When I profiled John Barth in 2008, he described, in detail, his writing routine for the past half century. Barth said that, whether in Chestertown or Florida—where he and his wife, Shelly, spend their winters—he writes every day. After breakfast, he does stretching exercises to warm up "body and spirit," he said. Then, he goes to his desk and puts in wax earplugs, a habit from when his children were little. He reviews a printout of the previous day's effort, usually two to four pages, uncaps his Parker 51 pen—purchased at an English stationery store that advertised itself as the original site of "Mr. Pumblechook's Premises" from Dickens's Great Expectations—and begins to write. His first draft is always composed on loose-leaf paper in a binder purchased during freshman orientation in 1947. Every one of Barth's books has been written in this binder, with (since 1964) the same Parker pen. "That's the kind of anal-retentive I am," he noted. "But it's a happy routine."
These days, it isn't so happy. As Barth states in the current issue of Granta, the U.K. literary magazine, the Parker pen has gone dry for the past two years. "Although I've still gone to my workroom every weekday morning for the hours between breakfast and lunch, as I've done for decades, and faithfully re-enacted my muse-inviting ritual," he writes, "I find that I've written ... nothing."
For an iconic author with a steady output that's never wavered, that's a sobering assessment. When I emailed Barth about it, he pointed out that his essay is titled "The End?" and the question mark is more hopeful than desparate. And he recently told an NBC affiliate in Miami that he expects the next piece of writing will come "when the Muse sees fit to unhibernate. Remember that Sophocles is said to have written his `Oedipus at Colonus' at age 90. I'm a mere (and still-healthy, and patient) 81-year old."
Barth has a book of collected essays, Final Fridays, scheduled to come out later this year.
[photo: the great Dave Colwell]