Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, March 7, 2001
English Patient author writes the old-fashioned way
Michael Ondaatje uses pen, scissors and tape; discusses influence of other arts


A day after reading selections of his poetry and prose in front of a packed Kresge Auditorium, Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, told a smaller audience gathered in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall that he drafts his novels in longhand.

"You know, cut and paste used to mean something completely different at one time," he said. "I still love taking scissors and Scotch tape and" -- he made a sideways "V" with his fingers -- "chk-chk."

Ondaatje, 57, lives in Toronto and teaches at York University, but he visited Stanford last week as part of the Creative Writing Program's Jean and Bill Lane Lecture Series. He has gray hair and a gray beard, and his voice combines British and North American vowel sounds.

About 60 people attended the informal colloquium Feb. 27, where Ondaatje provided a glimpse of the erudition and toil that goes into his work.

He said one reason he composes his stories in longhand is that he is a slow typist. But he also has lousy handwriting. So he reads his manuscripts aloud into a tape recorder. He gave an example of what a snippet of such a recording might sound like: "Open quotes, Jack, sit down, exclamation point, close quotes, paragraph." A typist then transcribes the tape.

He said the process of recording the text drives him "completely mad."

"I come home and say, 'Open quotes, honey, I'm home,'" he quipped.

Another reason Ondaatje said he prefers writing by hand is that it allows him to look at several pages at once. "So I'm seeing a kind of bigger arc," he said. Thus, he can better determine whether, say, a paragraph should be moved back a few pages. A computer screen, on the other hand, affords only a small window of text at one time.

Ondaatje also said he enjoys the process of editing.

"It's just a place where we have this chance to remake something really quite bad into something really quite good," he said. "You can really mend and also double the content in some ways -- double the meaning. You're working on a poem, and you just remove certain things or shift some things, and the whole meaning is altered."

Ondaatje pointed out that simply cutting a few frames of a film scene can change its rhythm and pace. He once made some documentary films, and he said editing them greatly influenced the way he edits his writing.

He also said that techniques used in stage productions -- the way, for example, lighting and pacing can activate a scene -- has informed the way he writes.

"I've always learned from the other arts," he said.

He said he reads other writers for pleasure, not for technique. "But I can watch a film or a greyhound race, or whatever it is, and be more entranced by that technically," he said.

Other media and art forms serve as inspiration, too. "When I was writing In the Skin of a Lion [a novel], I was very influenced by the murals of Diego Rivera," he said.

When sitting down to write, however, Ondaatje said he doesn't have a plan or blueprint.

"I don't do research, put it in a file and then write the chapter," he said. "I kind of do it while the bridge is being built and while the bomb is being defused. It just keeps me a bit sharper or something -- or tenser."

While writing The English Patient, he developed the character of Kip, the sapper, after it became evident that such a character would be needed in the story to defuse bombs strewn about the area.

"Kip I had not planned to have in the book at all," Ondaatje said. "Of course, there were a lot of bombs around, so they were being prepared for him -- his entrance. I then had to do some research into bomb disposal. ... But I was writing it while I was sort of learning it."

A native of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, Ondaatje immigrated to Canada via England in 1962. His first published book was a collection of poetry called The Dainty Monsters (1967). His most recent poetry collection, Handwriting, was published in 1999. In addition to The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje also has written Anil's Ghost and Coming Through Slaughter.

Michael Ondaatje. photo: L.A. Cicero