Writing Routines

Philip Roth’s Writing Routine: “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare.”

Philip Roth was an American novelist and short story writer, best-known for his book, Goodbye, Columbus, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral.

Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare. Coal mining is hard work. This is a nightmare. There’s a tremendous uncertainty that’s built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way.

Reporting: Writings from The New Yorker | David Remnick

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In 2012, after spending over 50 years as a writer, Philip Roth announced his retirement. The author’s 2010 book Nemesis – a story set in 1944 centred around the effect of the polio epidemic on a Newark Jewish community — was Roth’s last, although he didn’t know it at the time.”

“I didn’t know it would be my last book,” he recalled in a 2013 interview with NPR. “But I was months trying to start something new, and I wasn’t having any success, and it occurred to me I didn’t have to do this anymore. I’ve been doing it since about 1955 and so I gradually stopped writing, and found that it was very pleasant, and indeed I haven’t written for several years now.”

Retirement suited the author well. For someone who spent the past five decades writing six to seven days a week, not having to wake up and head to his desk to work was a burden lifted. “It was a constant mental activity, really,” he reflected. “And now I just listen, and it’s quite nice. I go home and go to sleep. It was on my shoulders all my life, so I really didn’t even know it was on my shoulders.”

For the acclaimed Roth, who was one of the most awarded authors of his time — throughout his career, he received the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral — writing never got any easier, despite his immense success over time. The act of putting words on paper was positively tortuous for Roth.

Solving the problem of the book you’re writing always remains hard work, and your progress is snail-like. Even if you write a book in two years, sometimes you get a page a day, sometimes you get no pages. Every sentence raises a problem, and essentially what you’re doing is connecting one sentence to the next. And you write a sentence and you have to figure out what comes next or what doesn’t come next.

At 80, Philip Roth Reflects On Life, Literature And The Beauty Of Naps | NPR

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Philip Roth’s daily writing routine

In the late 1990s, Roth retreated to an isolated farmhouse in Connecticut where he wrote most of the novels following American Pastoral. There, he spent most of his waking hours writing at his standing desk, swimming, and going out for walks in the woods whenever he got stuck with work.

“I find it very congenial to live in the natural beauty of the place I have in Connecticut,” Roth told The Guardian. “I work during the day, do some exercise late in the day and so I haven’t lost contact with what I’ve been doing all day.”

In an interview with David Remnick for Reporting: Writings from The New Yorker, he gave readers a glimpse of a typical day in his writing life.

I live alone, there’s no one else to be responsible for or to, or to spend time with. My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning–this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens–and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.

Reporting: Writings from The New Yorker | David Remnick

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