Pen to Paper

by Matthew Koslowski on April 14, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

The Mystery of the Messy Notebooks: Why Agatha Christie’s method was utterly deranged by Christine Kenneally, Slate, April 12, 2010.
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Letters on Life: New Prose Translations by Rainer Maria Rilke (Ulrich Baer, ed. and trans.)

On Monday, I was reading Slate. What inspired me to read it that day, I am not sure: it has not been one of the sources that I regularly turn to for my news.

Perhaps because I want to be a writer myself, I have always found it fascinating to listen to stories about how artists, musicians, and authors create their work. Without any real study, the descriptions of the creative process stick with me.

For example, years ago I listened to part of an interview with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. (Perhaps the entire band was being interviewed, my memory is vague.) I remember nothing about that interview, save this one thing: R.E.M. records the music without Michael Stipe present and then they give him the rough cut on a tape. He walks around listening to the tape again and again until he is able to put words to the music.

But I am glad that I decided to read Slate this week. Otherwise I would have missed a great article about the writing process that Agatha Christie employed. If you can call how Agatha Christie wrote a “process.”

A Little Here, A Little There, Maybe a Little Lost

John Curran studied 73 of Agatha Christie’s notebooks and published a book on them that after reading the article in Slate I desperately want to read, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making.

Christie did not work sequentially through one notebook. According to Christine Kenneally’s article, Curran was able to trace three notebooks that Christie used for “at least 17 years and 17 novels.” She would write her thoughts in whatever notebook was nearest at hand when she needed to write, as long as it had empty pages to fill.

And Christie did not separate her writing life from her personal life in the notebooks. Grocery lists and bridge scores adorn the pages. Her husband’s calculations and notes are there too, as well as her daughter’s penmanship exercises.

Though not a method I would like to employ, Christie’s method has me captivated. Did the search for bits and pieces of story through multiple notebooks remind her of devices she’d used previously? Remind her of ideas she had had long ago and discarded only to realize how they could be employed now?

Two Pens

I envy Curran the opportunity to study one his beloved author’s notebooks. What wouldn’t I give up if someone gave me the opportunity to study Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters and notebooks? How could I even begin to ascribe a value to seeing his writing process, watching his chipping the raw stone of an idea down until it becomes a fully sculpted poem?

But I will need to learn German first, if that dream has any chance of becoming a reality. (It’s on my to do list after mastering Italian.)

Although I do not much care for the book Letters on Life, I am grateful for having read the introduction. In the introduction, Baer describes the poet sitting at his desk and staring at two pens: one dedicated to his Muse, exclusively for use in crafting of poetry; the other dedicated to life, used for correspondence and grocery lists.

This is all I know of the poet’s method. And it may be a fiction.

I wonder if I had looked further in Letters on Life what I might have found on Rilke’s method. The book lifts excerpts from Rilke’s massive correspondence and arranges them, without context or addressee, into sections. Perhaps there was a section on craft that I missed by trying to read the book sequentially, rather than using it as Baer had intended.

The Terror of the Blank Page

Although I know little about the process of Rilke but much of his work, those elements of knowledge are reversed when it comes to Stephen King.

Since college some of my friends who write have been recommending that I read On Writing but I have resisted. A snobbish sentiment long prevented me from reading it. Although he is a New York Times Bestselling Author, I think of Stephen King’s work as pulp writing. I admit this is a prejudiced opinion: I can claim to vividly remember reading only one story by King, about a laundry press that develops a taste for human blood, and may have read a few other stories from that collection.

I am glad to have had the good sense to challenge my prejudice at least in regards to On Writing. And I think that I may further challenge it by borrowing my girlfriend’s copy of Hearts in Atlantis.

Stephen King sits down every day and writes. He carries a book with him wherever he goes because he is as passionate about reading as he is about writing. Although I don’t know if he writes long hand or on a computer or how he organizes his drafts, I doubt his method resembles the one employed by Agatha Christie. After he finishes a draft, he puts in a drawer for months — a technique that even Horace advises — until he has half forgotten the story.

The advice that I’ve read in On Writing is the same that I’ve read in The Lie That Tells a Truth by John Dufresne or The Writing Life by Annie Dillard or an article by Andre Dubus in The Writer Magazine from the 1960s which was reprinted recently or The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.

Glue your ass to a chair and write. Face the terror of the blank page and realize it is not so terrifying.

Whatever method you use — whether it resembles Agatha Christie’s or a more orderly method — nothing will happen unless you put pen to paper or fingers to keys.

Since dedicating myself to fulfilling my dream on April 2nd — 12 days ago now — I have written 8 of the last 12 days. From those eight hours of work, I have grown my novel from the seed of three handwritten pages to 55 handwritten pages.

And if I can keep this up, perhaps my oeuvre will rival Agatha Christie’s: 66 novels, 22 plays, over 140 short stories, and many poems.


3 Responses to “Pen to Paper”
  1. Jess says:

    I’m really happy to see you writing nearly every night and witness not only the progress of your novel but also your sense of fulfillment as the pages get filled! Keep up the good work!!

    Also, I loved Hearts in Atlantis, despite the fact that I generally finds Steven Kings writing too dark and intense for my liking. For the longest time, I had a quote from the novel posted on my bathroom mirror, because it struck me so. Anyhow, enjoy when you get around to it!

  2. Jess says:

    Oh, another note, I like the two pen idea (at least if you live in a world where you can actually keep track of specific pens). I think it’s neat, at least on some level, that he seperates out his poetry from his standard writing activities, as if to make it a sacred activity and it were the pen itself that gave him his power over words. Interesting.

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    In fact, I liked the story about Rilke’s two pens that I decided to emulate it. If you’ve ever looked closely, you may have noticed that my two Park Sonnet fountain pens are a little different. The first one I bought has a matte black finish; the second, a lacquer black finish. I bought the lacquer pen for my writing but it doesn’t have the same heft as the matte pen. It doesn’t feel weighty enough to convey my thoughts, if that makes any sense.