myself to sit down and actually do it. Thankfully I now have a desk in a separate room that isn’t my bedroom and I don’t have to leave my home for my work at Cave Canem. This means I can make some tea and get about an hour of writing in before I start answering emails and taking meetings. Just that hour is really enough to energize me and get me excited about returning to the writing, even if it’s days later. I’ve been thinking about buying a French press to create some at-home adventure since I’ve never made coffee at home before. And getting some big paper so I can write directly on the wall. Some things to make it fun, as if I were a visual artist in a studio.
Being home all day and starting on new writing projects, I’ve realized that a big part of my process is talking myself through my ideas. Sometimes I interview myself, other times I pretend I’m talking to an audience about the project as if it’s already finished. It helps me understand where I want to go with it and why. But it’s also really funny, when you think about it. Sitting in a room, talking aloud to people who aren’t there about a project that doesn’t fully exist. I feel a little childish, but it’s kind of fun. I’ve been thinking about recording myself, but I don’t really like to hear my voice played back to me.
Rickey Laurentiis, author of Boy with Thorn
Covid-19, it seems to me, brings only a powerful fact of reality out of its secret: that humans, our place on and among the planet, is not so much a lonely position, as has been forever presumed, but a vulnerable one. We are coming into the fact that we are not the leaders of a chain, but a link in it. Of course, other epiphanies have made themselves painfully and powerfully known under this apparently newfound edict, but to me this revelation sits at the root as one either to accept or resist–but it cannot be denied. How has my writing practice changed since and after the pandemic? I had a sense of this revelation before; now I have a duty to spell it out.
Anger. Not rage, for I do not believe rage can ever be, though I understand the intention of saying so, ‘eloquent’ any more than the volcano whose erupting, molten gasses and lava destroy all, innocent or guilty, in its path, that still, however destructive, is a natural path, and therefore good; and only later, much later, once it cools, can we approach that lava as new ground: but anger, purposeful, deliberate, frenzied, yes, but never dispassionate, never disinterested. When I can hone anger, reel it in almost like the bell returning its sound to the clapper, if you could imagine that; when I direct my anger as much as I would, and do, my ecstasy, my shame, my joy (all of whom, I think, make the first same sound–they moan); if I can use my anger, as Lorde advises, then I can have it use me: clarify my meaning, corrupt my music, better the sound.
Sarah Schulman, author of the forthcoming book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP, New York, 1987-1993
[My daily writing practice is] pretty much the same – I write a lot, and work on many different projects at once.
Because of Covid two of my plays’ world premieres were delayed and the collapse of the theater has moved everything back. Although there has been amazing advocacy by Theater Makers of Color and Honor Roll (women writers over fifty who emerged in the era of all-male, all-white seasons) there have been many radical demands for a more expansive theater of perspective and content when we return. But none of us know to what extent this will actually be true.
Torrey Peters, author of the forthcoming novel Detransition, Baby
In typical millennial fashion, I got myself an Adderall prescription sometime in college. For years I had a dedicated, intense, but intermittent writing practice. I’d make enough money so that every few weeks I could have nothing to do for three or four days, then I’d take Adderall, and try to like, induce inspiration. Mostly I produced semi-rants, but every once and a while the elements would align and the writing would feel sublime. However, about halfway through my novel Detransition, Baby, for reasons of life stability, I needed something more reliable. I stopped taking Adderall and replaced it with meditation (pause for eye-rolls). Like 20 minutes, then sit and write. It made my writing practice less pressurized and therefore more sustainable, but that pressure release also made me funnier and less self-serious as a writer. I can look back now and read a sentence and tell when I wrote it. That meditation routine prepared me for the pandemic. Things would be (even more) dark if I were still doing it that first way.
I like to watch music videos when I get stuck. I like how archetypal music videos are, how nakedly they attempt to evoke notions of cool or sad or whatever. A coy or aloof music video is a boring music video. A good music video has to pick a mood and really lean into it. Remember when “Old Town Road” first went viral, there was that first music video for it–before the horrible Billy Ray Cyrus bullshit video–that was just cut-scenes from the video game Red Dead Redemption 2 perfectly set to the song. That was a commitment to mood so deep that I wanted to compete with it (even though I was writing about a whole different mood: pregnancy and motherhood).
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