Anthony Lane (famed for his work with the New Yorker) is one of my favorite prose stylists, and quite by accident I came across this diary entry that he wrote on Slate 11 years ago about the writing process. I could only find it on the Wayback Machine, so hopefully Slate will forgive me for reposting it here.
But writers are at their least pretty, perhaps, when they are actually writing. Eyes redden, caffeine levels rise like geysers, fingernails go missing without trace. Given the amount of hair-tearing that goes on, it should be statistically provable that 85 percent of poets, say, are completely bald and that a formal meeting of the creative writing faculty at any major university should be indistinguishable from a box of free-range eggs. Yet poets are, and always have been, irretrievably hairy, a mystery that only Darwin could solve; it may be that they have evolved to the point of waking every morning with a full thatch, which is then ripped out in frustration over the course of the day, the last strands vanishing in the early evening, during a fruitless hunt for a word that rhymes with “tulip” or “Kalashnikov.”
There is a myth at large in the general population, easily quashable yet somehow allowed to persist, that writing comes smoothly, like gas from a pump, or at least unbidden, like tears. This is bull. No decent prose is ever dashed off, especially that which appears to be effortlessly dashing. Just as Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks had to rehearse their leaps and pratfalls, so grace on the page has to be earned with infinite sweat. I was told recently of a manuscript of Couples, which has come into the possession of a college library and which is apparently forested with sweet-smelling revisions; when even as Mozartian a stylist as John Updike needs to retrace and smooth his steps, what hope for the rest of us? (The exception to the rule is Mozart himself, but then, next to Mozart, the rule seems to be that creativity itself, the plashing fount of human invention, is in fact no better than a rusty cement-mixer—all churn, slap, and grind.) This may explain why, in common with Bob Geldof, I don’t like Mondays.
And so to Tuesday. Tuesday is a treat because Tuesday gives me leave not to write, which signals pain, but to rewrite, which augurs joy. Between the squalls of composition and the bathetic pangs of publication comes an interval of peace in which I return to the work, print it out in proofs, immediately spy 17 correctable errors for every 1,000 words, lop off whole paragraphs like a tree surgeon hacking at a larch, and tenderly position the remainder so as to give the impression, or the illusion, of coherence. The thrill of this activity is not, strictly speaking, a literary matter; it is, in its small way, more of a spiritual hint, reminding us that, more often than not, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, that we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and that there is no health in us. Rewriting is one of the few pursuits in life which enable us to make good our mistakes, or to make better our cheesy efforts, and to get immediate results; what is more, all of this can be achieved without having to buy flowers, lingerie, or chocolate truffles.
In the case of The New Yorker, of course, the rewrite is no more than a bold step in a treacherous process. If this were an Indiana Jones movie, I would merely have proceeded to the next plank in the creaking, swaying rope bridge over a ravine. Below me, the crocodiles gape. One more pace, twice as fraught, will bring me to the fact-checking department, into whose miasmic maw writers far stronger than I have disappeared, their cries fading into the dark. Pray God that I come out alive.
Some additional insights into his process, this time from the Daily Telegraph, which also seems to have removed the original article for some reason:
“I do have one very brutal writing ritual. If I’m working in the morning, I don’t allow myself a cup of tea until I’ve written two paragraphs. It’s harsh.
“The truth is, that if you’re working on a piece at three in the morning, you’re not Keats; you’re just late. The glitch in this argument is that I’m not a creative writer. I don’t write poetry or novels or drama but criticism, which is the eunuch of the family. I watch other people doing it and talk about what they’re doing in a squeaky, high voice.
Elsewhere, in Identity Theory, you can still read an interview with Lane that provides some further insights:
“Round midnight. I wait till peace and quiet and write as I go. I don’t enjoy writing. I enjoy rewriting. I like editing myself down. It is journalism. I’m not sitting there waiting for the muse to descend. I’m lucky I have subjects. Nothing would terrify me more than sitting down and being told to write a novel, Chapter One.”