Shhhh. I know it’s exciting to have John Colman Wood—author of The Names of Things—at Writerhead today, but you’re still expected to be quiet while we listen in on his writerhead. Don’t worry…there will be plenty of time for questions and rousing applause at the end.
So sit back. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. And enjoy.
1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).
Let me start with a disclaimer: anything I say about writerhead is bound to be nonsense. But I’m an academic, and the risk of uttering nonsense never stopped me. It’s a serious point, however, about nonsense.
First, writing about writing isn’t writing. Not really. It’s something else, like loving the idea of loving isn’t loving, or that imagining happiness isn’t happiness. Second, writing about writing requires a self consciousness that is, I believe, antithetical to the state of mind that occurs when one is lost in the act, which is what I think you mean by the term writerhead.
In other words, trying to adopt a writer’s state of mind is one way to make it go away. So I suppose “getting lost” comes closer to writer’s mind than anything else I can think of. More on that below.
In any case, it rarely happens to me. And when it does, it never lasts longer than a few seconds, a minute at most. When it happens, I am always caught up in something, so focused, so unselfconscious that I’m not thinking at all, just doing. Of course, as soon as that happens, and the right words are falling from the tree, I almost immediately think “Ah, this is great! Now I’m writing” and then puff, the moment vanishes, killed by a thought.
Ironically, this writerly state of mind seldom occurs when I am at a desk with pen, computer, or typewriter at hand. Rather, a word, an image, a sentence, a next paragraph, a turn of plot is more likely to fall from the sky when I’m out walking. Just walking. I am not very writerly when I am writing, and I do my best writing when I am not.
2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)
When I am writing, my distractible mind looks something like this:
First I have to make coffee. It’s good for about ten or fifteen minutes of keyboard avoidance. The switch on the coffee maker is unreliable. The thing turns off in the middle of brewing. Since only half the water has filtered through, the coffee is twice as strong. That’s not bad if you like strong coffee, as I do, which is probably why I haven’t replaced the thing.
With a fresh cup of tar in hand, I turn to my desk and a story I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks. I like a clean desk. I mostly work on a laptop, which sits, half-cocked, front and center. There’s a lamp to the left, a couple of sharp pencils and a legal pad to the right, the coffee within easy reach beyond. That’s it. The world is now well ordered.
The story is about a girl I sat beside about forty years ago in seventh-grade English. My family had just moved to a big city from a small town. Everything was new and frightening.
The teacher’s name was Mr. Defoe. He had a bald head and wore a white shirt, striped tie, black trousers, and black wingtip shoes.
There’s a knock at the door. This is typical. There’s always a knock at the door. A driver from Fed-Ex offers me an envelope in exchange for a signature. He smiles, comments on the weather, thanks me, and skips back to the van like he’s done me a great favor. I sit at the desk and calculate that I’ve just paid fifteen bucks for the privilege of being interrupted. The coffee’s cold.
The school was generations old: dark wood, flaking paint, blackboard pitted and gouged so the chalk broke in Mr. Defoe’s hand. The tall windows were greasy from city air.
I tinker with the last sentence. The windows started out “fogged with city breath” but I had something dirtier in mind, so I changed “fog” to “grease” and decided not to personify the city but just give it dirty air.
I need to pee. I take along my cup to fill in the kitchen.
While I stand in front of the toilet I think of a writer who spoke years ago at the university where I was a graduate student. He was South Asian, a famous guy, and we all wanted to meet him. At the party afterward, I remember watching him talk with one of the professors. The famous writer had a glass in his hand, and as he listened he kept sipping from the glass though there wasn’t any more whiskey in it, just ice. He chewed on chunks of ice, spoke occasionally, and otherwise nodded at whatever was being said. His lips curled into an attentive frown as he chewed. It seemed such a human thing to do, his chewing on ice, and it surprised me because he was such an admired figure, hardly human at all.
Why I think of him now after so many years I don’t know, except maybe my stance in front of the toilet reminded me of his in front of that professor.
Back at my desk I pick up where I left off.
The girl, in contrast to Mr. Defoe, was blonde and small and sunny. She wore a skirt and blouse and penny loafers with shiny pennies in their eyes.
Those two sentences take all of half a minute to type. I read them over. Then a gurgling noise from the bathroom draws my attention. You must think me lavacentric, if that’s a word. I’m not. It’s just that the bathroom is near the study, and I use it often because of all the coffee I drink. I jiggle the handle and return to my desk.
She had slightly crooked front teeth—a tiny, distinctive flaw that made everything else about her perfect. She smiled almost all the time but was self-conscious of her teeth, so she’d smile and then wrap her upper lip around them in a bashful way, like she was trying to hide her smile.
I read that over. The work so far today has taken half an hour. It’s all descriptive. Straight forward. Nothing fancy. I like the bit about her smile. It’s the best of what I’ve written today, and it came by accident. I didn’t set out to write it, wasn’t thinking of her smile when I started.
Now the kid two doors north has begun to practice his drums. He would, wouldn’t he? It’s two-thirty in the afternoon, which seems early. But there he is. He’s beating away without rhythm. It sounds like a lot of stuff that’s been piled on shelves in their garage is crashing to the concrete floor, only it keeps crashing.
It’s time to take the dog for a walk.
3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.
I think writerhead is a matter of getting lost. You need to set off in one direction and then, sometime later, find yourself somewhere else. In that sense writing is like walking.
It is pointless, while walking, to intend to get lost. The intention itself keeps track of where you are. I’ve tried to get lost. I write about place and space, and several times I’ve thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to get lost and see what that’s like, to find my way back. Can’t be done. I’ve been lost, of course, just not by intention. I think it’s just as pointless and for the same reasons to try to get lost while writing.
You can, however, let it happen. You can allow intention to lapse, just as you can wander into an unfamiliar forest and walk and walk, thinking about other things and, after a while, find yourself lost. It happens to people two or three times a year in the forests near where I live. They go in, lose track of where they are, and they’re lost.
I think it’s important to get lost while writing. At the risk of sounding Taoist, you can’t find your way unless at first you’re lost. The kind of writing I do is always a matter of finding my way. I seldom know where I am. And it is relatively easy to get lost while writing (without really trying) because, let’s face it, there’s so little at stake. We can always decide that what we’ve written while finding our way is nonsense, and then we can toss it in the trash.
BIO: John Colman Wood teaches at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His research with Gabra nomads of Northeast Africa has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His fiction has appeared in Anthropology and Humanism. He has twice won the Ethnographic Fiction Prize of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. He is the author of When Men Are Women: Manhood among Gabra Nomads of East Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999). Before becoming an anthropologist, Wood was a journalist.