Colette could only write after picking fleas from her cats. Lord Byron needed to have sex to write. In one year, he allegedly slept with 250 women and men. Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day. Every morning Beethoven counted out 60 coffee beans. Benjamin Franklin started his day reading while taking an ‘air bath’ (sitting naked in a cold room). Maya Angelou wrote only in cheap hotels. Jack Kerouac touched the ground nine times before he sat to write. W.H. Auden charged his creativity with amphetamines. He nursed Seconal to decharge before bed. T.S. Eliot enjoyed writing when he had a head cold. Truman Capote couldn’t begin or end anything on a Friday.
One of the challenges of creative work is that input and output lack the cause-and-effect relationship of physical work. Sometimes the mental gears “click”, and you knock out a chapter. Other times the hours drone by with no progress.
Anyone who’s circled through the on-off cycle can empathize with those whose desperation had them erecting far-flung protocol to charm a temperamental muse. The magic, though, wasn’t in a handful of coffee beans. The magic was—and is—in routine.
Routine reinforces the fragile link between effort and outcome through a type of conditioning. It’s more than blocking out time on your calendar—routine is about hard-wiring your ability to tap your creative reservoir on command. Establishing a regular work pattern will give you the dependability of an on-off switch, making the hours you have to write more productive.
Of course, ritual reveals nothing but eccentricity, but some of the same writers mentioned above, as with many others, have given us glimpses of their workaday approach to producing literature that has been grafted into our cultural history. One might infer from the elaborate superstitions that a given writer’s approach isn’t one size fits all. In looking over our predecessors’ shoulders, though, we’re able to identify wisdom. We can pick through ideas and choose from which to springboard into our own our design.
Be regular and orderly in your life … so that you may be violent and original in your work.—Gustave Flaubert
I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them—fifty acceptable pages—it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.
I’m better in the morning. I’ll always begin by reading what I’ve written the previous day. That eases me into it so when I start writing new, I’m following on from something I’ve written. I even do that when I’ve written a lot of the novel. I’ll still quite possibly go back to the first page when I start my writing day. I hate doing a huge rewrite at the end of a book, so by the time I’m done with a novel I’ve pretty much already done the rewrite. I do a lot of frittering around and wasting time. It takes me a while to get engaged with a book. But when I’m really locked in, I’d be happy to go to jail and be in solitary confinement. I just want to get it done. I can do 12-hour days. I don’t want to think about grocery shopping or what I’m going to wear or talk to anyone. There are three phases: Messing about at the beginning, which is very important. I rewrite and rewrite until I’ve got the feel of it. And then the middle is very fretful because I’m convinced I can’t get it to work. And then the last third is great: Shut the door. I know what I’m doing.
I work at home, so I’ll move around to different rooms to alleviate the boredom. [laughs] Being in the same place has an odd effect on your brain. When I’m in the really fretful stage, then I either go away somewhere or I take to my bed. Rather like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or something! If I put headphones on and ignore everything in bed, that is remarkably good at focusing. But that doesn’t last long; it’s unhealthy to take your work to bed. Although Proust wrote in bed, didn’t he? In a cork-lined room. I understand that.
When ideas come to Margaret Atwood, she scribbles phrases and notes on napkins, restaurant menus, in the margins of newspapers. Starting with a rough notion of how the story will develop, “which usually turns out to be wrong,” she moves back and forth between writing longhand and on the computer. When a narrative arc starts to take shape, she prints out chapters and arranges them in piles on the floor, and plays with the order by moving piles around.
Twice, she’s abandoned books after a couple hundred pages, one in the late 1960s and another in the early 1980s. She was able to salvage a single sentence from one book, and carved two short stories out of the other, including one titled “The Whirlpool Rapids.”
Nicholson Baker rises at 4 a.m. and without turning on the lights, powers up his laptop, which he has set to gray text on a black screen. In the darkness, he is uninterrupted. After a couple of hours of writing in what he calls a dreamlike state, he goes back to bed, then rises at 8:30 to edit his work.
Russell Banks scribbles out his first drafts in longhand, working from 8 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon in a small writing studio. As his current story unfolds, he types up a rough outline that encompasses the plot, and a shorter, more detailed outline that maps out what’s going to happen in the next 10 or 20 pages. “It keeps me from falling off a cliff,” says Banks, whose novels include Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter.
Banks types his manuscripts onto the computer once he has a full draft, and goes through countless revisions.
When I finish a sentence,” says John Banville, “after much labor, it’s finished. A certain point comes at which you can’t do any more work on it because you know it will kill the sentence. The rhythm is set. The meaning is set. Occasionally I will leave behind a sentence that I know is missing a word, and I’ll go back to it later. I wrote a sentence like that yesterday. A man is talking about his wife, who’s a singer. She has just woken up in the morning, and he says, “Even half asleep like this, she sounded a true, dark note, a thrilling . . .” I put in “cadence,” but I know it’s not the right word—so the sentence is just sitting there, waiting for me to find the right, the exact, the only word.”
For Banville, it all starts with rhythm. “I love Nabokov’s work, and I love his style. But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf. And I thought, that’s it—there’s no music in Nabokov, it’s all pictorial, it’s all image-based. It’s not any worse for that, but the prose doesn’t sing. For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it. That’s what keeps me going on those dark December days when I think about how I could be living instead of writing.”
I’m disciplined over a long stretch. That is to say, I know when I start a novel that it will work best if I write it in eighteen months, or two or three years, depending how complicated it is, and nowadays I usually hit that rough target date. I’m disciplined by the pleasure that the work gives me; I look forward to doing it. I also know that I work best at certain hours, normally between ten in the morning and one in the afternoon. Those are the hours when my mental capacity is at its fullest. Other times of the day will be fine for revising, or writing journalism, or paying bills. I work seven days a week; I don’t think in terms of normal office hours—or rather, normal office hours for me include the weekends. Weekends are a good working time because people think you’ve gone away and don’t disturb you. So is Christmas. Everyone’s out shopping and no one phones. I always work on Christmas morning—it’s a ritual.
There are two kinds of writers: those to whom it comes easily and those for whom every word is a drop of blood being sucked out. Perelman, the writer who coined the sentiment, put himself in the second category. But Julian Barnes isn’t sympathetic to the bloodsucking complaint. “No one ever asked a writer to be a writer. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, it’s so lonely!’ Well, if you don’t like the solitude, don’t do it. Of course it’s hard work,” he says. “But would you swap it for child-minding hyperactive twins, for instance?” He goes on to say, “I think you should like the process. I would imagine that a great pianist would enjoy practicing because, after you’ve technically mastered the instrument, practicing is about testing interpretation and nuance and everything else. Of course, the satisfaction, the pleasure of writing varies; the pleasure of the first draft is quite different from that of revision.”
My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.
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.
Peter Carey writes mostly in the mornings. “Nonfiction writers tend not to understand this.” he says. “They can write for eighteen hours straight, it seems. At the very end of a book I can manage to work for longer stretches, but mostly, making stuff up for three hours, that’s enough. I can’t do any more. At the end of the day I might tinker with my morning’s work and maybe write some again. But I think three hours is fine. There are writers who go to the gym when they finish working, and there are writers who go to lunch. I’m enthusiastic about lunch. Three hours, then lunch.”
He describes his process. “It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff. This is especially true of the first draft. Every day you’re making up the earth you’re going to stand on. Normally I know what I want to achieve in a chapter, and I have an idea about where events should take place and I’ll have some rough idea of the characters involved. But I might not have fully invented the place. And I certainly won’t fully know the characters. So in the first draft, I’m inventing people and place with a broad schematic idea of what’s going to happen. In the process, of course, I discover all sorts of bigger and more substantial things. Within those successive drafts, my characters keep on doing the same things over and over; it’s like some hellish repetition of events. But the reasons they do them gradually become more complex and layered and deeply rooted in the characters. Every day’s a miracle: Wow, I did that, I didn’t know any of that yesterday.”
Rather than working draft by draft, Carey frequently returns to the beginning. “I can’t leave a chapter alone until I think it’s as good as I can make it at that time. Often I will reach a stage, say, a third of the way into the book, where I realize there’s something very wrong. Everything starts to feel shallow and false and unsatisfactory. At that stage I’ll go back to the beginning. I might have written only fifty pages, but it’s like a cantilever and the whole thing is getting very shaky because I haven’t thought things through properly. So I’ll start again and I’ll write all the way through and then just keep going until it starts to get shaky again, and then I’ll go back because I’ll know that there’s something really considerable, something deeply necessary waiting to be discovered or made. Often these are unbelievably big things. Sometimes they are things that readers will ultimately think the book is about.”
Dan Chaon carries a pocketful of color-coded note cards with him during the early stages of writing project. Ideas for his books come to him as images and phrases rather than plots, characters or settings, so he begins by jotting down imagery on his cards. He turns the images over in his mind until characters and themes emerge, then he’ll describe each scene on a card and began fleshing out the plotlines, alternating among blue, pink and green cards when he moves between narratives.
As Dan’s cards accumulate, he stores them in a card catalog that he bought at a library sale. It often takes two years before something resembling a novel takes shape. Eventually he transcribes the cards onto the computer and writes furiously from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Kate Christensen was two years and 150 pages into her first novel about a boozy ghostwriter before she discovered what the book was really about—so she dismantled the draft, threw out a bunch of pages and started over. The process repeated itself with her second, third and fourth novels. A lot of her time, she says, is spent “not writing.”
“At the beginning, there is always a certain amount of trepidation because the thing doesn’t have a life of its own yet.” Most mornings, Christensen does housework, writes emails and talks on the phone to avoid facing her work. In the past, she’s played 30 games of solitaire before typing a first sentence.
Before she begins a novel, Edwidge Danticat creates a collage on a bulletin board in her office, tacking up photos she’s taken on trips and images she clips from magazines ranging from Essence to National Geographic. Danticat says she adapted the technique from story boarding, which filmmakers use to map out scenes. “I like the tactile process. There’s something old-fashioned about it, but what we do is kind of old-fashioned.” Sometimes, the collage grows large enough to fill four bulletin boards.
As the plot becomes clearer, Danticat weeds pictures, shrinking the visual map to a single board. She then writes early drafts in blue exam notebooks, using approximately 100 booklets per draft. Once she types the draft into the computer, Danticat begins the process of revising and cutting. Finally, she makes a tape recording of herself reading the novel aloud—a trick she learned from Walter Mosley—and revises passages that cause her to stumble.