Why Writers Can’t Write Alike

Written by Kevin LaTorre

Without a doubt, one of the most mythologized aspects of celebrities today is the strangeness of their preparations. On the basketball court, Michael Jordan slipped into his Tar Heels shorts, and Bill Russell vomited into his toilet bowl. On the ice, Alex Ovechkin made sure to, well, properly relax before and after his hockey games. The quirks of athletes, meant to induce the right mindset for the competition, strike the average person as bizarre. But the daily schedules of writers are no different. Readers marvel at the various oddities of these creatives, and in time, mythologize the myth-makers. Whether writers work early or late, sober or not, readers will always be intrigued by their days’ meticulous arrangements. Why? These men and women have found gold at the end of their constructed rainbows. We, as good little checkers-of-boxes, want to know what it took to climb the dazzling colors. As if it were only a hop, skip, and jump.

The occasion for this navel-gazing (and mild writer-congratulating) is Nick Greene’s recent article at VICE, titled “I Copied the Routines of Famous Writers and It Sucked.” The routines selected for emulation belonged to Haruki Murakami, Franz Kafka, Maya Angelou, Honoré de Balzac, Don DeLillo, Natalie Goldberg, William Gibson, and Hunter S. Thompson. Their habits mixed and matched times of day, exercises, locations, pilates, and obscene amounts of caffeine and cocaine. Greene decided to try everything for a whole day, wisely foregoing the coke. He met little success, and ultimately “decided to follow whatever routine [he] wanted, so long as it gave [him] time to write.” A published writer himself, Greene doubtlessly knew as much already, and the apparent lack of new understanding makes me wonder why his eight-day trial proved fruitless.

There’s more at work than just the obvious brevity of Greene’s stunt-like effort. Greene thinks like a writer, and so he has at least his foot in the door of where these literary greats were coming from. So why couldn’t he recreate their creative rhythms?

It comes down to unique workings of each creative mind. Creative impulses aren’t like identical coins, to be inserted into a vending machine. They are instead the fragile orchids of the mental garden. To grow organically, each one must be specifically nurtured. Only the writer can know how to go about the ins and outs of the process, as only that writer has experienced that exact impulse. Each garden is exclusive to its gardener. Ham-fisted Toby from across the street can’t waltz into my planted rows and know exactly where the light will fall, nor how much water my plants require. If he did, it wouldn’t be my garden, and I wouldn’t get to call the plants mine.

This line of thought—to me, barely communicable without metaphors—demonstrates why Greene’s forays into other routines gave only slim pickings. His headspace just isn’t the same as Kafka’s or Angelou’s or Gibson’s, even though he tried to faithfully recreate their habits. His writing mind couldn’t slip into mine, even if he decided to scrawl poetry into a faded notebook in the Carothers lounge after an hour of clanging away at its piano. Writers don’t make jackets for communal wearing; they make communal stories.

While Greene’s trial run seems to have mostly been for comic effect, it does point out that there is no common translation of the creative process. Despite all the attempts by standardized testing to insure otherwise, minds still do not work alike. And why should they? Individual minds can create extraordinary things. Let’s have our quirks, our oddballs, our eccentricities, and our time to write. There are myths to make, and no figurative prisoners to take.

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