Happy birthday, Renata Adler

"I have met very few writers who write at all."

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Illustrator and writer Hallie Bateman on welcoming weed into her creative process and letting go of guilt.

Renata Adler (b. 1937)

Today is Adler’s 83rd birthday. A film critic at the New York Times in the late 1960s, and a staff writer for the New Yorker in the 1960s and ‘70s, Adler is probably best known today for her two novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, published in 1976 and 1983, respectively, but republished in 2013 to widespread acclaim. The former is about a young journalist who, in Meghan O’Rourke’s words, “chronicles her life in a fragmentary, knowing fashion, shifting back and forth in time, and drifting around in the way that writers do,” and it contains one of the best descriptions of the so-called writing life that I’m aware of:

I often wonder about the people who linger over trash baskets at the corners of the city’s sidewalks. One sees them day and night, young and old, well dressed, in rags—often without shopping bags—picking over the trash. They pick out newspapers, envelopes. They discard things. I often wonder who they are and what they’re after. I approach and cannot ask them. Anyway, they scurry off. Sometimes I think they are writers who do not write. That “writers write” is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.

Renata Adler and Joan Didion in 1978, via @QueenMobs

As for how Adler got her own writing done, she described the process in a 1983 New York magazine profile:

I wake up at five or six, I have breakfast, I think, “I should be writing.” And then I think, “Well, maybe after a little nap.” And that way several years pass. Truly, several years pass.

Sounds about right. For more of Adler’s work, check out After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction, published in 2015.

The cover of the aforementioned issue of New York magazine, which I discovered thanks to @alexLronan.

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Next Monday I’ll be sending out the latest installment of my monthly advice column. I’ve already received more creative dilemmas than I can address by then—but please do keep your questions coming and I will, eventually, try to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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(Read my past advice here.)

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