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Routine Over Talent: The Interesting Habits Of 11 Famous Writers

Dan Almasi

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illustration typewriter coffee cookies pencils and other scattered items

For the average writer, it’s only natural to wonder if acclaimed authors and journalists are simply born great. But what if they’re actually no different than you or me—except that they know how to optimally rewire their environment, state of mind, and habits to create conditions conducive to great writing?

After all, most writers have experienced the collision of creativity and productivity that results in a flawless 2,000-word article or an enthralling 300-page novel. But on the flipside, virtually every writer has also struggled with writer’s block and extended creative droughts.

Perhaps the Toni Morrisons and Hunter S. Thompsons of the world are and were products of their writing routines as much as their talent. Regardless, examining the daily lives of famed writers provide an intimate view into what made them tick—and type. As illuminated by interviews and biographies, many well-known wordsmiths credit surprising, subtle habits—or in some cases, natural affinities for writing—for their success.

1. Haruki Murakami

A Wild Sheep Chase

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.

I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

The Paris Review, Summer 2004

2. Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano

The Sirens of Titan

Mother Night

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 or 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.”

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2012), a biography by Dan Wakefield

3. Stephanie Meyer

The Host (The Host Series)

Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Series)

Eclipse (The Twilight Series)

“My writing process has morphed mostly in smallish ways—for example, I have a hard time writing to music with words now. I usually listen to classical music and movie scores. I save the metal for editing.

“I can never get truly immersed in writing during the daytime. I know it’s a product of being interrupted by work calls and emails, children’s and husband’s questions about where fill-in-the-blank is located, and the dog’s bladder needs.

“Subconsciously my brain believes that there is no point in trying to focus when my office door is just about to slam open in three…two…one…. So now, even when I’m in a quiet, private environment, I can’t make my brain accept that it is possible to write while the sun is out. When I’m in the middle of a story, I do my self-editing during the day. That part handles interruptions better.”

A 2016 interview with Goodreads

4. Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye

Sula

Song of Solomon

“I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space—a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it.

“I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out–life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in. I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.”

The Paris Review, Issue 128, 1993

You can read the full interview here.

5. Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451

The Illustrated Man

Green Shadows, White Whale

“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.”

The Paris Review, Issue 192, Spring 2010
quill and ink on a wooden table with a stack of papers

6. Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga

The Rum Diary

“3:00 p.m. rise

“3:05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhills

“3:45 cocaine

“3:50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill

“4:05 first cup of coffee, Dunhill

“4:15 cocaine

“4:16 orange juice, Dunhill

“4:30 cocaine

“4:54 cocaine

“5:05 cocaine

“5:11 coffee, Dunhills

“5:30 more ice in the Chivas

“5:45 cocaine, etc., etc.

“6:00 grass to take the edge off the day

“7:05 Woody Creek Tavern for lunch-Heineken, two margaritas, coleslaw, a taco salad, a double order of fried onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, a bean fritter, Dunhills, another Heineken, cocaine, and for the ride home, a snow cone (a glass of shredded ice over which is poured three or four jig­gers of Chivas)

“9:00 starts snorting cocaine seriously

“10:00 drops acid

“11:00 Chartreuse, cocaine, grass

“11:30 cocaine, etc, etc.

“12:00 midnight, Hunter S. Thompson is ready to write

“12:05-6:00 a.m. Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit, Dunhills, orange juice, gin, continuous pornographic movies.

“6:00 the hot tub-champagne, Dove Bars, fettuccine Alfredo

“8:00 Halcyon

“8:20 sleep

Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson, a biography by E. Jean Carroll

7. Don DeLillo

White Noise

Underworld

Libra

“I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet.

“A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóíbin. The face of Borges against a dark background — Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture.

“I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked — but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.”

The Paris Review, Issue 128, Fall 1993

8. Stephen King

Pet Sematary

It

The Shining

“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 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.

“It’s not any different than a bedtime routine,” he continued. “Do you go to bed a different way every night? Is there a certain side you sleep on? I mean I brush my teeth, I wash my hands. Why would anybody wash their hands before they go to bed? I don’t know. And the pillows are supposed to be pointed a certain way. The open side of the pillowcase is supposed to be pointed in toward the other side of the bed. I don’t know why.”

Haunted Heart: The Life And Times of Stephen King, a biography by Lisa Rogak

9. Michael Connelly

The Poet

The Late Show

The Lincoln Lawyer

“Because of working on a TV show, my writing process is to write whenever I get a chance. Also, my training in journalism has taught me to write—I don’t need to be coddled. I can write in my office, I can write on planes, I can write in cars. I was on a plane last night for five hours, squeezed in so tight, my elbows were pushing into my ribs, but I wrote the whole time and got a lot done. That’s my process: to try to write whenever I can.

“A perfect day would be to get up before the light gets up in the sky and start writing and get a lot done before the rest of the city wakes up. That’s what I try to do when I’m at home or even when I’m in a hotel on the road. Morning hours are really good for me, dark morning hours. So in that regard I kind of share something with Renée because I like to work till dawn.”

A 2017 interview with Goodreads

10. Jack Kerouac

On The Road

The Big Sur

The Dharma Bums

“I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night … also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel) … but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I’m beginning to suspect the full moon.

“Also I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it’s an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me ‘unbalanced’ after that. Frankly, I do feel that my mind is going. So another ‘ritual’ as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?”

The Paris Review, Issue 43, Summer 1968

11. Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible

Unsheltered

The Lacuna

“I tend to wake up very early. Too early. Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.

“I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away. It’s just part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.

“For the whole of my career as a novelist, I have also been a mother. I was offered my first book contract, for The Bean Trees, the day I came home from the hospital with my first child. So I became a novelist and mother on the same day. Those two important lives have always been one for me. I’ve always had to do both at the same time. So my writing hours were always constrained by the logistics of having my children in someone else’s care. When they were little, that was difficult. I cherished every hour at my desk as a kind of prize. As time has gone by and my children entered school it became progressively easier to be a working mother. My oldest is an adult, and my youngest is 16, so both are now self–sufficient —but that’s been a gradual process. For me, writing time has always been precious, something I wait for and am eager for and make the best use of. That’s probably why I get up so early and have writing time in the quiet dawn hours, when no one needs me.

“I used to say that the school bus is my muse. When it pulled out of the driveway and left me without anyone to take care of, that was the moment my writing day began, and it ended when the school bus came back. As a working mother, my working time was constrained. On the other hand, I’m immensely grateful to my family for normalizing my life, for making it a requirement that I end my day at some point and go and make dinner. That’s a healthy thing, to set work aside and make dinner and eat it. It’s healthy to have these people in my life who help me to carry on a civilized routine. And also to have these people in my life who connect me to the wider world and the future. My children have taught me everything about life and about the kind of person I want to be in the world. They anchor me to the future in a concrete way. Being a mother has made me a better writer. It’s also true to say that being a writer has made me a better mother.”

A 2012 interview with The Daily Beast


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