John Ashbery's writing process was the best writing process
“The longest way is the most efficient way.”
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. This week we’re looking at the American poet John Ashbery. For more poets’ routines, see previous issues on Derek Walcott, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Audre Lorde, and Eileen Myles.
John Ashbery (1927–2017)
Tomorrow would have been Ashbery’s 93rd birthday. In addition to being one of the greatest American poets, Ashbery had one of the greatest writing processes, which he described in a 2015 interview:
My writing process consists of sitting around my apartment in the afternoon, wondering if it’s gotten too late to do any writing. Around 4 or 5 I make myself a cup of tea, which I sip while reading poetry. After a while I either start to write or call it quits for the day. Usually I listen to some contemporary classical music while this is going on. I usually do it several times a month (say 10?) if other things don’t intervene.
John Ashbery in 1971. Photo by Gerard Malanga via the New York Times article “John Ashbery, Poet, in All His Hunky Glory”
If this sounds like a rather wonderful way to live, it had its downsides too. As Ashbery said in another interview:
Perhaps if I spend an hour—or at the most two hours, when I’m feeling really inspired—I’m done for the day, and then there’s the problem of what to do with the other 22 or 23 hours of the day. I feel I should be doing something important. But what?
What indeed? So many of the writers and artists that I’ve featured in this newsletter and in my Daily Rituals books lamented the laborious and torturous nature of their creative process, which they seemed to regard as a sort of holy burden. So it is refreshing to read about someone who didn’t take the process too seriously, and accepted its slowness as an inevitability and even an advantage. As Ashbery put it in the 1998 poem “Just Walking Around”: “the longest way is the most efficient way.”
Ashbery in his New York apartment in 2009. Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP via NPR.org
You can read a selection of Ashbery’s poems at PoetryFoundation.org. Personally, I’m partial to “The Idiot,” “Late Echo,” and “My Erotic Double” (such great titles!). If you need more, Ashbery’s 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is a good place to start.
For more of Ashbery’s thoughts on writing—and more on the poet’s tendency to procrastinate, which he said he did “surely more than most”—his 1983 interview with the Paris Review is (not surprisingly) an excellent resource.
SOME RELATED THOUGHTS ON EARNESTNESS AND HARD WORK
Ashbery’s notion that “the longest way is the most efficient way” reminds me of a piece of wall text at the Hammer Museum’s Sarah Lucas retrospective last year that I’ve been finding soothing during this summer of intermittent or nonexistent productivity:
OR THERE’S WILLIAM GADDIS’S APPROACH…
Edmund White in lockdown: reading five books a week, writing at “a little better than average” pace, and “chatting up different boys” on the website SilverDaddies
WRIGGLING THROUGH 🐛
Having trouble finding time for a creative project alongside your other daily obligations? Or feeling stuck, blocked, or discouraged during the time you do have? Email your dilemma to email@example.com (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.
Previously, I’ve tackled readers’ questions on: