Introducing The Bookist, Amitava Kumar's new column

  • Amitava Kumar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 03, 2015 11:57 IST

I am writing this on a train. It is dark outside, the dark window reflecting the interior of the bright-lit train car, the beige plastic seats, the metal overhead racks. I can see in the dark glass the girl on the seat across from me.

I cannot discern her face but I see her reflection holding an iPod in her hand. Her nails are painted silver. We are on the 5.34 Metro North from Poughkeepsie to New York City.

I'm going to a party at a writer-friend's house but the real reason I'm on this train is because I wanted to write this column. I wanted the time alone on the journey down to the city and back.

The writer Patricia Highsmith once said that she was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, "like rats have orgasms". I cannot make the same claim. I don't think writers need ideas so much; what they really need is time.

Or, more accurately, the need is for those conditions of work, the meeting of place and habits, that allow the right words to emerge. I say this because I have beside me on the seat here a book called Daily Rituals.

It offers short accounts of how writers and artists work. The above quote from Highsmith is something I came across in this book. And the detail that, probably in an effort to keep distractions to a minimum, she ate the same food every day: American bacon, fried eggs and cereal.

Stranger than fiction: Maya Angelou (above left) could work only in hotel or motel rooms; Truman Capote couldn’t begin or end anything on a Friday

According to literary legend, probably false, Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin for a while before she began her day's work. This was supposed to serve as inspiration for her macabre writing.

Maya Angelou could work only in hotel or motel rooms. Truman Capote couldn't begin or end anything on a Friday. Igor Stravinsky performed headstands when he needed a break and Saul Bellow did thirty push-ups. For the work to go on, John Cheever required erotic release.

These examples appear to us as oddities but what needs to be stressed is the importance of ritual in the creation of work. I tell my writing students at Vassar College, "Write every day and walk every day". It is not essential that they write a lot; only a hundred and fifty words each day is enough. All that matters is the routine.

The dancer Twyla Tharp presents the following account of what she does after waking up at 5.30 am: "I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours.

The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual."

I understand what Tharp is saying. When I lace my boots, before going over to the Vassar Farm where I usually walk, I'm entering a ritual. I'm mindful of the notepaper and the small yellow pencil in my pocket. The work of writing has begun.

I was pleased to find out in Daily Rituals that it is extremely common for writers and artists to go on walks. As important as the act of shutting the door of the study has been the act of opening it and stepping out for a stroll. Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy - were all walkers.

This brief essay should break here. I had intended to continue writing this piece on my way back the same night. I had imagined it would be late, maybe around midnight, and I'd look outside and see the lights on dark lawns. I would complete the work.

But I got held back at the party. We had gathered at Suketu Mehta's house. The lights of lower Manhattan glittered outside the window. We were all drinking. I missed my train back to Poughkeepsie.

I did once look at my watch and saw that the last train would leave Grand Central Terminal after half an hour. But I was talking to Teju Cole and Kiran Desai, and decided I'd stick around for another 10 minutes and catch a taxi.

But then, maybe because of the alcohol, time slipped through my fingers and suddenly it was too late. I spent the night in the guest-room of the New York Times journalist, Vikas Bajaj, who had arrived at the party even later than I did. (This is the place, of course, to insert a quote from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice: "Who can unravel the essence, the stamp of the artistic temperament! Who can grasp the deep, instinctual fusion of discipline and dissipation on which it rests!")

Now, it is the next morning. I'm on the train headed home, nursing a hangover. Daily Rituals is once again lying on the seat beside me. It is difficult to do a lot of counting in my present state but it appears to me that at least one-third of the writers and artists featured here mention their dependence on coffee.

I'm not surprised. What surprises me more is that writers like Graham Greene and Jean-Paul Sartre relied on amphetamines for their writing. Then there was WH Auden who took "a dose of Benzedrine each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin."

I don't know about amphetamines, but I can attest to the powers of caffeine. More important, I'm here to sing the praises of the afternoon nap.

This afternoon, after I have cooked lunch for my family, I will retire upstairs for an hour's sleep. On waking up, I will go for a walk. And late at night, in front of the computer, I will feel as if I'm alone in the sleeping forest. If I'm alert, and lucky, I will soon pick up the spoor of a handful of scattered words.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several books of non-fiction and a novel. His latest book, Lunch with a Bigot, is a collection of essays about the writer in the world. Kumar’s writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Caravan, and numerous other publications. He is Professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York.

Starting today, The Bookist, Kumar’s exclusive column on books and the art of writing, will appear once every month

Follow @amitavakumar on Twitter

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