Writing Routines

Richard Powers’ Writing Routine: “Write or don’t write, but be there.”

Richard Powers is an American author, best-known for his novel, The Echo Maker, which won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction, and The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Attend to your story; sit and stare at it on the screen; write or don’t write, but be there, your mind clear of any other distractions, preferably all at one stretch, for several hours a day, five days a week, month after month after month, if you’d like to try to write a long piece of fiction.

Richard Powers | North Central Review

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Richard Powers was taking a walk in the woods one day. The American novelist and university professor was in California where he was teaching a course on creative writing at Stanford. Surrounded by tech behemoths like Google, Apple, Intel, HP, Facebook, and Netflix, Powers would head up to the Santa Cruz mountains whenever he wanted to disconnect and be amongst nature. It was during one of those trips that he was inspired to write his 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory.

“When I came down from the mountains that day, I began to read,” Powers said in an interview with PBS. “I read how 98 percent of the old-growth redwood forests had been cut down, and that figure would have been close to 100 percent, if not for ordinary, non-political people who, only a few years ago, decided that 98 percent was enough.”

After a renowned writing career dating back to the 1980s, where he wrote stories that wove in themes from science and technology, Powers was obsessed about these trees. He went on to read over 120 books and moved to the Great Smoky Mountains for his research for Overstory.

Over the next several years, Powers would continue to work on the novel, writing and re-writing the drafts. He would have spent longer on the book had it not been for Donald Trump winning the 2016 US presidential election.

“When the Trump administration began overnight to undo a half century of hard-won, bipartisan environmental protection, even opening some of the last few remnants of public old-growth forest to logging, I knew it was time to publish the book,” Powers revealed. “I would happily have kept working on it for much longer, otherwise.”

Richard Powers’ daily writing routine

In 2020, during an interview with GQ, Powers explained how during the process of writing his 12th novel and living in the Great Smoky Mountains, his daily work routine had changed and adapted to his surrounding environments.

For most of my life, the ritual was to get to work at seven or eight in the morning and work for five or six hours, until I had 1,000 words I was proud of. Then the afternoon was mine, to read or edit or go outside. That changed quite a bit since I moved down to the Smokies. Now my routine is contingent on what the world is doing: the weather, the time of year, how high the rivers are, what’s blooming. When you live like that, your work becomes more robust and efficient. If I start to walk in the woods, I’m usually overcome with ideas. I have to sit down on the trail, with a notebook. I never feel like I’m slogging through my work anymore. I used to say that if I didn’t get my 1,000 words, I would feel very anxious. Now I say that if I don’t get my miles in, I’ll feel anxious.

Author Richard Powers on How the Virus Reminds Us that Humans Aren’t In Control | GQ

Published April 3, 2018, The Overstory was received with acclaim. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, the novel also received the William Dean Howells Medal and was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. The process of working on the book, however, had left Powers so drained that he questioned whether he would even write again.

“I was thinking, maybe this is it, maybe I’ve earned the right to just enjoy the woods,” Powers told The New York Times. “Why do we have this idea that artists have to keep going?”

Fortunately for the literary world, Powers didn’t stop writing. In 2021, he published Bewilderment, a spiritual successor to The Overstory. “I wrote a book that asked a very hard question, which is, why are we so lost and how can we possibly get back,” he explained. “I thought, now you’ve asked the question, why not write a story about what that change would look like?”

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