Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, March 24, 2014

Quirky Authors and Their Habits: 3 Lessons We Can Learn From Them



I recently finished reading a book called Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson. It’s a book about the habits and quirks of famous writers, and their daily rituals and writing methods. It’s the sort of book I love to read, because it’s tempting to believe that if only I followed the schedule of Austen or Dickens or Fitzgerald, I would be able to write like them. Which of course really isn’t the case.

There is, however, plenty to learn from these writers as it turns out. The author of the book delved into all sorts of habits - ranging from writing in the bath, to writing in cars, and working in bed. Some writers, like R.L. Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Thoreau, and Robert Frost, all loved to take long walks, and use them to find inspiration, either in the world around them, or to delve deeper into their mind and find ideas. Many carried paper and writing instruments to record their thoughts, others hurried home and started to put down their ideas right away.
Lesson 1: walking not only provides much needed exercise after hours sitting in a chair, it also gets the juices of the mind flowing in a completely different way from sitting and staring at a computer screen or pad. In fact, going for a walk often gives me fragments of ideas for my WIP, or ideas for blog posts. I don’t always write all of this down though, and don’t make nearly enough time for ambling - which is an important takeaway for me.
Many of the authors featured in the book woke up early to write: for instance, Sylvia Plath started working at 4am, Jack London at 5am, and Anthony Trollope and Kurt Vonnegut at 5.30 am. The latest an author got to his or her desk was 10am (Somerset Maugham). This may due to the exigencies of a day job (Anthony Trollope), or simply because they liked that time to compose (Katherine Anne Porter).
Lesson 2: most authors take advantage of the quiet time in the mornings to write, when they are at their freshest. Recently I have been trying to incorporate a writing schedule, and I have been experimenting with different times to see what suits me best. I am not a morning person, but all of these times have been in the morning, when there are less disturbances from the outside world, and the many things I need to get done don’t weigh on me as much. Reading the schedules of these writers, I feel I could improve on my schedule and start even earlier.
Virginia Woolf wrote many letters, diary entries and even some prose with purple ink, sometimes standing up, and later, on a writing board sitting in an armchair. Lewis Carroll too used purple ink while writing. James Joyce composed Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with crayons on cardboard. Truman Capote wrote all day lying down - and changed his beverages along with the time of day. Gertrude Stein loved to write while sitting in her Model T Ford. The more authors’ habits one surveys, the more odd quirks and habits emerge.

Lesson 3: it doesn’t matter how or where you write, that you do matters. If one medium starts to get stale (composing on a computer for instance), you can try writing on a pad of paper. If that gets boring, you can try index cards (Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita on notecards), or reading your writing into a Dictaphone like John Steinbeck (or our phones, most of us have microphones built-in). Sometimes I find it easiest to compose fresh writing when I'm feeling stuck by lying down on my bed. I used to feel guilty about this, but hey, if it works for Capote! The point is to find what works for you, and never mind if its unusual or quirky; after all, you’re not the first writer to do odd things, and probably won't be the last.

There are many more very interesting examples in the book, and I urge you to check it out, but the main takeaway is that no matter how interesting the work habits of others are, we are far more likely to benefit from implementing one small piece of advice, finding if it works, and if so, getting done to business. Working more is the important thing, and on that note, I'm off to work on my own WIP.
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