Friday, January 11, 2008

Hotel Rooms

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Washington, DC, where I’ll be ensconced until the end of next week. Well, actually I'll be going out occasionally, mostly to the Library of Congress. (I've read most of the books in my library. That's a significant dfference between me and Congress.)

I love writing in hotel rooms. There are no undone chores to distract me, no ringing telephone, no visitors at the door (once the DND sign is in place), and, above all, almost none of my stuff.

Some people are comforted by their knickknacks, or have the perfect spot that looks out onto a garden. Give me a hotel room any day, and the more sterile and anonymous, the better. Hotel rooms are a piece of time and space that has been extracted from the daily rhythm of life: Welcome to Spaceship Marriott.

I gather I’m not entirely alone in this. I’ve read that Georges Simenon, one of the world’s most prolific novelists (somewhere between 300 and 400 novels) wrote all his novels in hotels, banging them out in marathon writing stints of two to four weeks. In fact, he had it down to a routine: he’d write out a few notes on the project, and then have his doctor give him a physical. If he was pronounced unfit for the task, he’d take a few weeks of exercise and sound diet first; if pronounced fit, he’d hole up in a hotel, usually a different one each time, and bang out that book.

To digress, part of the reason for this medical caution was that his marathons were conducted under the influence of amphetamines—in other words, he was wired off his nut the whole time. That’s mid-20th-century writing’s little secret. Any book on writing will caution you that you aren’t William Burroughs, and that all those alcoholic and drug-addicted writers out there wrote in spite of the goodies, not because of them—and, moreover, that none of these people wrote under the influence. Strictly an after-hours thing.

Well, that’s poppycock. (We think of poppycock as a rather prim little word, but it’s from the Dutch pappekak, variously translated as either “soft shit,” or, according to the latest OED update, "doll's shit." A bit more vivid when it’s meaning is known, eh?) Simenon was far from alone in this. Jack Kerouac was usually wired when he wasn’t drinking or smoking pot. Anthony Burgess wrote on amphetamines with a fifth of gin at his elbow (is that a disgusting combination, or what?); this no doubt explains all of his references to how hard writing had been on his health. Philip K. Dick is associated in the public mind with hallucinogens, but in fact he only took LSD once (and didn’t have a nice time). The fact he was a voracious speedfreak goes a long way toward explaining the pervasive paranoia of his novels. Lawrence Block once wrote a novel in two days, and though he doesn’t say that he had pharmacological assistance, he did this at a time when most of the writers in New York were swallowing crosstops by the handful, so I have my suspicions.

By the end of the sixties, speed was following the course of all illicit drugs, moving from a user group of artists and intellectuals on down to the colleges and finally out to the trailer parks and motorcyle gangs.

And, as always happens with illegal substances, the potency increased exponentially. Before Prohibition, America was a beer-and-wine country; within a few years, it had been transformed into a hard-liquor country. Why smuggle wagonloads of beer from Canada when you can get the same profit from a trunkful of vodka? If any of the reefer-smoking jazz greats of the fifties were handed a spliff of modern marijuana, they’d take two puffs and fall off the stage. So it was with amphetamines: by the time it hit the mass-market underclass it was no longer little Benzedrine and Dexedrine tablets, but grams of crystal meth.

As US laws became more draconian, writers became more circumspect, but there is no doubt that the seventies and eighties were the era of cocaine. The only novelist who has been forthright about this is Stephen King, who wrote his best books striding along on a diet of beer and Peruvian marching powder, but I’m morally certain that most of the eighties New-Yorky brat-pack-novelist crowd had their beaks in the bag while they were working. Being coked out is the only possible excuse for some of those books.

Now, of course, the coke-addled novelist is no longer fashionable, and cocaine has moved onto the streets as the more-bang-for-your-buck crack. Somehow meth and crack don’t seem like the way to achieve a significant but studious buzz; it’s like cutting butter with a chainsaw. Not to mention that to procure said substances, you no longer deal with guys named Chip who live in dorm rooms, but guys named Ice Cream who carry Uzis.

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. Writing in hotel rooms. Well, I’m doing it, and it makes me more productive than normal, but we aren’t going to be seeing any two-week novels here. The days of Simenon are long gone, and Espresso and Zinfandel (preferably not at the same time—or, if you can’t manage that, at least not in the same cup) don’t have the same effects. Even in hotel rooms.


Tim Stretton said...

Hmmm... makes my favoured writers' stimulant--hot chocolate--seem pretty tame!

Matt Curran said...

Or if you're Roger, you get the coffee pot to write the story for you...

Alis said...

Ah my industrial quantities of tea look so tame...
David, do you ever write anything for the newspapers? This kind of thing would go down well over here, though I don't know about the states.

May said...

Enjoy the stay and the quiet of your hotel room!
As usual, I envy you.

Sam Taylor said...

"I've read most of the books in my library"

That's the major difference between you and me. I guess I just buy books so I can think to myself "Maybe I'll have time to read them so I can be smart some day" ;)

BTW, wanted to share with you that I've been experimenting with the techniques you discussed in fearless exposition and narrative distance in a mad little short story. The exposition worked, but the Zooming Out (paraphrasing huge blocks of time or looking away from brutal fights because they weren't the point) seems to have thrown a few readers for a loop (as you warned it might). Is there a way to "feather the edges" of a zoom out to make it less jarring?

Sam Taylor said...

Or should I just elide the times completely and take the risk that the lack of connective tissue in the story might make the skeleton fall apart?

David Isaak said...

Tim--If I recall correctly, Jonathan Drapes' first literary prize was a bar of chocolate, and he complains that he hasn't won one since.

Matt- I have coffee pot in this hotel room, and so far it hasn't done a damn thing. Except make a little coffee.

Alis- Nope, nary a word of journalism have I committed. (I wrote two books for The Economist, but hey weren't really journalism.) Perhaps I should look into UK papers.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

James Joyce has a very nice Zoom Out at the end of his short story "The Dead", but, then, zooming out is usually easier at ends (be they story ends or scene ends or chapter ends). Joyce wasn't writing from a tight third POV, though, which makes movement easier in the first place.

I think jumping over is always safer than zooming out, because people are used to jump cuts.

That said, yes, you can pull back a bit, reacnhor, then pull back a little farther...but it can take a lot of coaxing. For some reason, it's far easier to sart in the clouds and drag a reader down into somebody's head than it is to move the opposite direction.

David Isaak said...

Hi, May--

Are you an afficianado of hotel rooms as well, or do you just envy the idea of quiet?

May said...

I dream to wander through this world all alone but I have a family, a great job and an image to which I can't help to stick. Therefore I travel in the way that I am supposed to travel, I live in the way that I am supposed to live. I cannot even convince my wealthy father to run away with me for six months: he says that he prefers blond women. My mother did not hear that. She is blond, after all.
These Pisces!

Quiet suits me so much that monasteries are one of the places I dream of spending time in. It would be nice to be slowly encapsulated in a stone.

Jake Jesson said...

I'm going to go overdose on meth now. You've inspired me, David!

(By 'overdose on meth' I of course mean 'go to sleep, without having accomplished anything regarding the thesis outline and mini-paper due Monday, nor studied for the test I have Monday, and having written an entire novel scene only to realize that it was crap and scrapped it.' Semantics.)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jake--

Well, I'm told that one of the marks of a great writer is being able to express a great deal in a few words...