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Michael Cunningham: Segues Straight From Sleep

by Melody Joy Kramer
Nov 27, 2006

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Michael Cunningham is the author of five novels and one non-fiction book. His most recent novel, Specimen Days, weaves the lives of three characters with the life of Walt Whitman. Cunningham won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his 1999 novel The Hours. His work has appeared in numerous publications. He lives in New York City.

How He Writes: "I'm very regular and not even a little bit glamorous in my writing life. I get up every morning on the early side, around seven or eight, and go right to work. I work Mondays through Fridays, and sometimes Saturdays, depending on how well (or not well) it's going. I always take Sundays off.

I'm not a particularly delicate creature — not one of those writers for whom a barking dog or ringing phone can kill the work day — but I've learned over time that I do need to segue straight from sleep and dreams into writing. When I permit myself to have contact with the real world before I get to work, I lose what I can only think of as the requisite delusional state. If I run out to the dry cleaner's, say, or pick up a prescription, I find that when I turn my computer on and look at what I wrote the day before, all I can think is, 'This is just a story I'm making up, it isn't as real and profound as a dry cleaner's, it isn't as mysterious and beautiful as a drug store.'

So. Straight to work, and I sit there for at least four hours, on the good days and the bad (for more on this, see subsequent answer to 'writer's block' question). I decided, years ago, to think of a day's writing as based on hours spent, as opposed to pages produced. Occasionally, on an extremely good day, I'll write for as long as seven or eight hours, but that's rare. Four or five is usually the maximum for me. After that, my brain has turned to rubber, and there's not much point in pushing it any further. That particular organ has produced all it's going to produce."

Writer's Block Remedies: "Every writer I know suffers periodically from, if not actual writer's block, spells during which the inspiration seems to evaporate. If I'm steady in my habits, I'm extremely erratic in this other, more slippery realm. My day-to-day discipline is, really, my way of compensating for the unreliability of my own access to whatever it is that drives the writerly engine. One day, I feel so confident and full of ideas and language that I can barely keep up with myself. The next, it's all I can do to write one lame, unconvincing sentence.

When I was younger, I became obsessed with trying to chart my good days and my bad. Was it related to sleep, diet, sex? I tried all kinds of variations, with the grim purpose of youth. Celibacy the day before a writing day? I'll give it a try. What about sugar, caffeine, alcohol? More, or less, of each, and in what quantities? Many trials were conducted. Needless to say, those experiments led me nowhere. It is, it seems, purely and simply a mystery, the coming and going of one's gift.

So I show up every day, and do the best I can. I've been known to write ten pages or more on a good day. On the bad days, I still force myself to write SOMETHING, even if it's one limp, sad little line that will surely be deleted tomorrow.

Here's the funny thing — a month or so later, I can't tell what I wrote on the ecstatic days from what I wrote on the wrenching ones. The lines that seemed so good when I wrote them turn out, later on, to be neither better nor worse than the ones I squeezed out with my fingers pinching my nose against the stink of mediocrity.

All I can think, then, is this: Wherever inspiration comes from, it comes constantly, and what varies from day to day and week to week is our access to it. So I go on. I fasten my seat belt. I do my best to have faith."

A Favorite Sentence: "I'm still hoping to write a great sentence. If I do, I'll let you know."

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