Writing like Susan Sontag: Cassie Sheets attempts to cultivate the routines of famous authors

Writing like Susan Sontag: Cassie Sheets attempts to cultivate the routines of famous authors
(Image courtesy of the Susan Sontag archive)

An undisciplined writer attempts to find a steady routine by following the routines of well-known authors, no matter how ridiculous they may be.


Writing Like Susan Sontag

I am not proud to admit this, but I am a writer without a routine. As a college student, I manage to stay on track during the school year, but without the threat of a scary red “F” hanging over my head, my motivation disappears as quickly as an episode of Downton Abbey loads on Netflix. With my college years and the motivating threat of bad grades coming to an end, I’ve been forced to confront a terrifying reality: a writer without a routine doesn’t write.

I’ve tried to develop my own routine several times using online applications. These attempts have failed. Write or Die makes sweat through my shirt, and every time I try to use Written? Kitten! I end up typing “ljkdfajld” one hundred times to get to the picture of a kitten. I don’t even like kittens. The pull of procrastination is just that strong. The problem with procrastination is it takes a lot of time—the very thing I don’t have.

I decided to bring in the big guns. Or rather, steal the routines of the big guns. In this case, “big guns” refers to successful authors, not to be confused with over-developed biceps or large weapons. I owe most of my education to studying the work of writers who came before me, but somehow I’ve failed to learn from how they produced that work. As a new experiment, in an attempt to find my routine, I will adopt the routines of more disciplined writers, starting with Susan Sontag.

Sontag, a fiction writer, essayist, and political activist, outlined her routine in her journal.

“Starting tomorrow—if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)

I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. ('No, I don't go out for lunch.' Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg's Waste Books.)

I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.

I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much—as an escape from writing.)

I will answer letters once a week. (Friday?—I have to go to the hospital anyway.)”

On Monday evening, filled with optimism about my new plan, I skipped to the store to buy supplies. Sontag wrote “with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers.” While I was out, I went to the library and checked out several books—her journals, and two art history books. Sontag read “a lot of art history, architectural history, musicology, academic books on many subjects” in between writing sessions. That night, I set my alarm to 7:50 AM, and fell asleep.

Waking up every morning no later than eight seems like an easy rule. It’s also a surprisingly easy rule to break. After hitting snooze twice, my guilty conscience forced me out of bed at 8:10 AM. I used Sontag’s once-a-week cheat day on the first day. At least I was off to a good start. My normal morning routine involves shoving cereal at my face while I mindlessly scroll down my Tumblr dashboard for an hour, but I had a feeling Sontag wouldn’t approve, so I traded my cereal in for toast and smoked salmon, and illegally downloaded the Vivaldi B Minor pianoforte concerto to listen to while I ate. In her journals, Sontag described the way she’d become “completely engrossed” with this concerto. She called it “one of the most beautiful musical works I’ve ever heard.” I don’t know a lot about music, but I did find myself very soothed, very calmed, very sleepy…

Half an hour later, I woke up on the couch. It was time to get to the writing. Sontag wrote “by hand on a low marble table in the living room.” Since I don’t have a low marble table in my living room, I made due with my rickety Ikea table in the kitchen. The thing about yellow legal pads is that they look so… legal. They’re a very intimidating thing to write on, especially when you’re staring at one of those huge, lined, terribly blank pages comparing yourself to Susan Sontag. I thought writing in the notebook might be an easier way to start. It turns out Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the man behind The Waste Books Sontag modeled her journals after, was also kind of a genius. The Waste Books were a collection of his philosophical thoughts, aphorisms, and witty conclusions about life. It’s easy to see his influence in Sontag’s journals, but it’s a little harder to pick it out of mine. I made a noble effort, but didn’t quite measure up. I did compared life to my breakfast of toast and smoked salmon at one point, but that’s about as philosophical as I got.

After writing in my Waste-of-Paper Books for a couple of hours, I took a break for lunch. I’m a not personal friend of Roger Straus, so I ate solo and flipped through one of the art history books I checked out. I was desperate to read a novel, but I, like Sontag, use reading too much as an escape from writing. I could’ve happily spent the rest of the afternoon with Death Kit as a distraction, but it was time to conquer the yellow legal pads.

Sontag liked the “slowness of writing by hand,” and once I finally got started, I saw why. I found myself thinking more as I wrote. When I’m writing on the computer, it’s easy to press delete and write a word, phrase, or sentence over again. When writing by hand, I had to carefully consider every word as I was writing it, especially when I was on the third page and my hand started to cramp. Writing the wrong word now meant unnecessary physical pain and exertion.

After an hour writing by hand, I followed Sontag’s rules for revision. “I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don't see how to make it any better.” By the end of the first day, I had a few scribbled on pages. By the end of five days of Sontag’s routine, I had a draft of a new short story with considerably fewer corrections on the page.

I broke one of Sontag’s rules consistently: only answering letters on Friday. I feel this is probably a forgivable offense, since Sontag didn’t have to deal with a constant barrage of texts, Facebook messages, and e-mails. I held off on answering until I finished writing for the day.

I chose Sontag’s routine to ease into this experiment because when I was researching routines, it was one of very few I came across that didn’t involve binge drinking or marathon running, but I’m not sure this is a routine I could keep. It was almost too unstructured, even for me, and it wouldn’t be sustainable for most writers who have to work second or third jobs to survive. Sontag admitted she wrote “in spurts.” But I don’t have the luxury of writing only when “the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down.” But maybe my biggest aversion to permanently adopting this routine is how solitary it made me feel. Between writing during the day and reading in the evening, I didn’t find any time to see anyone else, and god knows writing is lonely enough as it is. What worked for Sontag didn’t work for me, but I will keep writing by hand. And tomorrow, I think I’ll start reading her last novel, In America. In the morning. After I wake up at ten.
Quotes pulled from The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction No. 143, Journals & Notebooks (Volumes One and Two)

Cassie Sheets is a student at Columbia College Chicago where she wastes twenty grand a year trying to learn how to write.


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