Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you felt, “Well, that’s something”?
By the time I was in college, I was writing a lot of poetry that was being published in tiny journals and was winning little student prizes and things like that. And I think that was probably the first time that I began to think of myself as a writer who was producing work that was of merit, at least for the age that I was.
I actually visited my high school literary magazine yesterday — I grew up in San Francisco. And they had found some of my old poetry on file and given it to me. And it was pretty interesting to read. It was lousy of course. But I felt like it still had some respectability to it.
It was two poems that I had written shortly after I had started having sex, and so they’re both about love and sex. And so of course they’re mortifying. But they have an air of detachment, I guess, and one of them rhymes. And it’s interesting to me that I was already trying to find an acceptable format for perhaps embarrassing ideas.
Do you still write poetry?
I still do sometimes. I don’t do anything with it. When I was in college, my poems started getting longer and longer and more and more narrative. And I have a very clear memory of talking to a poetry professor of mine who finally said to me very gently that there was actually a tradition of long, non-line-based narrative poetry called “prose” [laughter]. And it was like he just took me across the hallway or something [and said] “There is this thing you can do in which you don’t have to worry that your sentences are long and that you seem to be telling a story.”
[While plotting out An Unfortunate Series of Events] I tried to discipline myself to be undisciplined. I wanted to get there and feel like there were all these vistas to explore, and not that it was a specific path that I’d already assigned myself.
So in high school you didn’t write much in the way of short stories?
No, I don’t think so. I think I did it from time to time. But you have so little time, or at least I had so little time in high school and in college that the idea of buckling down to work on long pieces of prose just seemed impossible to me.
When you wrote your first published book, The Basic Eight, had you already written any unpublished novels?
I’d written one novel right after college that I wrote and then rewrote and then threw away.
With that very first book, what do you think helped you make it through from beginning to end?
Well, I was writing a novel in a basement apartment that I’d finagled getting for free on campus the year after graduating. And I had a small grant and a job playing piano for modern dance classes. And although I was fairly happy (one of the reasons I had stayed on for another year is that my then-girlfriend, now-wife was a year behind me in school), it was a very self-conscious position to be in because there was so much of it that stank of being a loser — that I was still in Middletown, Connecticut, the year after I graduated. And I was afraid I was one of those guys — there were always a few of those guys who would keep on going to college parties for years afterward. So even though no one was reading the work that I was doing, I felt a great sense of sort of overcoming the personal stigma of what I was doing by actually producing what I said I was doing.
Daniel Handler is the author of the bestsellingA Series of Unfortunate Events (under the pen name Lemony Snicket), a collection of books for children. He’s also written three books for adults: The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and, most recently, Adverbs. In addition to his writing, Handler’s an accomplished musician and has played accordion on a number of recordings including the acclaimed 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields.
I guess so. Although I’m not plagued with a lot of feelings of loserdom, or as many as I was when I was young, I think that’s still what keeps me going — needing to continue to justify not doing anything else. I sit in my office all day long. And if people said to me, “So what have you done this week? You’ve been in your office — I don’t know what you’re working on,” and I said, “Nothing really. There’s just a lot of great stuff on YouTube that I’ve been watching,” I would be incredibly ashamed of myself.
I’m casting it in a somewhat negative light. The positive light would be, I have this opportunity and I want to make the most of it. But to be honest, I have more of a feeling that I shouldn’t slack when such an opportunity is presented to me rather than the joy of taking advantage of the opportunity.
Do you have a particular writing routine that you stick day to day?
I try to write from about nine to three, Monday through Friday. I have a little bit of time in the morning where I answer a few emails and things like that. And then after three o’clock, I take a walk and get food for dinner and cook it. And that’s pretty much my day….
I used to feel sort of sheepish stopping at three because I thought, everyone I know has to stay at work later, and here I am taking a walk and not doing anything. And it took a while to think, well, that counts as working actually. And that’s what it feels like to me now, that it’s essential to me that at the end of a long period of working there be a few hours where my brain just runs free. And I don’t force myself to think about some problem I’m wrestling with but often one comes to me anyway. And even if it doesn’t, I think it’s sort of worthwhile time for the brain.
Are there any mental tricks you use to help you focus and get to work when you’re feeling dry or uninspired?
No, not really. I used to feel very frustrated by that, and then I became friends with Stephen Merritt [from the band The Magnetic Fields], who’s this songwriter I admire a lot — he and I have worked together on a few things. One day I was working with him on a project. We’d worked all day. We were in a diner, and we kept getting pots of tea, and we weren’t arguing per se, but we were sort of wrestling with a problem from two opposing strategies, and neither of our strategies was working. And we plowed ahead anyway and wrote some material that we both knew was lousy and not working, and so we discarded it.
And then at the very end of the day, we came up with a plan that we both thought would be better when we started to work the next day. And I remember, we were leaving the diner and going to go to meet some friends for a cocktail, and I just thought, what a total waste. And he said, “This is great, I’m really glad we did this.” And he wasn’t being chipper or self-help-y. He just honestly meant that he saw that as a valuable part of the creative process — that there was a time of great difficulty, and [then] a sudden, tiny piece of paper is slid under the door of the mind that has a workable strategy….
Since that time, I sort of love it when things are going badly because I know that means that soon things will go well. I just stay at my desk, and I say, “There’s no shame in writing crap,” knowing that it’s good for the brain because meanwhile, in some corner, something is getting nudged. And I’ve used that strategy ever since.
When I teach writing classes, which isn’t that often, the first thing I do is I walk in and say, “OK, everybody write something for fifteen minutes.” And then, at the end of fifteen minutes I say, “Who has anything good?” And there are always a couple of people who think they have something good, but everyone else is terrified that I’m going to call on them. And I make everyone else throw away what they’ve written and I say, “That’s a super important lesson — you get things done on paper. That’s really important. And then, when they’re bad, you get rid of them.” To me that’s much more valuable than working for an hour and saying, “You know what? It just doesn’t seem like the muse is with me today,” and then taking the rest of the day off.
The interview continues in Part Two