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Blog

A Long Obedience

William Coleman

Albert-SchweitzerBalzac drank close to fifty cups of coffee every day. Before he wrote a single word, Steinbeck set twelve, freshly sharpened Blackwings on his desk. Poe made scrolls of narrow sheets and sealing wax: a tiny scroll for every final draft. Hemingway stood; Capote reclined; Dickens paced. 

Tales of rituals about the act of writing abound. They are told and retold, collected and displayed: evidence of eccentricity, or quick-fix jump-starts to propel us into creative space.

What’s rarer, at least to my knowing, are stories in which the whole of a writer’s life is seen to have been brought to an order, as is the way of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami:

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours,” he told The Paris Review in 2004. "In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

To regard each moment of one’s life as essential to induction into the timeless is to take a more integral view of imagination than is often made manifest in popular culture, one that requires rigor, if it is to be acted upon.

“To hold to such repetition for so long requires a good amount of mental and physical strength,” Murakami continued. "In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”

I tend to forget the link between discipline and creative well-being. How much easier it is to go slack, waiting for inspiration. But when I look back at the times when I was able to contend most fruitfully with what Nietzsche called the “thousand laws” at work within “the free arranging, locating, disposing, and constructing” that composes each moment we later call inspired, I recognize them as times when my days were fully exercised —filled with theory and practice, thinking and running.

The next sentence in Nietzsche’s book is familiar, and deeply challenging: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and in earth’ is […] that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

Balzac worked fifteen hours a day. He plumped with ink each margin of every galley proof he ever got. Steinbeck labored over East of Eden for eleven months. He drafted each day’s work on the right-hand pages of a notebook. In the facing space, he wrote letters to his friend, Pascal Covici. “On the third finger of my right hand, I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day, ” he wrote on April 3, a Tuesday. "It has become a big lump by now, and it doesn’t ever go away.”

It’s easy enough to co-opt a trapping of a writer’s inner life, to buy a dozen pencils, brew another pot. What’s hard is to submit to the force toward which the rituals point. What’s hard is to work when it seems like nothing’s working. What’s hard, to put it another way, is to work on faith.