Writing Routines

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Writing Routine: “I got to that point by writing a lot, reading a lot, and enduring a lot.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American novelist, best-known for his 2016 debut novel, The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Plan for the long haul. If you’re extremely talented and lucky, you’ll be famous in a few years. Most of us, including me, are neither that talented nor lucky. It took me 20 years of writing before I could write The Sympathizer. I got to that point by writing a lot, reading a lot, and enduring a lot.

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For a writer, having all the time in the world to work on your project sounds like the ultimate dream. No full-time job to juggle, no waking up extra early in the mornings or staying up past midnight to get down your thoughts; you could dedicate the whole day to writing. Unfortunately for Viet Thanh Nguyen, he learnt the hard way that sometimes having too much time on your hands can be a bad thing for your writing routine.

While the Vietnamese-American author has become a household name over the past several years, thanks to the acclaim for his 2015 debut novel The Sympathizer — which later won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — Nguyen had been working on his craft for over 20 years.

Born in Vietnam in 1971, Nguyen and his family escaped to the United States after the fall of Saigon when he was just 4 years old. The family first arrived in Pennsylvania, then later settled in San Jose, California, where Nguyen grew up and completed a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in English and Ethnic Studies Berkeley. In 1997, he moved to Los Angeles to become an assistant professor at the University of Southern California in both the English Department, and in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department.

“I started writing fiction semi-seriously when I was in college,” Nguyen told Electric Literature. “But I felt I was a better scholar than a fiction writer, so I decided to pursue academia and graduate school. I thought that I would write fiction on the side and when I got tenure, I’d concentrate on the fiction more fully.”

Nguyen continued to juggle teaching and writing until 2004, when he accepted a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was during this time that Nguyen learnt having eight hours a day to dedicate to writing wasn’t the dream that it sounded like.

“That was really my first sustained opportunity to devote myself purely to writing,” he recalled in an interview. “I thought: I’m going to write eight hours a day. And it was a disaster because I would exhaust myself.”

After his learning lesson at the Fine Arts Work Center, Nguyen switched up his approach, from writing eight hours a day to only four. “There’s something about writing that, to me, is much more exhausting than office work, for example, or academic work, which I can do eight hours a day or more,” he admitted. “For me, four hours seems to be the right amount.”

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Viet Thanh Nguyen’s daily writing routine

Nguyen would stick with this same routine during the writing of The Sympathizer — working for four hours a day, every day of the week. After his work was done for the day, he would head off to the gym and run on the treadmill for an hour. Inspired by Haruki Murakami — a Japanese author who was known for competing in marathons and triathlons — Nguyen’s treadmill sessions would generate a lot of ideas for the novel.

“That’s how I plotted the novel, because I only had a two-page synopsis when I began,” Nguyen explained. “I had the broad strokes, but the details came from the running and the momentum of writing. I wrote a chapter a month, which included a first draft and a revision. By the end of the second year, I had a full draft that had already been revised once. I did one more revision in a few months, and that was what was sold. It was 170,000 words.”

Upon its release in 2015, The Sympathizer received critical acclaim and was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice pick. While sales were decent to begin with — around 30,000 copies — after Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize, and later, the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for best first novel, the novel went on to sell over more than a million copies worldwide. In between that time, Nguyen and his wife, Lan Duong, also welcomed their first child, Ellison.

Since then, Nguyen’s writing routine has changed. He described a typical writing day post-Pulitzer and post-child in a subsequent interview:

Now I’m lucky if I get two or three hours in the morning, but I typically want to write in the morning. Then I still try to make it to the gym in the afternoon. I believe that having a healthy body helps me to write. Ideally, if I could go to bed at the same time as my son around 9 PM and then get up at 4 in the morning to write, I’d do that. But it hasn’t worked out that way because I’m a night owl, so it’s been a huge struggle to try to go to sleep earlier. So typically, no. I have to take care of him and take him to school, and I’m not back until 9:30 or 10:00. That’s really my time to write.

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On the dreaded topic of writer’s block, Nguyen has revealed in several interviews that he has never been cursed with the affliction. Part of the reason for that was he always had multiple projects on the go. “I don’t know what other writers do, but when I finish something, I’ll celebrate for a day, then I’ll go right back to writing,” he told GQ. “There’s always a project.”

You get up and you go and run every day, or as many days of the week as you can, for as long as you can, and you do it over and over and over and over until you can’t do it anymore, and it is an experience that is both repetitive and inspiring, painful and exhilarating. That’s writing.

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