Guest Blog Post, William J. Cobb: On the Road, Writing in My Head

So I’m currently on a mini-book tour of Texas, although I don’t know if “mini” ever applies to much in Texas, since this wee ramble over the interstate prairie includes 3,000-plus miles of driving in 12 days. That’s a lot of hours of sitting behind the steering wheel, staring at the road, driving on mental autopilot, working on my next novel—in my head. As a young writer, just starting out, I used to write every day religiously, believing that constant work is the key to success, which it is. But now I value more the thinking-time: If I know what I want to say, I can usually find the time to sit down and say it. The “constant work” is complex, and involves more than writing that next scene of, say, a 35-year-old woman holding a teenage boy hostage, whom she caught tom-peeping her, and whom she shot. But now she has to dress his wounds, feed and care for him, and decide how to return him to his father, who scares her, who she thinks is abusing the boy. To add to that complexity, I’m currently promoting my novel The Bird Saviors, just out this summer, and have a deadline of November 1 for the final draft of a new book of short stories, which already has a publisher. All that is fine and dandy, but what I really want to do is write the new one, tentatively titled The Lost Person. (That may change. The title, I mean. I tend to come up with a dozen/20 titles before throwing up my hands in despair and choosing Contestant Number One, or whatever sounds good that day. My first title was The Donkey Woman. Then I thought: Hmmm. That may give the wrong impression. And the first words you see on a book shouldn’t give a wrong impression, right?)

When I don’t have the time to sit down and write, it seems I’m often driving. I drive and think, What should happen next? This woman is nicknamed The Tooth Fairy by the boy, because she looks like what he imagines the Tooth Fairy would, if the TF were real. She works at a bar/restaurant, and she hates drinkers and eaters. She constantly sees the big bellies and pink faces of Good Time Charlies, and she’s developed a decidedly sour view of mankind. Should the boy’s father be one of her customers? (Probably.) Should he make a pass at her? (Hmmm. Probably not. But maybe.) What about the boy’s mother? What happens if the father thinks someone else has abducted his son, and is certain he knows the identity of his abductor, but he’s wrong? What would he do? (I suspect this part will end very, very badly.)

What I see on the road often ends up in my fiction: In an early scene of The Bird Saviors, an ornithologist picks up a dead hawk’s body on the roadside (did that). On a recent trip I snapped this photo of what appears to be a unicorn, but what I guess to be a rather unusual white donkey. I’m betting that beast makes a cameo appearance in The Lost Person, or whatever it ends up being called—The Donkey Princess, maybe. Because wherever there’s a unicorn, a princess has to be waiting in the wings.

William J. Cobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Antioch Review, and many other journals. His three novels are The Bird Saviors (Unbridled 2012), Goodnight Texas (Unbridled 2006), and The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994), and his story collections are The Lousy Adult (Johns Hopkins UP 2013) and The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He's currently completing a new novel, and has reviewed books for The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, and the Dallas Morning News. He teaches fiction writing at Penn State University, and lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Click here to read his blog.

10 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, William J. Cobb: On the Road, Writing in My Head

  • January 27, 2013 at 1:18 pm
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    I agree that thinking time is just as important as writing time. It eliminates the scrutiny of the dreaded blank page and just allows you time to sit and think about different outcomes and possibilities. I also like to use driving time as a thinking period, but I’m also fond of those mornings where I’m just barely awake on a day where I don’t have to get up immediately. I’ll just lie in bed with my eyes closed and let my mind wander.

    Including little details of one’s own experiences is likewise something I like to do when writing; it’s like a personal Easter egg.

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  • January 27, 2013 at 4:10 pm
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    Some of the examples the writer gives in this post are encouraging for growing writers. While the best way to improve one’s writing is to write, the idea is just as important. Spending time getting to know your characters and thinking about how the story/novel is going to go will make the time spent in the chair more productive.

    The point also of taking in one’s surroundings is key for writing and finding inspiration.

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  • January 27, 2013 at 11:44 pm
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    I also thought that the animal in the picture was a white unicorn, which would have been fantastic and wondrous. I love it when writers incorporate things or people they see in their lives into their stories.

    These days, I find myself thinking about stories while I’m in class when I should be focusing on the material. During most of these occasions, I can successfully multitask–but is it truly successful if I’m not devoting my entire attention to either stories or class?

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  • February 3, 2013 at 1:40 am
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    I actually have some trouble leaving the thinking period because, perfectionist that I am, I want EVERY detail to be worked out, when really it’s a mixture of planning ahead and then improvising from the plan. And revising. Lots and lots of revising.

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  • February 5, 2013 at 10:36 am
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    I just finished reading Page Stegner’s “The Sense of no Place,” and your thoughts reminded me of his. Space can be a really powerful creative aid.

    Also, there seems to be a consensus among authors that the road is a great place for self-reflection and writing (or thinking about writing). Yet another reason to travel!

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  • February 9, 2013 at 5:45 pm
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    I have often found that the thinking actually takes longer than the writing. I’m quite impressed though that you can keep it all straight to write down at a later time. I’ve found that to be the hardest part about writing sometimes. I’ll spend time thinking, developing, and fleshing out a good/great idea, only to have it be a hazy remembrance, lost in the fog of daily minutiae. It’s trouble like that which keeps me sitting at the desk doing the “constant work”, hoping that the thinking part, if not interrupted by the outside world, will come and visit while I’m available to put pen to paper.

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  • February 24, 2013 at 11:58 am
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    Thinking and pondering are so important to writing. I often do that while I’m driving, especially on road trips. One thought leads to another and another and soon you’re wondering what the original thought was! I love the “unicorn” in the picture, because I like to believe that there are “unbelievable” things roaming the earth out there! AND I love that you include those things in your stories. So cool!

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  • February 25, 2013 at 3:18 pm
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    Thinking about writing is often more important than the actual writing. I think given time to oneself to actually contemplate your own writing and contemplate the story is crucial to a writer.Also I love the picture of the white donkey! I totally reminds me of a unicorn, and who knows, it might be one and we might all just be in denial of fantastical creatures. Regardless, wonderful article!

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