Author and professor Joseph Bates admits that when he was a student, he had the idea that teachers, especially at the university level, worked just a few hours a day (i.e. the time they stood in front of a classroom). A member of the creative writing faculty at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he now knows all too well that teaching is a round-the-clock job—planning lectures, reading and commenting on student work, and taking care of administrative duties. Still, he has found a balance between his day job and his own writing and has published a book, The Nighttime Novelist, to help other writers who juggle a day job and a writing life to make the most of their precious creative time.
Here, Dr. Bates takes time away from grading his stacks of student essays and stories and his own novel writing to answer a few questions about his creative habits and The Nighttime Novelist.
We imagine your job as a university professor claims most of your hours during the day. Are you a Nighttime Novelist yourself? When are your favorite/most productive writing times?
You’re asking the hardest—and most pertinent—question right off the bat: Do you practice what you preach? Let me be honest: teaching is very hard work. … There’s a natural shape and pacing to the job, though, like any job … periods when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and overworked, followed by quieter points, and the trick of it is to use those lulls not to flip channels, sit on the couch, drool on yourself—which is maybe your default after working so strenuously—but to write. That’s the trick every writer faces.
Especially at the beginning of a new semester, when everyone’s still finding their footing, I am indeed a Nighttime Novelist. After that I’m a Weekend Novelist (until Sunday afternoon, when I catch up on my school work and start planning for the week ahead) and a Holiday Novelist (fall and spring breaks, Christmas break, scattered one-day breaks here and there, and of course the granddaddy of them all, summertime).
Normal people get a night off, or a day off, or a weekend, and they think, “Great! I can rest!” Writers get a night off and think, “Great! I can work!” And sometimes it’s very hard work. But my favorite times to write are when a story or a character has begun revealing itself to me, and I can’t wait to get back to it, to see what the character or story will do next.
What inspires you to keep your butt in the chair after long days of teaching and grading?
Depending on the day? Curiosity. Passion. Habit. Guilt.
All of these have their place, and of all of them, habit is probably the most useful. If you can write when you’re passionless, talentless, and completely unmotivated, I think you’ll go far as a writer; those are the times when others get frustrated and give up.
Beyond that, what motivates me to sit down and write is to get the voices down on paper, so they’ll stop yammering in my head. I don’t ever stop writing, even when it’s been a while since I put butt in chair. Driving to work, walking across campus, standing in line at the supermarket, getting an oil change … I’m writing almost the whole time in my head, trying to solve certain problems, trying to get a feel for the story or characters I’m working on. The story’s always talking to me, and if I don’t get down what it says, the voices just pile up in there. I’ve got to get them down to see what I think about what they’re saying.
What do you think your day job contributes to your writing life that you’d miss if you didn’t work?
I’m surrounded by people who are passionate about writing and literature, and that’s a luxury. I can’t tell you the number of times that even a simple coffee shop conversation with a colleague (or a student) has ended with me reaching for a notebook to jot down the name of some new author I hadn’t heard of, or some classic book I’d missed.
Writing can seem like the loneliest profession in the world: You sequester yourself in a little room, close yourself off from the world, in order, ironically, to try to connect with the world. But there are whole communities of like-minded people out there you can share the experience with—who can give you the right bit of advice or encouragement when you’re in need of it, or the name of a journal you might send your work to, or an editor you might contact, or even the name of a novel, short story, poem, or essay that, you realize later, you needed at that particular moment, to help you along.
Most writers have to seek those communities out, and they should. I’m just lucky I get to work in one.
What was your favorite aspect of writing The Nighttime Novelist?
Getting to pass along those a-ha moments about fiction writing I’d come to the hard way—by complete accident, bumbling into epiphany—so that others can hopefully learn from them. I’ve had wonderful teachers over the years, both in the classroom and from my bookshelf, and I’m indebted to all of them for what they’ve given me. But the most epiphanic moments I’ve had in terms of thinking about the creative process have to do with lessons rarely lectured on in a classroom, or read about in a craft book: that you have to allow yourself to be surprised by the direction of the work, know when to step in and take control and when to get out of your own way. That you don’t write to show how much you already know, in a look-at-me kind of way, but to discover what you know, to put your ideas (about the world, relationships, human nature) to the test, page by page, and see if those ideas hold up. That a single well-wrought image can not only do more to concretize an object, idea, or character than pages of piled-on description ever could, but that a single well-wrought image has the power to lift up a reader’s heart, or seize it, or break it into pieces.
Practical, everyday instruction is important in a creative writing classroom and text, just as it’s important to a writer’s development, and there’s a lot of it in The Nighttime Novelist. But trying to reduce the artistic process to a set of instructions and component parts only—do this, do this, do this—takes one just so far. I hope I’ve managed to convey some of the mystery and spooky powers of the process, those moments that surprise and delight a reader because they surprised and delighted the writer first.
If I help demystify the mystical at least a little bit, and help someone get to the next level with their work, I’d be very pleased.
Please talk a little bit about the book’s structure—breaking writing instruction down into short lessons on basic technique, common writing obstacles, and more advanced aspects of storytelling. Why is this particularly valuable for the Nighttime Novelist?
The primary reason is, Nighttime Novelists have limited, precious time. I didn’t want someone to think, Okay, I’ve got a little bit of time to write tonight. So let’s go read the first hundred pages of The Nighttime Novelist! The short chapters, broken into Techniques, Hurdles, and Going Deeper sections, allow one to pick up and put down the book as needed, to comb through in moments where the work has become stuck and hopefully to find a brief chapter, lesson, or exercise that’d help solve the problem at hand, or inspire new directions or ideas to get the work moving again.
Of course, the book can be read straight through from chapter to chapter, too, and I’d encourage a first reading this way, particularly for beginning writers. The book starts with finding and developing initial ideas, and it works through all stages of a novel project thereafter. But the structure makes the book something that can be read again, kept close by, with the writer looking back as needed, even just flipping through, to find something that’ll help the work stay on track.
What do you hope readers will gain from the book?
I wrote a book I wish someone had handed me starting out: something that offers practical instruction without talking down to the reader while also offering whatever impractical instruction one needs to make it through. Some of the most fun I had writing it, in fact, was doing the first appendix, “Practical Tips for the Nighttime Novelist,” wherein I impart such unacademic advice as “Be ritualistic and superstitious” and “Finish your writing day in the middle of a sentence”… advice you’re unlikely to read in a standard writing text but which, nevertheless, and for whatever reason, works.
My ultimate hope for the book is that it not only instructs but inspires—that a reader would find the book such a help, he’ll keep putting it down to go to the keyboard.
What’s the one tool on (or near) your writing desk that you can’t live without?
An ashtray, unfortunately. But that’s not a very inspiring answer.
For a while I kept a baseball bat near my desk, and I’d pick it up and walk around the room with it when I got stuck. An acoustic guitar works well … strum a few absentminded chords, and whatever problem you’re up against solves itself. I believe a slinky might work fine, too.
What’s the most valuable piece of writing advice anyone’s ever given you?
To care what an audience feels reading your work, but not what they think. If you start worrying about what the audience will think—or, even worse, what they’ll think of you based on what they see your characters doing on the page—you’re doomed.
What’s the worst mistake you think a Nighttime Novelist can make?
Giving up. It’s the only unpardonable sin. All the rest you’ll be forgiven for.
To end on a positive and fun note, what writing-related rituals or superstitions do you have regarding your own work?
Far too many to name. Probably the biggest is location; if I have a good writing day out somewhere, I’ll go back and write there every day until the streak ends, even if the place is clear across town. That way, when the writing dries up, I can say, “That place really doesn’t do it for me anymore.” Rather than saying, for example, “I stink.”
I don’t care if superstitions are silly and irrational and I know better, so long as they do the trick. Wade Boggs, the ballplayer, ate chicken before every single game. Now he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and neither I nor Boggs cares if the chicken had anything to do with it.
Any other parting words of wisdom?
Recognize there’ll be difficult days … bad days, even. There are days when I’m the worst writer who ever mangled the language. But there are also days when I’m unexpectedly pretty good, when everything comes together, and these make every single bad day worth it.