How I Write

A piece that appeared in UK’sTime Out magazine

How I Write
by Niall Williams

It is morning. Lately it seems always it is raining. I go into the conservatory we added to the front of the two-hundred year old stone cottage here in west Clare where I have lived now for nearly twenty-five years. There is glass on three sides and the rain streams down. This is the rain that in the novelJohnbecame the water running down inside the cave of the Apostle on the island of Patmos in the first century. It is the rain that swept across the western island of Isabel and Nicholas inFour Letters of Love. The Atlantic is not far. In front of me is a large garden. All year it seems I am in here writing and looking out at it, or out there working in it and looking in at whatever characters I am writing now. Beyond the garden is a green valley. Beyond the hedge line are Hayes’ hill fields where a large herd of cattle stand backsides to the wind or move out of a mucked corner when the rain eases.

I like to write out here, for I am neither quite in the house nor in the garden but in a between place as it were where it seems my imagination belongs. I write usually only in the mornings. I remember hearing John Irving say that when he first began as a writer he could only write for two or three hours but had afterwards trained himself to concentrate for eight hours at a time and so be able to produce many more pages. I cannot imagine this, not because I think the writing precious or the words to be spared, but because it is simply so difficult. The difficulties are many and seem not to get any easier as the books go by. In each day that I have written here in this house for twenty five years, trying to find the right words, to make the page come alive, there has always been that voice asking:is it any good?And very often, in the quiet of the day here between the garden and the house, I hear the answer:no. So the delete button on the laptop scythes away the sentences and I begin again. The rain falls, the cattle return to shelter.

How do I write? One word at a time. I get a sentence. I say it out loud. ‘The sun rising, a bell is rung.’—the opening ofJohn. I say it again. The closest I have come to explaining the process is that the first sentence feels like the tip of a thread. I pull it very gently. Another sentence. And again I try, teasing out phrase after phrase and hoping that the thread will not break. It is as if before me there is an invisible garment of which only one thread can be seen. Each day I draw it out a little further. On the last day of writing a novel, maybe two years later, the garment has become visible and seemed always to be there. I go out the door into the garden and just stand and think:that was hard.

But so, so wonderful.

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