“Writing is a muscle,” I tell my students. “The more you use it, the stronger it gets.” If that’s so, then I recently acquired an alarming new insight into what you might call the athletics of writing. I wrote most of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, which is 40,000 words long, in February and March (I spent most of January working my way out of a false start). Other than scaling back sharply on my blogging, I did so without giving up any of my other regular writing commitments. I had to make an April 1 deadline, not only because of the exigencies of book production but also in order to pay my taxes, Harcourt having previously agreed to disburse this year’s chunk of my Balanchine-Louis Armstrong advance on delivery of the finished manuscript. (Such is the freelance writer’s life!) So unlike most deadlines, which can be surprisingly elastic, I knew this one was the real wrong thing.
What made the last few days of work especially hard was that four of my print-media deadlines, including my regular Washington Post and Commentary articles and a Wall Street Journal theater review, happened to fall in the last week of March. In addition, I had a long-standing commitment to fly to North Carolina on April 2 to look at Carolina Ballet. I’d been hoping to get at least one piece out of the way early, but as the end of the month drew ever nearer, I realized that I’d painted myself into a corner: I’d have to write all four pieces in four days, starting as soon as All in the Dances was in the bag. I cancelled as many evening engagements as I could and made a point of going to bed as early as possible each night, but beyond that there wasn’t much I could do except keep on working.
I did, however, have a bit of time for introspection, and as April 1 approached, I realized, somewhat to my surprise, that everything was getting easier. The last three chapters of the book seemed to write themselves, and the four pieces poured out of my head without incident. Not only did I line-edit the complete manuscript of All in the Dances in a single ten-hour marathon, but on April 1, the day after I delivered the manuscript to Harcourt, I wrote a 4,000-word essay for Commentary in one day-long sitting, correcting the proofs the next morning as I waited for my plane. (My Commentary essays normally take two or three days to write.)
What happened? Was it simply that my mind had been concentrated wonderfully by the prospect of a hanging? Or might it be that the more you work, the more you can work? I think both factors probably played a part. Whenever the going gets tough, my friends typically hear me mutter James Burnham’s mantra, “If there’s no alternative, there’s no problem.” I must have said it at least a couple of hundred times last month. But I also believe that simply by virtue of the fact that I had been exercising my writing muscle so regularly for so extended a period of time, the act of writing came more easily to me. Granted, I have the gift of facility, and daily blogging has honed it still further (I don’t think I could have finished All in the Dances in three months if I hadn’t spent the preceding six months writing “About Last Night”), but I can’t remember any other time in my life when I’ve been so prolific for so long a period.
When it was all over, of course, I crashed. I was so wired that first weekend that I watched two back-to-back performances of Robert Weiss’ Messiah without blinking, but within a day or two of my return to New York, I was sleeping for ten hours at a stretch. I could barely bring myself to write anything at all. Only in the last few days have I started to feel more or less like myself, and I’m still not quite back at the top of my game: it took me twice as long as usual to write this week’s theater column, nor have I yet resumed anything remotely approaching my usual performance schedule.
All this makes me wonder about the ultimate capacity of the brain for work. People who write for a living know that writing is at least partly a physical act (my body temperature goes up when I’m working). At the same time, the role of the mind in writing is unpredictable, often weirdly so. I’ve always admired those businesslike novelists who rise early each weekday and hammer out a thousand words before lunch, but I’ve never been one of them: I start writing shortly before a piece is due, almost always at the last practicable moment. And while years of daily journalism long ago broke me of writer’s block, I frequently feel an aversion to the act of writing, a species of accidie that can be all but impossible to overcome. Is it a simple failure of will? Or might it be a signal from my mind that I’m not quite ready to start writing a piece and need to lay fallow a little while longer?
It may be that my nightmarish February and March gave me a distorted glimpse of what it would feel like to be a thousand-word-a-day man, churning out prose according to a strict schedule. Or perhaps what I was experiencing was closer to an addiction, one so powerful that all other aspects of life receded before the categorical imperative of satisfying the daily craving. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it–or, to be exact, I don’t like it. During that last week of intense work, I felt exhilarated and exhausted at the same time. Now I feel as if I were a machine that overheated, or bent a gear after being run too fast. I don’t much care to think of myself as a machine, but it comes pretty close to describing the sensation of having written far too much for far too long.