The rites of writing
Anthony Trollope was at his desk, pen in hand, from 5.30am every day. In contrast William Styron habitually slept until noon and then lay around in bed for another hour ‘thinking’ before going anywhere near his typewriter. For Philip Larkin the ideal time for writing was after doing the washing up in the evening while Truman Capote could not compose a single paragraph unless lying down. These insights into the daily rituals of notable writers are given in a (now dormant) blog called ‘The Daily Routines’ which I stumbled across recently. Here are some gleanings from this entertaining blog:
Every day for many years he woke in darkness and wrote from 5.30am to 8.30am, with his watch in front of him. In his autobiography Trollope said he required of himself 250 words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before 8.30, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. For many years the writing session was followed by a day job with the Royal Mail postal service. Under this regime, he produced 49 novels in 35 years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for 30 hours at his desk without moving, as men have sat – or said that they have sat.”
Another early riser, when working on a book or story he would write every morning as soon after first light as possible. He said: “There is no one to disturb you; it is cool and you warm as you write. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and you know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”
The author of numerous legal best-sellers also former the habit of being up with the lark. When he first started writing, Grisham says, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important. The alarm clock would go off at 5.00am and I’d jump in the shower. My office was five minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, in my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5.30am, five days a week.” His goal: to write a page every day. Sometimes that would take 10 minutes, sometimes an hour. Often he would write for two hours before he had to turn to his job as a lawyer, which he never especially enjoyed. Interviewed in 2008, Grisham recalled that in the Mississippi Legislature there were “enormous amounts of wasted time” that would give him the opportunity to write. “I was very disciplined about it,” he said, before quickly conceding he doesn’t have such discipline now: “I don’t have to.”
The Lucky Jim author would rise late, breakfast and get to his desk at about 10.30am, still in pyjamas and dressing gown. “And the agreement I have with myself is that I can stop whenever I like and go and shave and so on. In practice, it’s not till about 1.00pm or 1.15 that I do that. Then I emerge and nicotine and alcohol are produced. I work on until about 2.00pm or 2.15, have lunch, then if there’s urgency about, I have to write in the afternoon, which I really hate doing. But then the agreement is that it doesn’t matter how little gets done in the afternoon. And later on, with luck, a cup of tea turns up, and then it’s only a question of drinking more cups of tea until the bar opens at 6.00pm and one can get into second gear. I go on until about 8.30 and I always hate stopping.”
“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write,” he said. “I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8.00am to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places.”
Using a manual typewriter, he writes first drafts as early in the morning as possible. Once the first drafts are 80% complete he’ll start on a second so that “there’s a conveyor belt of drafts in progress: this helps me to grasp the totality of the book. I accelerate towards the end, usually because I’m on or past my deadline.” Of a writer’s life he adds: “I have a healthy appetite for solitude. If you don’t, you have no business being a writer.”
When working on a first version he would write between five and seven pages a day. “For the third version, three pages a day. It’s very slow.” When in the day does he write? “Never, never at night. I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good. I need daylight to begin. Between 9.00am and 10.00 I have a long breakfast with reading and music. After breakfast I work, and then take a break for coffee in the afternoon. I start again and finish at 7.00pm.”
Near blind in his later years, Thurber would write in his head and dictate the passages from memory to a secretary. Interviewed in the 1950s he said: “I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing!’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’ I have to do it that way on account of my eyes. I still write occasionally – in the proper sense of the word – using black crayon on yellow paper and getting perhaps 20 words to the page. My usual method, though, is to spend the mornings turning over the text in my mind. Then in the afternoon, between two and five, I call in a secretary and dictate to her. I can do about 2,000 words. It took me about 10 years to learn.”
Interviewed in 1957, the author said: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon – obsessions of this sort – and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.”
P G Wodehouse
After rising at 7.30am, breakfasting and walking the dog, Wodehouse would be at his desk by 9.00. His study was a spacious, pine-clad room overlooking the garden. His writing methods had not changed in years. He would sit and brood in a favourite armchair, draft a paragraph or two in pencil, then move to the typewriter. In his last decade, Wodehouse could still average 1,000 words a day where, as a younger man, he had often written 2,500 words and more in that period.
“I wish I had a routine for writing,” the playwright said in 1999. “I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and I write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine, really. Then, occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.”
Settled into a writing career, Dahl lived on a farm where he raised livestock and bred greyhounds. His routine was to write from 10.00am until noon, spend the afternoon tending his animals and return to his writing again from 4.00pm to 6.00. His writing was far from effortless; it was not unusual for him to spend six months working on a single short story.
The Sophie’s Choice author followed an unconventional routine: sleep until noon, read and think in bed for another hour or so, lunch around 1.30pm, run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into the idea of working until 4.00pm. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words were down. After that, cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8.00pm or 9.00 and stay up until two or three in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.
“My life is as simple as I can make it,” he said in 1982. “Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings. I almost never go out. Writing is in the evenings after washing up. It’s a routine like any other. And really it works very well, I don’t think you can work on a poem for more than two hours. After that you’re going round in circles and it’s much better to leave it for 24 hours by which time your subconscious or whatever has solved the block and you’re ready to go on. The best writing conditions I ever had were in Belfast, when I was working at the university there. I wrote between 8.00pm and 10.00, then went to the university bar till 11.00, later playing cards or talking with friends till 1.00am or 2.00. The first part of the evening had the second part to look forward to, and I could enjoy the second part with a clear conscience because I’d done my two hours. I can’t seem to organise that now.”
The Daily Routines blog by American author Mason Currey is no longer updated but can be found at: https://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/
• For insight on authors and their working methods try: How I Write, The Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe, and On Writing by Stephen King.