Susan Sontag — How I Write

Mason Currey’s recently published Daily Rituals: How Artists Work mentioned the routines, quirks, and rituals of plenty of creative minds—novelists, painters, poets, philosophers, filmmakers, and scientists—but he missed one of my favorites, Susan Sontag.

She brought us insight such as Three Steps to Refuting Any Argument, Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom, and Common Sense is Always Wrong.

That was all the motivation I needed to go exploring. It didn’t take long before I found this treasure of an interview with The Paris Review, where she details how she writes.

How do you actually write?
I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then 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. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

Is there anything that helps you get started writing?
Reading—which is rarely related to what I’m writing, or hoping to write. I read a lot of art history, architectural history, musicology, academic books on many subjects. And poetry. Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing.

Do you write every day?
No. I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.