Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Work Habits of Highly Successful Writers


Aspiring writers often are curious about the work habits of other writers. Here are some questions would-be writers frequently ask:

Where should I write?
The most important requirement is a quiet place, free of distractions. If your home is too noisy, try writing in the public library.

Early in his writing career, John Cheever, writer of short stories set in suburbia, only owned one suit. Each morning, he would put it on and take the elevator to a windowless basement storage room in his New York apartment house not far from the Queensboro Bridge.

"I hung my suit on a hanger," he told an interviewer for Newsweek Magazine, "and would write until nightfall. Then I dressed and returned to our apartment. I wrote many of my stories in boxer shorts."

Virginia Woolf and her husband founded the Hogarth Press in 1917 to publish her books and those of other British authors. They leased a house in London and converted the musty basement into an office. Her writing space was the former billiards room, which she shared with old files and stacks of books. In the adjoining lavatory, old galley proofs served as toilet paper.

Truman Capote felt that he did his best work in motel rooms. When Broadway showman George M. Cohan needed a script, he bought a train ticket and spent the entire trip writing in a Pullman drawing room. He could dash off 140 pages between New York and Chicago.

Many writers preferred to write near water--but not necessarily beside a burbling brook. Ben Franklin, who owned the first bathtub in America, liked to write while immersed in it. Because of a busy social life, French playwright Edmond Rostand, best known for his comical portrait of Cyrano de Bergerac, also wrote in his bathtub. Soaking in a tub was conducive to creativity for Vladimir Nabokov, author of the controversial novel Lolita.

Some writers resorted to extreme measures to avoid the inevitable interruptions that disturb creative flow. Raymond Carver, dubbed "the American Chekhov" because of his short story characters' inability to communicate with one another, would sometimes take refuge in his automobile to write.

Josh Greenfeld, co-author of the screenplay for the cult film Harry and Tonto, was forced by a growing family to seek a quiet place in which to write. Unable to find commercial office space, he rented an empty storefront in his hometown of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., and installed a desk and typewriter.

Not all writers favored a sitting position. Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote while recumbent. Truman Capote described himself as "a completely horizontal writer." By contrast, Lewis Carroll and Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up. So did Ernest Hemingway after injuring his back in a plane crash.

Asked by a journalist during an interview, "Where's the best place to write?" satirical writer Dorothy Parker quipped, "In your head."

When should I write?
Creativity cannot be turned on like a faucet. You must discover when your biorhythms--your innate cyclical biological processes--are best suited to writing.

Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy and French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau were both morning writers. On the other hand, Feodor Dostoyevsky wrote at night. So did asthmatic Marcel Proust, whose attacks were less severe then. American novelist and short-story writer John O'Hara liked to write between midnight and 7 a.m., and to sleep by day.

Honoré de Balzac, called the father of realist fiction for his vivid portrayal of 19th-century French society, also preferred to work while others slept. Keeping himself awake with endless cups of thick, black coffee, he died at 50 from what may have been caffeine poisoning.

After her bitter divorce from poet Ted Hughes, tragic American poet Sylvia Plath lived in a tiny London apartment. Low on funds, she rose at 4 a.m. and worked on The Bell Jar until her two infant children were awake. Mentally and physically ill, she committed suicide a month after this masterwork was published.

Writers with full-time jobs often have difficulty finding time to write. One solution is simply to get up earlier. While working as a direct mail copywriter, Denison Hatch completed three successful novels by rising at five each morning and writing 500 words before leaving for his regular job. Written this way, his first novel, Cedarhurst Alley, is still in print.

Early riser Dava Sobel was asked whether the success of her surprise bestseller Longitude had changed her work habits. She told interviewer Brian Lamb, "I still get up at four and go to work in my jammies."

What should I write with?
The tools of the writer range from the lowly pen or pencil to the computer. The latter has not entirely displaced the typewriter. Writers who have not joined the computer revolution and still write with a typewrier include Stephen Ambrose and Robert Leckie, who bemoans, "They don't make Royals anymore." Historian David McCullough still writes on a manual typewriter "because I like the feeling of making something with my hands. I like paper. I like to see the key come up and hit that paper."

Robert Caro, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of master builder Robert Moses and President Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote his exhaustively researched volumes in longhand before transcribing the first of many drafts on a typewriter. Only comparatively recently did he switch to a computer.

The lack of a typewriter or computer should not prevent anyone from writing. Ernest Hemingway frequently wrote in pencil, beginning his writing stints with the ritual sharpening of dozens of pencils. When John Steinbeck complained that hexagonal pencils cut into his fingers after a long day, his editor at Viking Press supplied him with round pencils.

Thomas Wolfe wrote on sheets of yellow paper with pencil stubs he kept in a coffee can. Although he could not abide yellow roses in a room, Truman Capote was another who preferred yellow paper. His favorite writing tool was the Blackwing No. 602, an intensely black lead pencil made by Faber Castell.

Vladimir Nabokov used 5- by 8-inch index cards in his research as a world-famous expert on butterflies. He also wrote his novels on cards, then sorted and arranged them before transferring the final version to paper.

Reclusive poet Emily Dickinson lived most of her life in the house in which she was born. "I never had to go anywhere to find my paradise," she said in defense of her lifestyle. Devoting herself to domestic duties and care of her parents in their declining years, few of her sensitive poems were published during her lifetime.

Virtually unknown to the public, after she died the vast body of her work was found scrawled on the backs of envelopes or grocery bills and on odd scraps of paper. A complete volume of her verse did not appear until 1955, nearly seventy years after her death.

Trail-breaking Imagist poet Amy Lowell was another longhand writer. She dressed mannishly in severely tailored suits and men's shirts. When writing, she smoked small Philippine cigars, which she claimed were less distracting than cigarettes because they lasted longer. In 1915, fearing a shortage might be caused by the first World War, she ordered ten thousand of her favorite brand to be shipped to her from Manila.

Even today, many successful writers persist in using pen or pencil and paper. Horror writer Stephen King, curmudgeonly Norman Mailer, cynical crime novelist Elmore Leonard and TV playwright Horton Foote are among contemporary authors who write in longhand. Civil War historian and novelist Shelby Foote (no relation) insisted on writing with an old-fashioned dip pen and ink bottle. "This causes all kinds of problems," he admitted, "everything from finding blotters to pen points."

Other writers who favor pens include Martin Gilbert (Israel--A History) and Joseph J. Ellis (American Sphinx: A Biography of Thomas Jefferson). Bell Hooks, prolific African-American writer on feminist subjects, says, "I handwrite everything, and then I put it on a computer.: Up until her 1992 biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote everything with a fountain pen. Since then she has used a computer.

Award-winning journalist Robert Scott admits that he writes the first drafts of his feature articles longhand on yellow legal-size pads. "The pencil is an unobtrusive tool, and words flow easily onto the paper. Instead of worrying about hitting the proper keys, I can concentrate on the sense of what I am writing."

Because he never learned to type, British author John le Carré (real name, Ronald Cornwell) wrote all his spy thrillers by hand. Many terms that are now part of the vocabulary of intelligence agencies were first used by him in his novels.

How Much Should I Write?
How long your writing sessions last is up to you. Writing as little as a page a day will yield a good-sized book manuscript in a year.

Getting started is often a problem. Before starting to write, "so that I may have in the back of my mind the touchstone of that lucidity, grace and wit," Somerset Maugham would read Voltaire's Candide. Willa Cather, novelist of American frontier life, always read a passage from the Bible. Southern Gothic author Carson McCullers could only write when wearing her "lucky sweater."

When Walter "Red" Smith, then the most widely syndicated columnist in America, was asked how he managed to generate good writing so consistently, "I sit at my typewriter, open a vein and bleed," was his answer.

In How To Write: Advice and Reflections, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes suggested a clever way to induce words to flow. If writing a book, a chapter, a page or even a sentence is impossible, his advice is, "write a word."

In his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, super-prolific author Stephen King admitted, "I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words." Philip Roth claims it can take as long as six months to produce what he considers an acceptable page of his witty and ironic fiction.

For successful writers the writing life is far from easy. Many follow schedules so rigorous they would violate labor laws. Mary Higgins Clark begins work at 5 a.m. (a holdover from the days when her children were small) and may continue until midnight. Crime writer Patricia Cornwell, another human dynamo, will write for 14 hours daily on a new book, stopping only long enough to eat cottage cheese from the container.

Romantic novelist Danielle Steel puts in 18-hour days and still uses a 1946 Olympia manual typewriter. At least one of her titles was on The New York Times bestseller list for a record-setting 390 weeks. Polymath Isaac Asimov revealed that he created his nonfiction books in 70 hours. He rose at 6 a.m. and wrote until 10 at night. This grueling schedule yielded almost 500 books before his death. Louis L'Amour churned out three Western novels a year for more than 30 years.

Reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, avoids intrusive visitors by writing in the ultimate writer's retreat--a concrete bunker near his New Hampshire home. He gets up at dawn and spends as much as 16 hours at his typewriter.

Chronic procrastination is an enemy many writers face. Novelist and screenwriter Budd Shulberg humorously described the syndrome: "First, I clean my typewriter. Then I go through my shelves and return all borrowed books. Then I play with my three children. Then, if it's warm, I go for a swim. Then I find some friends to have a drink with. By then, it's time to clean the typewriter again."

"I only write when I am inspired," wry novelist Peter de Vries once explained. "And I see to it that I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."

Single-minded dedication and organized work habits are the hallmark of every successful writer. Set a realistic writing schedule for yourself, and stick to it. That second cup of coffee and the morning newspaper may be enticing--but are absolutely taboo. If you cannot discipline yourself, forget about being a writer.

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