On Writing & Routine from Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

**Information obtained from kingsolver.com**

What is your writing routine?  How do you discipline yourself to keep at it?

I find it takes discipline to stop writing and go do other things, such as cleaning the house.

I tend to wake up extremely early with words flooding into my brain.  If I don’t get up, they’ll continue to accumulate in puddles, so it’s a relief to get to the keyboard and dump them out.  I’ll take a break to have breakfast with my daughter and walk her to the school bus.  In the afternoon I’ll break again to meet with my assistant, Judy, to review the day’s mail pile and decide how to respond to requests.  But if I’ve really gone into novel-never-land, the time disappears.  I sometimes look at the clock and am stunned to see that six or eight hours have passed while I sat motionless in my chair.

I’ve learned the hard way, from my body, that when I get in this zone it’s wise to set an alarm to go off every hour or so, to remind me to get up, unclench, do some yoga.  And I always try to follow my day at the desk with some form of physical exercise.  Summer evenings offer hours of daylight for weeding and planting, checking the lambs, whatever needs to be done.  I enjoy the physical engagement of farm work, because it balances the work I do inside my head.  I also appreciate my family for keeping me anchored in the real world.

Do you write every day?

Writing is my dream life.  But many writers will tell you, in the modern era our job seems to demand everything but writing.  In a typical week I spend hours or days on non-writing chores: fielding interviews, reviewing reprint requests and copy, updating websites, responding to particularly crucial requests, administering the Bellwether Prize, answering queries from translators, reviewing archives before they’re moved off-site, bookkeeping, giving at least a glance to the ten or twenty books sent to me by their authors or editors that week, puzzling over foreign-rights contracts, and supporting other writers and worthy organizations as best I can.  When I release a new book, the “fielding interviews” portion of that list blows up into a full-time job.  That and traveling for a book tour remove me from writing life for months, and I miss it, with an ache similar to missing my husband or children when they’re far away.  I tend to choke up when someone asks me on book tour, “What are you writing now?” Nothing, would be the honest answer, but I wish I were!  Still, I understand that meeting readers is an important part of my job, so I go willingly.  The hard part is calling it off.  The same book will be released in other countries as the translations come out; the requests don’t ever stop.  I have to walk away, with firm resolve, from well-intentioned pressures that would keep me talking about the last book and its topics forevermore.  It is painful for me to disappoint people, but I do it to save the life of my next book.

“The office of Barbara Kingsolver” is where my assistant Judy Carmichael makes writing possible for me by handling all things that come at us by mail, UPS, telephone, email, or wild elephant.  It’s across the driveway from our house, in a remodeled carriage house.

The place where I write, upstairs in our farmhouse, has windows facing into the woods.  The walls are lined with bookshelves.  To avoid distraction, I write on a computer that is not connected to the internet.  (I check email elsewhere in the house.)  My companions in this room are the likes of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, who peer down at me from the shelves, and a blue fish named Bruno.  They are all very quiet.

How do you begin a novel?

I begin by imagining something surprising and important, a question whose answer is not clear to me, but seems vital.  Questions like: How do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community, when they’re in conflict?  (That became Pigs in Heaven.)  How does one make peace with the terrible things one country does to another, when we’ve profited from them but weren’t responsible?  (The Poisonwood Bible.)  I begin to plot out a story in which characters will face these questions through some conflict or crisis.  I write pages and pages of what this novel will be about.  Themes, plot, characters.  I create life histories for the characters.  I list the things I’ll need to research, in order to tell this story.  As scenes occur to me, I jot them down without worrying about chronology.  The beginning and the resolution will come, once I understand the architecture of the story.

I spend months or years thinking about the shape of a novel and earning the authority to write it.  Samuel Johnson wrote, “a man can turn over a whole library to write a single book,” and I would add, you also have to wear out some shoe leather.  (See the question about primary and secondary research.)  I usually keep a novel cooking on the back burner for a long time, before it moves up front.  During this time I accept magazine and newspaper assignments that keep me writing while a novel is in the research and development phase.  Once I begin writing the novel in earnest, the early challenge is to find the voice and tone.  I throw away hundreds of pages before I find that; my best writing tool is the Delete key.  I think of it as writing pages minus-100 to zero of my novel, just a necessary evil.  I have to write them all, and pitch them out.

I struggle with confidence, every time.  I’m never completely sure I can write another book.  Maybe my scope is too grand, my questions too hard, surely readers won’t want to follow me here.  A novel is like a cathedral, it knocks you down to size when you enter into it.  I falter and fidget and worry it won’t be good enough, and then the day comes when I give myself permission:  just write, I tell myself.  No one has to see it, you can throw everything away if it’s terrible, we’ll keep it a secret unless or until it becomes wonderful.  And then I get to work.

Do you go through a lot of drafts?

Gazillions.  I adore revision.  Whether it’s a two-page article or a 500-page book, I rewrite endlessly.  I may rewrite the first paragraph of a novel fifty times before I’m satisfied.  I comb through a manuscript again and again, altering every sentence a little or a lot.  I don’t print out every draft on paper, or I’d be mowing down forests.

Pounding out a first draft is like hoeing a row of corn – you just keep your head down and concentrate on getting to the end.  Revision is where fine art begins.  It’s thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript, letting little glints shine through here and there.  To plant resolution, like a seed, into chapter one.  To create new scenes, investing a character with the necessary damage, the right kind of longing.  To pitch out boldly and try again.  To work every metaphor across the whole, back and forth, like weaving.  I love that word “fabrication,” because making an elaborate fiction feels so much like making cloth.

Perfectionism is my disease.  Revision is my milk and honey.

From Wikipedia:

Barbara Kingsolver (born April 8, 1955) is an American novelist, essayist and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in the former Republic of Congo in her early childhood. Kingsolver earned degrees in biology at DePauw University and the University of Arizona and worked as a freelance writer before she began writing novels. Her widely known works include The Poisonwood Bible, the tale of a missionary family in the Congo, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction account of her family’s attempts to eat locally.

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