David Mitchell on How to Write: ‘Neglect Everything Else’

The Cloud Atlas author keeps a James Wright poem as a reminder to live in the now.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

When I asked David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, to discuss a favorite passage for this series, I was initially surprised by his choice: a plain-stated, rustic poem by James Wright. “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” bears no overt similarity to Mitchell’s maximalist, genre-busting epics. But, he explained, the poem’s pure sensory engagement inspires him to strive to be more present, attentive, and alert—an ongoing struggle with implications for his work habits, his craft, and the art of writing about the future.

One of the pleasures of reading David Mitchell is his mastery of extended dramatic monologues—the varied speakers of Cloud Atlas, for instance, whose dialects reflect their times. Mitchell’s latest, The Bone Clocks, begins with another feat of method acting: He inhabits the voice of a troubled 16-year-old girl, trapped in provincial mid-'80s Britain, who longs to see Talking Heads at CBGB. As the novel begins, Holly explains her acute psychic disturbances, episodes she calls “the Weird Shit”—which turn out to be communications from a mysterious group, drawing her into a dangerous battle waged across the ages.

Mitchell’s other books include Number9Dream, Black Swan Green, and the internationally-bestselling translation The Reason I Jump; he’s been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. In 2007, Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He spoke to me by phone.

David Mitchell: Before I was published, when I was about 29 years old—I’m 45 now—I was looking through the poetry section in a bookshop. I found this very slim volume of poems by a man I’d never heard of before, James Wright, called This Branch Will Not Break. I flicked through it, and found a poem that is still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I bought it, and for much of my life I’ve had a copy of the poem just above my desk, or wherever I’ve worked. Whatever else is going on in the day, my eyes can go and find this textual hammock.

“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   

Down the ravine behind the empty house,   

The cowbells follow one another   

Into the distances of the afternoon.   

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,   

The droppings of last year’s horses   

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

There’s so much to appreciate here. Every single word is earning its place—it’s unfussy, brilliant, deceptively simple.  I love the un-flashiness of the language—as in “as evening darkens and comes on.” “Comes on” just isn’t a literary turn of phrase, but it’s the language that we use. I love its leisurely rhythms—and it should be leisurely, he’s lying in a hammock. What a confident, cheeky poet to spend a whole line on the phrase, “to my right”!—that slow, lolling turn of the head. I love the way all Wright’s prepositions locate us so concretely in space: We’ve got “over” and “down” and “into” in addition “to my right.” I love the colors—“bronze,” “black,” “green”—its tones and hues are exquisite. Each line has kind of a key word—“empty,” or “cowbells.” It’s almost a kind of cryptogram.

What to make of this famous last line, “I have wasted my life”? I hear him exhale it with a wry laugh: I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks—but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life—he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry—the ironic half-bark of a laugh.

For me, the poem’s chief value is as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see.

We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.

I forget this all the time, all the time. If I remember to do what the poem ask for 0.1 percent of day—slow down, look closely—then that’s a great day. An enlightened day. Usually, though, it’s nowhere near even that.

The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes towards finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The internet—it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.

For me, that one other thing is: I’ve got to be writing. I have a few ways to make sure I can carve out time.

Part one: Neglect everything else.

Part two: Get disciplined. Learn to rush to your laptop and open it up. Open the file without asking yourself if you’re in the mood, without thinking about anything else. Just open the file: and then you’re safe. Once the words are on the screen, that becomes your distraction.

Of course, it’s not distraction—it’s work, and it’s wonderful when it goes well. I’m sure other, more disciplined people can do it without needing to rush, but I have to. The moment you think okay, it’s work time, and face down the words, you rush past all the other things asking for your attention.

Part three: Keep the Apple homepage, because it’s rather boring. If your homepage is the website of your favorite newspaper, you’ve had it.

Just remember, this is how you earn a living. Really hardworking people at the publisher’s are relying on your next book for their bonuses, to feed their kids, pay their mortgage. You owe it to them not to let years fritter away fruitlessly. First and foremost, of course, you owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your book—but if that isn’t getting the job done, remember that it’s other people’s livelihoods on the line as well, not just yours.

These are just some of the sticks I use to beat myself into opening up the file. Once I do, I’m safe. I’m home free.

I do think there’s some relationship between maintaining focus, looking closely, and the act of writing itself. The more you practice really looking, the more convincingly you can build a set for a scene. You become used to looking at the relationships between objects and people and light and time and mood and air. That’s what you’re doing when you’re having a James Wright’s hammock moment, and it’s also what you need to do to bring a scene into being. I think all writers do this. I don’t think I’m remarkably gifted at it or anything, but if there is an overlap between the skill of perception and the skill of populating a scene with objects and people, then this would be the connection.

Much of my work involves writing about scenes set far in the future or deep in the past. How to immerse oneself in the moment-to-moment nature of a time and place you’ve never personally experienced—and perhaps cannot?

Well, I would put a question to you. What’s the difference between you and your great great great-grandfather? What makes you different?

I think the answer is this: What you take for granted.

What you take for granted about your life, about your rights, about people around you. About ethnicity, gender, sexuality, work, God. Your relationship with the state. The state’s obligations and duties to you: Health care, education, recreation. What you take for granted about all these things is I think what marks one culture from from another, and one generation from another.

So when you’re writing about the future, you simply try to work out what people in that future point will be taking for granted. In The Bone Clocks, there are two future sections. 2025 one is only about 11 years away—there’s just a few gizmos about the place and we’re basically there already. In the 2040s, however, more dramatic changes have taken place. There’s no more oil—or very little oil left. So you think about what people at that point will be taking for granted about travel, about the ability to hop on airplane and be hundreds of miles away in an hour or two. Or to have a conversation like this one, to speak across a continent—which, in the context of human history, is a profoundly bizarre thing to be doing. An impossible thing to be doing, an unthinkable thing to be doing! We can take a device out of our pockets and speak to somebody in Auckland on it. And the miracle is that we don’t we see it as a miracle. We’ve only had this skill—to take out a smartphone out and call anywhere on earth—for 10 years, maybe 20. But, already, we take it for granted. It is part of what it means to live in our time.

When there is no more oil to power the system of power stations, which power the electric grid, which we power our devices on—we will no longer take it for granted that we can do it. It will be something that our grandchildren will marvel at—my grandfather lived in a world when you could phone someone in Auckland, my god! So that’s how you project yourself, narratively, into another time. You work out what people will be taking for granted, and what not.

Having a spectrum of worlds where different things are being taken for granted, because they are in different times or different cultures, allows me to examine similarity and difference. It allows me to examine change. And isn’t change interesting? What is it, after all? It’s invisible, like the wind, but you can see its effects when a tornado blows through. The way my books are—spectra across time, across cultures— perhaps allows me to render visible things that are normally invisible, or non-tangible. And focus on things that defy focus, perhaps.

It allows me to examine what stays the same, too. For instance, I think we all believe that things are changing faster than they’ve ever changed before. But if you’d been in England during the Reformation, people would say—I can’t believe the way that change is accelerating. Of if you’d been alive during an industrial revolution, or during the Civil War, or as German and Russian and British and American bombs fell during the 20th century—you’d feel change taking place at a rapidly accelerated pace. The digitalization of our existence, what feels like a new reality, is probably just our generation’s version. The clothes in which change garbs itself for our generation. In a sense, we’re not that special.

Arguably, change and permanence are two of the default themes of all novels—along with memory and identity. It would be hard to keep change out of a novel if you tried. In The Bone Clocks it’s a salient, foreground theme, but you see it everywhere if you look. In James Wright’s poem, too—where you see eternity and reincarnation in the line “the droppings of last year’s horses blaze into golden stones.” The poem’s pastoral scene is timeless, universal: It could very nearly have been written at any point in 5,000 years. Aside from the title, nothing locates Wright’s poem in history—not since the invention of agriculture, at least. And the words chosen—“butterfly,” “ravine”—are just so elemental and primal. The experience of reading the poem is primal, too, the way it’s sonic—we’ve got the cowbells clunking in the distance—and visual. We’ve got extreme visual nearness, close enough to see the butterfly; we’ve got extreme distance in the glimpsing of the chicken hawk, just a speck on the sky.

In this way, Wright captures the most timeless, unchanging human experience: the simple, profound act of perceiving the world. Here, he does it so fully, so beautifully, it’s as if the bond between his mind and the world around his head have become one—it’s a skull melter. His skull has melted, he’s perceiving that purely.

It is an exquisite little gem, and I’ll keep it over my desk for the rest of my life.