It would be admitting the obvious to say that writers are, well, odd. Even if you were to take out the obvious manifestations of strangeness—other people who spend all day locked in rooms talking to themselves tend to be there by institutional mandate—you’d still end up looking at a group of people who accept some off-the-wall behavior as a condition of getting their work done.
For those who wonder, “Am I the only one that does this? Am I the only one who is this weird?”—fret not. You’re probably not alone. And you haven’t been alone for a long time. Every week, we interview a contemporary writer who is at the top of the game—and we figure out how they do what they do. Today, we take a look at some of the peculiar writing rhythms of some of history’s greats.
Yes, that wasn’t a typo: the great Gertrude Stein set up her writing days so that a cow would have to enter her field of vision as she wrote. This account from a 1934 New Yorker article testifies to her bovine-in-my-line-of-sight requirements:
She prefers to write outdoors, after she gets dressed. Especially in the Ain country, because there are rocks and cows there. Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.
He was a Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote a book that, to this day, is required reading for most American high school students. And he did it at a typewriter he didn’t even own!
I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.
It’s tough to recommend Angelou’s habit of having a cup of wine at any hour to get the juices flowing. But it’s also hard to compete with her credentials: one of the greatest poets, memoirists, and writers of her generation, she earned nominations for the Tony and the Pulitzer and won three Grammys. Here’s how she did it:
“I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry…I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, OK.” I remember that and I start to write.”
Anthony Trollope’s writing habit was the precise opposite of catch-as-catch-can: he was scarily disciplined, setting a habit of 250 words every quarter of an hour.
“He woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years.“
This will come as much comfort to any writer-parents out there: Alice Munro’s writing habits were shaped by having to take care of three children with little help:
“But when I was younger, it was simply a matter of expediency. I had small children, I didn’t have any help. Some of this was before the days of automatic washing machines, if you can actually believe it. There was no way I could get that kind of time. I couldn’t look ahead and say, this is going to take me a year, because I thought every moment something might happen that would take all time away from me. So I wrote in bits and pieces with a limited time expectation. Perhaps I got used to thinking of my material in terms of things that worked that way. And then when I got a little more time, I started writing these odder stories, which branch out a lot. But I still didn’t write a novel, in spite of good intentions.”
Nobel and Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Toni Morrison didn’t think she had a writing habit, other than getting up early. It wasn’t until a friend started her on a discussion of rituals that she realized she had one:
Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was–there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard–but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.
He was most famous for his novel Slaughterhouse Five but it was his sixth novel, and was one work among a life filled with productive writing. So how did he do it? While getting in shape, apparently:
“I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.”