Lucy Sante Gives Us A Peek At Her Writing Practice

by Emily Rems

Lucy Sante, a Belgian-born writer, artist, teacher, and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, has been a celebrated chronicler of American arts and culture since her first book, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, debuted in 1991. Her latest release, I Heard Her Call My Name: A Memoir of Transition, recounts Sante’s journey coming to terms with her gender identity and then beginning the transition process at age 66. Here, Sante, 69, gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the routines and rituals that keep her career going strong.

I Heard Her Call My Name is a deeply personal memoir. Does your writing practice change when you shift from cultural criticism to journalism to scholarly pieces to more personal work?

Well, in this case it sure did. I estimate the book took me less than two months; I was bursting with the need to get it all out. I began writing every day in mid-morning, broke only for meals, and was still writing past midnight, seven days a week, except when I was interrupted by other assignments. I’ve never worked that way before and may never again.

Do you prefer to write longhand or to type? What kinds of software, pens, and notebooks do you use?

I type, using Mac’s Pages software. But I still take all my notes with a Pilot Razor Point II on Rhodia gridded paper or, for book notes, on 4×6 blank index cards. 

What does your writing schedule look like?

It varies wildly. I have no routine. I work in spurts, often—with magazine pieces, for example—on the very pinpoint of the deadline. I often go long enough without writing that when I start again, I almost feel as if I have to relearn the process. Note that I’ve been working this way professionally for over 40 years.

Where is your preferred writing space and what does it look like?

I work in my basement office [in Ulster County, NY], which is half the footprint of my house and contains most of my library. The walls are covered with images of all sorts. I sit in a 1920s oak office chair with arms—it swivels and rocks—at a big green Parsons table. Both those items were given to me, separately, by two different friends, in 1979, and I have done virtually all my work on them ever since.

Do you listen to music while working or do you prefer silence?

I require silence, because I’m aware at all times of the rhythm of my writing and can’t have a competing rhythm going on.

Is there anything you wish more people understood about what life is really like for a writer?

I wish people—even editors—would understand that I’m not just writing down whatever pours from my head. Essentially, I’m composing; I’m making an object out of words. There are dozens if not hundreds of small jobs—logic, image, sound, dynamic, pace, tone—packed into the big job. After that is the second process, which usually involves a lot of condensing and rephrasing. By the time I turn something in, I can account for every comma, and could defend it in court.

Top Image: Jem Cohen

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