Many writers anecdotally report they write best first thing early in the morning, apparently even if they are not morning people. Do they, and why?
source; created: 11 May 2011; modified: 21 Jan 2020; status: in progress; confidence: possible; importance: 4
Ericsson 1993 notes that many major writers or researchers prioritized writing by making it the first activity of their day, often getting up early in the morning. This is based largely on writers anecdotally reporting they write best first thing early in the morning, apparently even if they are not morning people, although there is some additional survey/software-logging evidence of morning writing being effective. I compile all the anecdotes of writers discussing their writing times I have come across thus far. Do they, and why?
Interviews with writers often touch on their writing process to try to explain how it is done; the hope of the reader is, deep down, to learn how they do the things they do and perhaps the reader can do the same thing. For the most part, the lesson I’ve taken away from such profiles is that every writer is different and there do not seem to be many generalizable practices, if indeed any of them matter (consider how many writers seem to benefit from a stint in jail); for every writer that thrives on writing in longhand with goose quills on parchment, another is unable to think outside a computer text editor, or needs to inhale rotting bananas, or sharpen pencils, or write in a cork-lined room, or insist on a loud phonograph/party for inspiration. (All real examples.)
“The Role of Deliberate Practice”, Ericsson 1993 (among others), Ericsson draws on some anecdotes and particular long-running & somewhat-standardized Paris Review interviews of famous writers to make some interesting points about the relative brevity of most writing sessions (perhaps not too surprising as the physical typing/writing is not the bottleneck) but also the timing of it typically in the morning:
The best data on sustained intellectual activity comes from financially independent authors. While completing a novel famous authors tend to write only for 4 hr during the morning, leaving the rest of the day for rest and recuperation ([Cowley, M. (Ed.). (1959). Writers at work: The Paris review interviews.]; [Plimpton, G. (Ed.). (1977). Writers at work: The Paris review. Interviews, second series.]). Hence successful authors, who can control their work habits and are motivated to optimize their productivity, limit their most important intellectual activity to a fixed daily amount when working on projects requiring long periods of time to complete…Biographies report that famous scientists such as Charles Darwin, (Erasmus Darwin, 1888), Pavlov (Babkin, 1949), Hans Selye (Selye, 1964), and B.F. Skinner (Skinner, 1983) adhered to a rigid daily schedule where the first major activity of each morning involved writing for a couple of hours. In a large questionnaire study of science and engineering faculty, Kellogg (1986) found that writing on articles occurred most frequently before lunch and that limiting writing sessions to a duration of 1–2 hr was related to higher reported productivity…In this regard, it is particularly interesting to examine the way in which famous authors allocate their time. These authors often retreat when they are ready to write a book and make writing their sole purpose. Almost without exception, they tend to schedule 3–4 hr of writing every morning and to spend the rest of the day on walking, correspondence, napping, and other less demanding activities (Cowley, 1959; Plimpton, 1977).
- Boice & Johnson 1984,“Perception and practice of writing for publication by faculty at a doctoral-granting university”
- Hartley 1980, The Psychology of Written Communication: Selected Readings
- Hartley & Knapper 1984,“Academics and their writing”
- Lowenthal & Wason 1977,“Academics and their writing”. London Times Literary Supplement, June 24, p. 782.1
- Stein 1974, Stimulating Creativity, Volume 1: Individual Procedures. New York: Academic Press.
- Ghiselin 1952, The Creative Process: A Symposium
- Vernon et al 1970, Creativity
Malcolm Cowley in his introduction (
“How Writers Write”) to the first anthology of Paris Review interviews (Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series, ed Cowley 1958) summarizes his impressions of the writer’s situation:
…Apparently the hardest problem for almost any writer, whatever his medium, is getting to work in the morning (or in the afternoon, if he is a late riser like Styron, or even at night). Thornton Wilder says,“Many writers have told me that they have built up mnemonic devices to start them off on each day’s writing task. Hemingway once told me he sharpened twenty pencils2; Willa Cather that she read a passage from the Bible—not from piety, she was quick to add, but to get in touch with fine prose; she also regretted that she had formed this habit, for the prose rhythms of 1611 were not those she was in search of. My springboard has always been long walks.”Those long walks alone are a fairly common device; Thomas Wolfe would sometimes roam through the streets of Brooklyn all night. Reading the Bible before writing is a much less common practice, and, in spite of Miss Cather’s disclaimer, I suspect that it did involve a touch of piety. Dependent for success on forces partly beyond his control, an author may try to propitiate the unknown powers. I knew one novelist, an agnostic, who said he often got down on his knees started the working day with prayer.
The usual working day is three or four hours. Whether these authors write with pencils, with a pen, or at a typewriter—and—and some do all three in the course of completing a manuscript—an important point seems to be that they all work with their hands; the only exception is Thurber in his sixties. I have often heard said by psychiatrists that writers belong to the “oral type.” The truth seems to be that most of them are manual types. Words are not merely sounds for them, but magical designs that their hands make on paper.“I always think of writing as a physical thing”, Nelson Algren says.“I am an artisan”, Simenon explains.“I need to work with my hands. I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood.”Hemingway used to have the feeling that his fingers did much of his thinking for him. After an automobile accident in Montana, when the doctors said he might lose the use of his right arm, he was afraid he would have to stop writing. Thurber used to have the sense of thinking with his fingers on the keyboard of a typewriter. When they were working together on their play The Male Animal, Elliott Nugent used to say to him,“Well, Thurber, we’ve got our problem, we’ve got all these people in the living room. What are we going to do with them?”Thurber would answer that he didn’t know and couldn’t tell him until he’d sat down at the typewriter and found out. After his vision became too weak for the typewriter, he wrote very little for a number of years (using black crayon on yellow paper, about twenty scrawled words to the page); then painfully he taught himself to compose stories in his head and dictate them to a stenographer.
Dictation, for most authors, is a craft which, if acquired at all, is learned rather late in life—and I think with a sense of jumping over one step in the process of composition. Instead of giving dictation, many writers seem to themselves to be taking it.“I listen to the voices”, Faulkner once said to me,“and when I’ve put down what the voices say, it’s right. I don’t always like what they say, but I don’t try to change it.”Mauriac says,“During a creative period I write every day; a novel should not be interrupted. When I cease to be carried along, when I no longer feel as though I were taking down dictation, I stop.”Listening as they do to an inner voice that speaks or falls silent as if by caprice, many writers from the beginning have personified the voice as a benign or evil spirit. For Hawthorne it was evil or at least frightening.“The Devil himself always seems to get into my inkstand”, he said in a letter to his publisher,“and I can only exorcise him by pensful at a time.”For Kipling the Daemon that lived in his pen was tyrannical but well-meaning.“When your Daemon is in charge”, he said,“do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.”
Other examples include Frank P. Ramsey (
“…I wouldn’t have said he worked for more than say four hours a day … he worked in the mornings, probably went for walks in the afternoon, played the gramophone in the evening. Something of that sort.”)
This was interesting to me because I generally do not write in the morning, so knowing that morning is better would be valuable to me, and because it confused me why it would be true. If you are a morning person, you should write in the morning, and vice-versa if you are an evening person. Why would you write when you are miserable? I was especially not a morning person when I was a teenager, and it certainly showed in my first period class at 8:20AM after waking up at 6AM; certainly I never noticed any hidden gift for writing novels manifesting, even when it was a literature class. (Although I did notice a hidden gift for completely forgetting anything said in the first period.)
Some of the post hoc explanations for why morning might be better make no sense. It is true people are less likely to interrupt you early in the morning; but they are less likely to interrupt you at midnight. It is true people can find time for writing by getting up before their job; but they can sacrifice the same amount of sleep to write by staying up later at night. It is true that the morning might not be a circadian nadir; but that’s not helpful to anyone who is an owl, who by definition is sluggish in the morning, and where does all this energy come from for walking or exercising or partying or researching in the evening, when not writing, if the writer is hopelessly fashed after the vicissitudes of the day? (If the secret of morning writing is merely the nigh-tautological “if you’re a morning person who writes best in the morning, you should write in the morning, and if you’re an evening person, you should write in the evening”, then it’s surely of no value—is there anyone who doesn’t already know whether they are more of a morning or evening person?)
Further, morning writing runs counter to the usual intellectual stereotype of great writers as rising late and being chronometric
“night owls”. The
“owl” chronotype is usually linked with creativity & intelligence while morning
“larks” are considered less creative (but more industrious & favored in many contexts like schools, to the detriment of owls & especially teenagers), so one would expect the opposite: writers to report writing mostly in the evening. (And amusingly, the Wikipedia article on “owls” includes a list of dozens of writers & other creative types while the “lark” article is devoid.) What could be more writerly or bohemian than spending the day researching or enjoying nature or drinking to jazz at the club and then returning to one’s attic in the witching hours to author deathless verse? Nevertheless, great authors routinely rehearse the advantages of living like a farmer and rising with the sun to milk the Muses. (Cal Newport’s Deep Work book points this way, and there is even a writer self-help fad,
“The Miracle Morning”, whose central gimmick is getting up early.)
Puzzled, I began noticing in author interviews or writings that when writing times were mentioned, it was indeed more, often than not, partially or entirely in the morning (sometimes disgustingly early like pre-dawn), rather than usually in the evening as expected, and it became startling when I ran into an exception like Ian Fleming or Winston Churchill, who wrote at all in the evening, or Brandon Sanderson or Robert Frost, who work entirely into the wee hours. I am, again, not a morning person but I forced myself up early a few days and skipped my usual email & news-reading routine to focus on writing, and darn if it didn’t seem to work and the writing was worth the price in afternoon circadian slumps. Still couldn’t make myself do it regularly, though.
“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
If the morning writing effect is real (in the sense that successful writers do disproportionately write in the morning—which is still in doubt given the existing systematic survey evidence is limited to ordinary writers while the elite writers are represented so far purely by haphazardly-selected anecdotes), what is causing it?
One possibility is that there is some sort of ecological fallacy going on: it is possible that, creativity really is higher in owls at night, owls do not improve by writing in the morning, but the best authors are still larks (rather than owls as one would assume from the population-level correlation) and do benefit from writing in the morning (or at least aren’t hurt); and this is because larks have other advantages in becoming the best authors, perhaps related to sheer writing volume & consistent output. No matter how creative it is, an unwritten book is no good. Larks then could write fine at any time and would be overrepresented among the best authors either way, because writing time is confounded with other Conscientiousness-related attributes.
Looking through the anecdotes so far, while it’s true that devotees of
“The Miracle Morning”and others frequently claim to not be larks and struggle to reap the benefits of morning writing, the elite writers who happen to write in the morning (currently) do not mention major struggles with getting up early or focusing in the morning, implying that they may well all be larks in the first place!
“equal-odds rule”suggests that volume of writing output is much more important than it is usually given credit for being, and that writing or research is too random a process to permit siting down for several years and decide to bang out a beloved masterpiece: one can only try as many things as possible and be surprised when one turns out well, or happens to become a hit.)
- A related but somewhat simpler possibility is that working is easier than starting: people are bad at scheduling and while late-night writing is no different than morning writing and just as effective in theory, people tend to choose to fill up their schedules, and repeatedly ‘accidentally’ find themselves with too little time to write at night; every hour of evening writing that people do get done is just as effective as morning hours, but there are fewer such hours. Doing it in the morning is then simply a little trick to make sure that other obligations/excuses literally cannot come first.
Another possibility is that the day really does use up some sort of ‘willpower’ or ‘creativity’: all the little things one does before the writing late in evening fill up one’s mind. There is nothing special about morning hours, they merely happen to be the conscious hours closest in time to sleep pushing the big reset button on the brain. If someone slept during the day & woke up at midnight, that person would then be best off writing at midnight, right after waking up, rather than 8 hours later in the morning, equivalent to their afternoon. (Tononi’s SHY theory of sleep would be a low-level neurobiological explanation along these lines.) These sorts of theories have a problem with the existence of authors who prefer to work at the end of their (subjective) day and are energized at night—why are they not just immune to what should be generic effects of biology/psychology, but positively energized?
- A version of this ‘thing building up/wearing out over the day’ is that it is related to ego depletion or ‘decision fatigue’4 or opportunity cost, where the increasing number of accomplished activities it becomes an excuse to write less—“I had a busy day, I can take it easy tonight.”—or one has difficulty truly focusing because there are so many other things which one could do (Kurzban’s opportunity cost model).
Yet another version might be that sleep itself is the key: sleep, aside from any resetting, is also responsible for memory formation and appears involved in unconscious processes of creativity.
Sleep is a long time period in between phases of working, allowing for the incubation effect5 to operate, and the incubation effect may be particularly benefited by sleep. So, one wakes up primed to work on the next piece of writing (that one has likely been mulling a long time), and by instead puttering around making tea or breakfast, one dissipates the potential. In this model, instead of one’s writing potential gradually deteriorating over the course of the day as the mind fills up/willpower is used up, it falls sharply and then hits a baseline and perhaps follows the usual circadian rhythms thereafter with a nadir at siesta time etc.
Or, perhaps there is something special about the liminal half-sleep state, which makes fantasizing or imaging easier. One parallel we might draw is with the ancient connection between fiction writers and alcohol: writers are notorious for drinking, often to excess. Is there something about the depressant or loosening of inhibitions of alcohol which assists writing, which might also be reproduced in the morning? On the other hand, nonfiction writers like journalists or philosophers or scientists tend to be associated with stimulants, particularly nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines (not to mention modafinil)6; while those, particularly amphetamines, are less associated with fiction writers.7 (This makes me wonder if there is a connection to another anomalous anecdotal phenomenon, the so-called alcohol
“afterglow”effect, and if my poor LSD microdosing results reflect my own nonfiction tendencies.)
This half-asleep explanation neatly explains why evening doesn’t work. It wouldn’t apply to falling asleep as there is an asymmetry: a half-asleep person in the morning who is writing is getting gradually more alert and spending the rest of the day awake, and can build on whatever mental seeds were planted; while a half-asleep person in the evening would frustrate sleep by trying to write, can’t write for long before falling asleep, and when they do fall asleep, would forget the preceding ~10 minutes.
In reading through the several hundred Goodreads interviews, I have been struck by the extent to which morning fiction authors (but much less so nonfiction authors), while praising the benefits of routine & sitzfleisch in simply getting writing done at all, repeatedly invoke language involving altered states of consciousness, describing the benefit of the morning (especially early morning) as enabling reveries/daydreams/trances/fantasies/dream-like states where they can go through a ‘portal’ and be absorbed into their fictional world for several hours without interruption, with the effect wearing off before noon (consistent with the circadian rhythm & the late-morning peak), and later in the day being reserved for planning/world-building/review/editing and more quotidian tasks—and, complementarily, how evening writers seem to tilt towards nonfiction but, in an exception which proves the rule, sometimes use similar language for their writing in late evening, like past midnight to dawn.
I am reminded of nothing so much as Stephen LaBerge’s lucid dream method Wake Initiated Lucid Dreams (WILD), which also involves getting up early in the morning, being wakeful for a short time, and then attempting to enter an altered state of consciousness (sleep) where one can experience & control an unfolding narrative (lucid dream). This raises some interesting possible connections: would fiction writers benefit from use of dissociative or psychedelic drugs in the morning? (Alcohol comes to mind. And I met a woman once who told me her best fiction, with the most vivid images, was always written after taking 4g of psilocybin mushrooms.) Do any of the lucid dream methods (eg LaBerge finds that galantamine drug use greatly increases lucidity odds) transfer to fiction writing?
In this paradigm, nonfiction authors do not particularly benefit from morning writing aside from the benefits of having a regular habit, because their work is much less heavy on inspiration: they do not need to bang out thousands of words in a trance to make the fiction come to life, but are piecing together their research, with a much smaller ratio of inspiration:words. The necessary inspiration can happen at any time, while most of their time is spent doing the background research; their subconscious can mull over all the notes at leisure (incubation effect) and the final results written down whenever. Fiction authors can substitute the morning with evening use of alcohol or sleep deprivation or binging to maintain the flow (or, like Maya Angelou, combine all four by drinking in the morning while getting up extremely early to write in periodic book-writing binges).
Or, perhaps it is a lack of sleep: sleep deprivation can cause odd mental states including mania and loss of inhibitions, and there is a peculiar but seemingly real phenomenon where acute sleep deprivation in people with major depressive disorder substantially temporarily relieves their symptoms (
“Meta-Analysis of the Antidepressant Effects of Acute Sleep Deprivation”, Boland et al 2017). Many writers are melancholic, so early mornings, especially cross-chronotype, might be an inadvertent rediscovery of this to the extent that they shortchange sleep in order to get up. Perhaps most people are not in the throes of full MDD, but there might be a more mild effect. If the sleep-deprivation effect is the culprit, then writers who do this need to be cutting sleep considerably and the effects will be only temporary, since chronic sleep deprivation doesn’t help (and worsens cognition); this might also explain anecdotes where the person maintains that morning-writing works for them but they could only do it for a few days or once in a while—naturally, the more sleep deprivation the harder it is to get up, and as both the sleep deficit builds up & the anti-depressant effect disappears, they will find morning-writing increasingly useless and will stop. This might seem like an undesirable hypothesis but it still allows occasional benefits on carefully-chosen occasions, such as finishing or starting a novel.
There are a few things one could do to generate a little more data on this:
systematically go through the Paris Review interviews and the similar GoodReads interviews to note down all cases where an author is asked about writing time, rather than a few examples; this avoids the risk that morning writing advocates have selectively chosen examples from the interviews. As the writers are not chosen for their writing habits and the interview question are fairly formulaic, presumably the interview series could be considered a quasi-random survey sample of successful authors.
run a population-sample survey (I have done one USA survey myself but more extensive surveys & surveys elsewhere would be useful)
- run surveys in more elite-writer samples
run a (non-blinded) self-experiment: create a list of things to systematically work on; flip a coin to decide whether to get up early, record total words-written+time-spent etc. (I can’t decide if I would be biased towards wanting it to work or wanting it to fail: of course I want to be better at writing, but on the other hand, I really hate waking up early—surely there’s some easier way!)
“Writing method and productivity of science and engineering faculty”: to go into more detail, it reports:
The respondents tended to schedule their work between 8AM and 8PM, with the morning hours being the most common time of day (Table 3). Positive but nonsignificant correlations were obtained for these time intervals. Night owls were rare and not unique in their productivity. In terms of the duration of writing sessions, the data indicate a preference for one to three hours. Working for 1 to 2 hours was significantly correlated with productivity. But as will be explained later in describing the multiple regression analyses, this effect is best attributed to other factors correlated with the frequency of working for 1 to 2 hours. Highly regular work scheduling was not the rule; the most common response was only a 3 on the 7 point scale.
“Write in spurts”and
“marathon writing just before a deadline”were comments listed by respondents that match the pattern commonly observed in Boice and Johnson’s (op. cit.) survey. As in Boice and Johnson’s study, regular writing was positively correlated with productivity, but here the relationship was weak and nonsignificant.
Survey Item Mean Mode Std. Dev. Productivity Correlation (r) Midnight–4AM (hour of day) 1.76 1.00 1.29 0.01 4AM–8AM 1.87 1.00 1.49 0.04 8AM–Noon 4.61 6.00 1.44 0.17 Noon–4PM 4.34 4.00 1.33 0.15 4PM–8PM 3.60 4.00 1.54 0.13 8PM–Midnight 3.80 2.00 1.80 0.05 0–1 hour (Duration) 3.50 2.0 1.58 0.09 1–2 hours 4.46 6.0 1.40 0.22* 2–3 hours 4.44 6.0 1.36 0.07 3–4 hours 3.49 4.0 1.63 -0.04 More than 4 hours 2.76 1.0 1.73 -0.12 Every working day (regularity) 3.01 3.0 1.50 0.11
Table 3: Analysis of Work Scheduling (n=121; The response scale ranged from
“Always”(7). * = p<0.05)
Another interesting aspect of Kellogg 1986 is that almost all variables correlate non-statistically-significantly with
“productivity”(defined in Kellogg as the total number of books/papers/reports/grant-applications/grant-reports written in the previous 3 years), and most are of small magnitude. Measurement error & range restriction come to mind as biasing effects towards zero, but it’s still consistent with my own experience that it is difficult to find anything which strongly correlates with ‘productivity’, much less causes it.
Hartley & Branthwaite 1989,
“The psychologist as wordsmith: a questionnaire study of the writing strategies of productive British psychologists”, conduct a similar survey as Kellogg but do not give any statistical details that I can find, saying merely
In the present study most of our productive psychologists had no real preference for any time of day at which to work. The morning appeared to be slightly preferred to the afternoon and the afternoon slightly preferred to the evening. Regular working times were correlated with overall productivity, but productive book writers wrote sporadically (in term time). These findings were very similar to those of Kellogg (1986) who showed that the majority of his 121 engineers worked in the morning, and then the afternoon, but that a highly regular work schedule was not the rule.
“Productivity in 2017: What we learned from analyzing 225 million hours of work time”; analytics over hundreds of thousands of users:
Looking at the time spent in software development tools, our data paints a picture of a workday that doesn’t get going until the late morning and peaks between 2–6pm daily…While writers are more likely to be early birds…Writing apps were used more evenly throughout each day with the most productive writing time happening on Tuesdays at 10AM.
Allowing for the different time buckets, the RescueTime results closely parallel Kellogg 1986’s survey responses. Aside from being an enormous data sample, RescueTime notes an interesting contrast: despite being apparently similar activities (both mostly involve slinging text), the temporal timing of software development & writing are strikingly different. Thinking back, I don’t recall early-morning programming being a trend among programmers (programmers are infamous for preferring to come in late and late-night programming sessions which may wrap around the clock, especially in college—though the original reason, that “the computers are less busy at night”, has long since expired). It’s fascinating that the stereotypes about writing vs programming line up so well with the RescueTime data.
2018 Google Surveys, general USA population sample, asking self-identified writers/researchers/scientists their chronotype & ideal writing time, Gwern:
I ran this survey in October 2018, using Google Surveys, asking a question akin to Kellogg 1986’s survey, like
“if you are a professional writer, blogger, researcher, or scientist do you find you write best at: [not a writer]/[Midnight–4AM]/[4–8AM]/etc?”At $0.10 a response, if 5% of the population could be considered some sort of writer (which sounds reasonable to me) and we want another n=121 to equal Kellogg 1986’s sample size, the survey would only cost . A second question could be added to ask if the respondent considers themselves more of a morning or evening person, however, it dectuples the cost; as in my catnip surveys, it should be possible to combine the questions into a single question which can hopefully provide a useful datapoint. (GS tries for a representative population sample by techniques like reweighting; I don’t know if they take time-of-day into account and thus lark/owl type, but the surveys typically run over several days so hopefully they wind up being inherently balanced anyway.)
If morning is the most common (replicating the Kellogg 1986 & RescueTime results), and if many evening-preferring respondents still answer that mornings work better for writing, that would be pretty good evidence for morning writing being a real phenomenon (although still leaving the causal status ambiguous and not answering the question of whether owls—like me—would benefit from switching to morning writing).
On 27 October 2018, I launched an all-ages all-gender USA population survey on Google Surveys. Because of the need to run as a 1-question survey, I condensed the two questions into one and simplified it considerably into just morning/evening preference and morning/evening self-estimated writing performance, giving 5 possible responses (1+2x2=5). As most respondents will be useless—I guesstimate 5% would consider them professional writers of some sort, so for a few hundred responses, I need 20x as many; I settled on n=5000/$500 for the survey, which should deliver a precise enough result. The question looked as follows:
If you are a writer/researcher/scientist, are you a morning/evening person & when do you write best? [answers displayed either ascending or descending at random]
- I don’t write or blog
- Morning person; best writing during morning
- Morning person; best writing during evening
- Evening person; best writing during morning
- Evening person; best writing during evening
The survey finished 29 October 2018 with the following results (percentage is population-weighted out of equivalent n=3,999; n is raw counts out of the n=5004 actually collected; CSV)
- 70% (3515)
- 9.9% (467)
- 4.0% (196)
- 4.0% (193)
- 12.1% (633)
The percentage of people willing to claim to be writers was ~6x larger than I expected, which is troubling (do really that many people write?). Otherwise, the responses appear reasonably evenly balanced: 663 morning people vs 826 evening people. The percentage of overall counter-chronotype self-rated writing performance is 26%. On average, 55% of respondents thought evening-writing was best. The key question, of course, is whether morning-writing is more preferred for counter-chronotype writing: there is a slight preference here, but it is the opposite of predicted, with 29% of morning people believing they write best in evening versus 23% of evening people saying morning is best for them. (The difference is statistically-significant at p=0.008/P≅1.8)
This does not strongly endorse morning-writing, although it is surprising how many people think they write best counter-chronotype. Of course, the fact that fewer people believe they write better in the morning rather than evening doesn’t prove morning-writing isn’t a thing: one possibility is that people simply haven’t given it a fair try, or that it only works for professional writers at a high level, or that it is heterogeneous and there is a small fraction of people for whom morning-writing works really well (and so everyone should give it a try just in case). The overall even split of chronotype does give a baseline expectation for elite writers, though.
2019 Google Surveys, general USA population sample, asking self-identified published writers writing time, Gwern:
Compiling the anecdotes from Goodreads & The Paris Review, I noticed what seemed like a trend towards fiction writers emphasizing the morning as the best time to write, and avoiding afternoons/evenings except as continuations of morning writing or noting that afternoons/evenings were useful for secondary tasks (review/editing/background research/correspondence), while nonfiction writers can write at any time. If there is a genre split, this would explain why the anecdotes are polarized but the RescueTime/Twitter/GS general surveys show balance: the nonfiction writers are masking the fiction writers when aggregated, and since these surveys do not split responses by type of writing (and Kellogg 1986/Hartley & Branthwaite 1989 presumably exclude fiction writers entirely by surveying STEM or psychology faculty only), no analysis can reveal this heterogeneity. There were too few nonfiction authors in the anecdote compilation to allow easy formal statistical modeling, but this does generate a testable hypothesis: if I run new surveys which do collect nonfiction vs fiction covariates, there should be a distinct difference in morning vs evening writing preference.
As before, a 1-question forced-choice survey is most cost-effective, so I do another 5-way split between nonfiction/fiction/morning/afternoon-evening. One adjustment I make is to rephrase it in terms of ‘afternoon-evening’ since based on the anecdotes since, it’s become clear that writing in the evening is unusual and afternoon-evening is more common.
- If you are a published writer of fiction or nonfiction, when do you write best?
- Nonfiction; morning
- Nonfiction; afternoon-evening
- Fiction; morning
- Fiction; afternoon-evening
- I’m not a writer/NA
The morning/fiction correlate feels large, possibly a doubling of the baseline 1:1 odds, so a quick power analysis suggests a total n=120 of responders (
power.prop.test(p1 =2/4, p2 = 3/4, power=0.80)), and since 30% of the first survey respondents provided a writer response, n=120 writers requires a total sample size of n=400. I’m suspicious that <30% will respond or that the effect will be so big underneath the measurement error and thus that n=400 is a loose lower bound at best, so I doubled it to n=800.
I launched the survey on 20 July 2019, random reversed order, n=800 ($80). Response rates turned out to be lower and imbalanced towards nonfiction responses, so I doubled the sample with additional surveys, combined with coupons. The final n=2103 with n=462 (22%) useful writer responses (CSV). Breakdown:
- “Fiction; afternoon-evening”: 76
- “Fiction; morning”: 95 (55%)
- “Nonfiction; afternoon-evening”: 87
- “Nonfiction; morning”: 204 (70%)
The result was the opposite of predicted, with nonfiction writers more likely to respond with morning preference (P≅1):
df <- data.frame(Morning=c(95,204), Fiction=c(TRUE,FALSE), N=c(171,291)) df # Morning Fiction N # 1 95 TRUE 171 # 2 204 FALSE 291 prop.test(df$Morning, df$N) # # 2-sample test for equality of proportions with continuity correction # # data: df$Morning out of df$N # X-squared = 9.355829, df = 1, p-value = 0.00222277 # alternative hypothesis: two.sided # 95 percent confidence interval: # -0.2412962960 -0.0496544486 # sample estimates: # prop 1 prop 2 # 0.555555556 0.701030928 library(brms) brm(Morning|trials(N) ~ Fiction, family=binomial, data=df) # ...Population-Level Effects: # Estimate Est.Error l-95% CI u-95% CI Eff.Sample Rhat # Intercept 0.86 0.12 0.62 1.11 4307 1.00 # FictionTRUE -0.63 0.20 -1.03 -0.24 3244 1.00
|Kellogg survey||1986||Nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||8AM–12PM, 12PM–4PM||Kellogg 1986 survey||Top 2 time-ranges; ordinal scale mean ratings >4 for those buckets, others, like 4AM–8AM, can be half or less.|
|RescueTime users||2018||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||10AM–11AM||RescueTime blog analytics||This is the peak writing time; aggregate writing times span the clock.|
|Gwern Google Surveys||2018||Fiction+nonfiction||Evening||?||Google Surveys||On average, respondents thought they wrote best at evening; survey respondents were more likely to prefer evening when writing counter-chronotype.|
|Gwern Google Surveys||2019||Fiction||Morning||?||Google Surveys||n=95|
|Gwern Google Surveys||2019||Fiction||Afternoon–evening||?||Google Surveys||n=76|
|Gwern Google Surveys||2019||Nonfiction||Morning||?||Google Surveys||n=204|
|Gwern Google Surveys||2019||Nonfiction||Afternoon–evening||?||Google Surveys||n=87|
|Kazuo Ishiguro||2014||Fiction||Morning||9AM–10:30AM||The Guardian interview|
|Dan Brown||2017||Fiction||Morning||4AM–12PM||The New York Times interview|
|Philip Pullman||2017||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||10AM–1PM||The New York Times interview|
|Ian Fleming||1964||Fiction||Morning–evening||10AM–12PM, 6–7PM||Playboy interview|
|Joseph Campbell||?||Nonfiction||Morning–evening||9AM–6PM||Biography||Campbell refers to
“reading”in this anecdote of his youth; unclear if that includes writing or if he changed later.
|Winston Churchill||?||Nonfiction||Morning–evening||11AM–1PM, 11PM–2AM||Biography|
|Frank Herbert||1969||Fiction||Morning–evening||5AM–7AM, 5PM–1AM||McNelly interview|
|Harry Harrison||1968||Fiction||Afternoon||12:30PM–5PM||McNelly interview|
|Michael Connelly||2017||Fiction||Morning||4AM–7AM||Goodreads||Inferring times from his preference to write
“before the light gets up in the sky…before the rest of the city wakes up…dark morning hours”
|Brandon Sanderson||2012||Fiction||Evening||12PM–4PM, 4PM–3AM||FAQ, online interview|
|Margaret Atwood||1990||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||10AM–4PM||Paris Review||Her later GoodReads interview suggests she loosened her schedule after her daughter grew up.|
|Neil Gaiman||2004||Fiction||Evening||?PM–?AM||Interview anthology|
|John Irving||1986||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?AM–?PM||Paris Review interview||Inferred from his description 8-hour days which terminate before
“the evening”, reserved for research.
|Donald Hall||2018||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||5AM–?PM||Paris Review interview|
|Michel Houellebecq||2010||Fiction||Morning||1AM–?AM||Paris Review|
|Joyce Cary||1954||Fiction||Morning||9AM–?||Paris Review interview||
“He rose, he said, early, and was always at his desk by nine.”
|Ursula K. Le Guin||1988||Fiction||Morning||7:15AM–12PM||Polish interview||Based on her
“7:15 a.m.—get to work writing, writing, writing. / Noon—lunch.”
|William Gibson||2011||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM–?PM||Paris Review interview||Schedule varies in how late Gibson goes into the afternoon/evening, but assuming his Pilates classes are 1 hour, he doesn’t start before ~9AM.|
|Gene Wolfe||2002||Fiction||Morning||4AM–?||2002 Locus interview|
|Beatriz Williams||2018||Fiction||Morning–evening||7AM?-1PM, 7PM-?PM||Goodreads||Writing starts after
“kids are off to school”(which for Americans would generally be 7–9AM depending on age), and resumes in
“the evening”(presumably after a family dinner)
|Deborah Harkness||2018||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–evening||?AM-?PM||Goodreads||Harkness describes writing for the first hour every day as a
“warm-up…the rest of the day kind of clicks along”.
|Ruth Ware||2018||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||7AM?–?PM||Goodreads||Like Williams, writing is done in between children going to school & returning.|
“I bitterly lament the loss of my former schedule. [Laughs] I would go to sleep at 3 a.m. and wake up at 11, and that was so nice.”
|Max Lugavere||2019||Nonfiction||Morning–evening||8AM?–1AM?||New York Times profile|
|Celeste Ng||2017||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||7AM?–?PM||Goodreads||During school hours.|
|Meg Wolitzer||2018||Fiction||Morning||?AM–?PM||Goodreads||Previously during school hours.|
|Lisa Genova||2018||Fiction||Morning||?AM-1PM?||Goodreads||Genova writes for 4 hours regularly at Starbucks; that suggests starting around 9AM and finishing around 1PM.|
|A.E. Housman||1933||Fiction||Afternoon||1PM-4PM?||The Name And Nature Of Poetry||
“Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon…I would go out for a walk of two or three hours”
|John Peale Bishop||<1952||Fiction||Morning||?||Attributed by Ghiselin 1952||
“John Peale Bishop recommended going as soon as possible from sleep to the writing desk.”
|Mohsin Hamid||2017||Fiction||Morning–evening||?||Goodreads||Hamid preferred
“late at night…a vampire-like existence”but due to children now follows
“completely different”school-hours .
|Anonymous||2016||?||Morning||5AM–noon||Goodreads||As described by Julian Fellowes|
|Michael J. Sullivan||2016||Fiction||Morning||9AM?–noon||Goodreads||
“…Most people write from whenever they wake up until noon or one. That’s your writing period. I do it every day…during that period of three or four hours.”
|Iris Murdoch||1990||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–evening||?AM–noon, 4:30PM–8PM||Paris Review|
“I work many hours a day, usually starting in the morning. I’m much better then than in the afternoon or the evening.”
“I’m used to just getting up, coming downstairs, sitting at my desk and writing. Sometimes if the writing’s going really well I can write almost all day and all night but usually it’s a pretty normal day, not quite 9 to 5 but not that far off.”
“It changes from book to book. With these stories, I think I was up very late at night, writing, like, at 2 a.m. And then I’d just sleep a lot and wake up and write some more. But with other books, I’ve had much more structure.”
|Danielle Steele||2019||Fiction||Morning–evening||8AM–4AM?||Glamour profile||
“To pull it off, she works 20 to 22 hours a day…She gets to her office—down the hall from her bedroom—by 8:00 A.M…‘If I have four hours [of sleep], it’s really a good night for me’”May be a ‘short sleeper’.
|Laurell K. Hamilton||2015||Fiction||Morning–afternoon?||?||Goodreads||Multiple schedules reported: 5AM–8AM? (before day job), 10AM–3PM (full-time writer), then miscellaneous (while childrearing).|
|Judy Blume||2015||Fiction||Morning||?AM–noon||Goodreads||After walk/breakfast/shower, until noon.|
|Orhan Pamuk||2015||Fiction||Evening?||?PM–4AM||Goodreads||Pamuk thanks
“coffee and tea”and says
“especially before my daughter was born I used to write until four in the morning.”, suggesting starting only in the evening.
“when I have child-free time”
|Pierce Brown||2014||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||8AM?–noon, 3PM–7PM||Goodreads||8 hours total, morning until noon (=8AM), afternoon until 7–8PM (=3–4PM)|
“I…write at the kitchen table when the kids are at school.”
|Jacqueline Winspear||2014||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||6AM–?AM,?AM–?PM||Goodreads||Winspear gives a detailed idealized schedule: she wakes ~5:30AM, writes for several hours, walks/breakfasts, writes additional hours, exercises, writes additional hours, and stops sometime before dinner.|
|Nick Harkaway||2014||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||8:30AM–noon, ?PM–6PM||Goodreads|
|Diana Gabaldon||2014||Fiction||Morning, afternoon, evening||11AM–noon, 1PM?–2PM?, midnight–4AM||Goodreads||Gabaldon writes briefly during the day, then wakes up at midnight to do her main writing.|
“I need to write first thing in the morning…I’m at the computer anywhere from four to six hours.”
“Once my kids have gone to school, I…just switch off for three hours.”
|Sue Monk Kidd||2014||Fiction||Any||?||Goodreads||
“But I write all day long.”
|Ishmael Beah||2014||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning, evening||?PM-?AM||Goodreads||Both late night & early morning:
“I like to write late at night when everything is really quiet—especially here in New York—and I’ll work right through until the morning. But if I’m home in Sierra Leone, it’s different, and I usually write early in the morning or when I can”
|Ruth Ozeki||2013||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?AM-3PM?||Goodreads||Starts in the morning after meditation, then
“Usually I write until mid-afternoon”.
|Walter Mosley||2017||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
“I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do is go to my favorite café.”
|M. L. Stedman||2012||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?||Goodreads||
“I only write in the daytime—never at night.”
“On a perfect day I walk the dogs, get a cup of coffee, and go over there and just stay for seven or eight hours.”
“I sit down in the afternoon to write generally. I don’t write more than two, three hours at a time.”
|Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie||2013||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||?||Goodreads||
“When the writing is going well, I’m obsessive—I roll out of bed and go to work.”
“…waking up at about five o’clock in the morning…I have a couple of hours before any of my kids have woken up, and that’s what I call the ‘Dream Time’.”
|Thomas Keneally||2013||Fiction||Morning–evening||?AM–7:30PM||Goodreads||Multiple stints.|
|Karen Marie Moning||2012||Fiction||Morning||4:30AM–10AM?||Goodreads||Writes for 4 hours, takes a break for breakfast, then edits, apparently stopping before lunch.|
|Zadie Smith||2016||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||10AM–3PM||Goodreads||Inferred from childcare description.|
“after breakfast…until 7 o’clock”
|Sherrilyn Kenyon||2011||Fiction||Evening||7PM–3:30AM||Personal website|
|Emily Giffin||2012||Fiction||Morning, evening||?AM–?PM?||Goodreads||
“I always start out my writing day with a strong cup of black coffee and find that my writing flows more the first thing in the morning (after I get my children off to school) or very late at night.”
|Terry Pratchett||2012||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM–5PM||Goodreads||Same interview as Stephen Baxter,
“It’s pretty much like that for me.”
|Richard Ford||2012||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||8:30AM–1PM, 3:15PM–5PM||Goodreads|
“When I get up, I read the paper at the kitchen counter…then I go up to the office…and I stand in front of the desk 12 hours a day.”
|Anne Lamott||2012||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning?||9AM?–?||Goodreads||Lamott seems to imply she starts at 9AM in discussing the importance of routine.|
|Veronica Roth||2011||Fiction||Afternoon?||?PM–5PM||Goodreads||Roth is facetious about trying & failing to write in the morning, so perhaps she writes in the morning as well.|
|Marisa de los Santos||2008||Fiction||Morning||?||Goodreads|
|Rob Walker||2008||Nonfiction||Morning?||?||Goodreads||Walker appears to have been both:
“I’m definitely not an up-all-night kind of writer, though I used to be. Now I’m more of an early riser.”
“breakfast till lunch”
“my gym has a coffee room with two cubicles. I go there, write, work out and take the bus home mid-afternoon.”
|Neal Stephenson||2008||Fiction||Morning–afternoon?||?AM–11AM, ?PM–?PM||Goodreads||Stephenson writes in the morning as usual but also
“Then I go exercise and spend the afternoon working on something completely unrelated.”—more fiction writing, or one of his many non-writing projects?
“Best time is late morning or early afternoon.”
|Dennis Lehane||2008||Fiction||Morning, evening||?||Goodreads||
“I usually write in the morning or very late at night”
|John Grogan||2008||Nonfiction||Morning?||5AM–7AM?||Goodreads||Grogan wrote 5AM–7AM for his first book before his journalist job, but quit & switched to an unspecified schedule afterwards.|
“I might write for a couple of hours, and then I head out to have lunch and read the paper. Then I write for a little bit longer if I can”
|Gordon Snell||2009||Fiction||Morning||8:30AM–1PM||Goodreads||Binchy interview.|
|Dan Simmons||2009||Fiction||Morning||?||Goodreads||Simmons describes
“wonderfully wasted”mornings with slow breakfasts but still seems to start before the afternoon.
|Joyce Carol Oates||2009||Fiction||Morning, evening||8AM–1PM, ?PM–?PM||Goodreads, NYRB|
|Alexander McCall Smith||2009||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||10AM–noon||Goodreads||Not quite a pure morning writing:
“although I sometimes write later in the afternoon and in the evening.”
|Elmore Leonard||2009||Fiction||Morning–evening||9AM–6PM||Goodreads||Originally 5AM–7PM before job; increasingly later.|
“I begin to write in earnest around 9…Sometimes I can get that [1000 words] done in 2 hours; sometimes it takes all day.”
|Rebecca Wells||2009||Fiction||Evening||?||Goodreads||Wells gives several schedules over the years, but her current one seems quite late, possibly starting at midnight.|
“I get up very early in the morning…I work every day for a long period of hours, drinking lots of coffee…”
“By mid-afternoon I’m sort of spent.”
|Anna Quindlen||2010||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon?||10AM–?PM||Goodreads||Quindlen doesn’t specify an end-time but as a prolific author only starting at 10AM, she presumably must go into the afternoon.|
|Charlaine Harris||2010||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM?–?PM||Goodreads||Originally a more typical 8AM–11:30AM.|
|Bret Easton Ellis||2010||Fiction||Any||?||Goodreads|
“then in the afternoon I have the pleasure of writing. If I am trying to get through a scene or get on with the novel, then I reread and write again at night.”
|Sara Gruen||2010||Fiction||Morning||8AM?–?PM||Goodreads||After kids leave for school, a 1.5 hour delay to get into the mindset, then she’s
“good for 2,000 words”, so perhaps to noon?
|David Sedaris||2010||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon, evening||10:30AM–1:30PM, 8PM–9:30PM||Goodreads|
“I do most of my own writing when I’m shuttling between meetings on the subway”, which suggests during the working day.
|Justin Cronin||2010||Fiction||Morning, evening||9AM?–3PM?, 10PM–12PM?||Goodreads||
“I think I’d write at night all the time if I could do it any way I wanted, but that’s not concomitant with the demands of a house with children in it.”
|Orson Scott Card||2011||Fiction||Any||?||Goodreads|
“now I’m back in my old Starbucks…I try to write for four hours in the morning.”
|Jean M. Auel||2011||Fiction||Evening||Midnight?–5AM?||Goodreads||Auel starts writing when her husband goes to bed, and she says
“I often catch the sun rising.”
|Geraldine Brooks||2011||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||8AM?–3PM?||Goodreads||School schedule.|
|Ann Patchett||2011||Fiction||Any?||?||Goodreads||Somewhat contradictory to Elizabeth Gilbert; see excerpts.|
|Aravind Adiga||2011||Fiction||Morning, evening||6AM–?AM, ?PM–?PM||Goodreads|
“up with first light”means dawn or ~5–6AM &
“6 to 8 hours is the goal”, so she presumably finishes by noon or 1PM.
|Umberto Eco||2008||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning, evening||?AM–?PM, 11PM–2AM||Paris Review||Eco disclaims a regular schedule but admits when he can, he writes in two segments: morning, and then late evening.|
|David McCullough||1999||Nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||8:30AM–noon, 1PM?–?PM||Paris Review|
|Hermione Lee||2013||Nonfiction||Any||?AM–3PM, ?PM–?PM||Paris Review||
“Then we’ll make supper, and then I’ll probably do a bit more writing in the evening.”
|Michael Holroyd||2012||Nonfiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Richard Holmes||2017||Nonfiction||Afternoon||?||Paris Review|
|Rose Tremain||2017||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Robert Caro||2016||Nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||?||Paris Review||Caro says he skips lunch with friends while writing, gets up earlier and earlier during a chapter, and works
“pretty long days”.
|Stacy Schiff||2017||Nonfiction||Morning–afternoon?||?||Paris Review||Schiff implies she starts writing in the morning through to afternoon by referring to skipping lunch with friends, like Caro:
“there is the problem of lunch, in which the writer’s day craters. I avoid midday commitments when I’m writing, which endears me to no one.”
|Robert Crumb||2010||Fiction||Any?||?||Paris Review||
“I could never work regularly like that. I work in erratic spurts.”
|Harold Bloom||1991||Nonfiction||Any?||?||Paris Review||
“There isn’t one for me. I write in desperation.”
|George Steiner||1995||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||?AM–noon?||Paris Review||
“All my best work tends to be done in the morning, especially the early morning, when somehow my mind and sensibility operate much more efficiently. I read and take notes in the afternoon, then sketch the writing I want to do the next morning. The afternoon is the time for charging the battery.”
|Helen Vendler||1996||Nonfiction||Any?||?||Paris Review||
“I have no routine. I hate routines. I have no fixed hours for sleeping, eating, waking, working…I’m a night person, so I tend to write later in the day rather than earlier, but I have no fixed hours”
|Simone de Beauvoir||1965||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–evening||10AM-1PM, 5PM–9PM||Paris Review|
|Jean Genet||1965||Fiction||Any?||?||Paris Review||Simone de Beauvoir:
“Genet, for example, works quite differently [than me]. He puts in about twelve hours a day for six months when he’s working on something”
|Kenneth Roberts||1969||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review||Description by E.B. White|
|Hilton Als||2018||Nonfiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Mary Karr||2009||Nonfiction||Morning||5AM–?AM||Paris Review|
|Adam Phillips||2014||Nonfiction||Morning||6AM–?||Paris Review||Phillips seems to write on non-work Wednesdays but comes in at 6AM on work days; however, he
“claims to require very little sleep”and probably starts around then on Wednesdays too.
|Geoff Dyer||2013||Fiction+nonfiction||Any?||?||Paris Review|
|Gay Talese||2009||Nonfiction||Morning, evening||?AM–?PM, 5PM–?||Paris Review||First thing in morning, break, then after ‘lunch’ resumes.|
|B.F. Skinner||1993||Nonfiction||Morning, evening||12AM–1AM, 5AM–7AM||Bjork biography||Skinner had a biphasic schedule.|
|John McPhee||2010||Nonfiction||Morning–evening||9AM–7PM||Paris Review||McPhee says he starts at 9AM but is
“gonging around”until 5PM when he actually starts writing for 2 hours.
|Luc Sante||2016||Nonfiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Amy Clampitt||1993||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Andrei Voznesensky||1980||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|W. H. Auden||1988||Fiction||Morning||?AM–3PM||Paris Review||According to Anthony Hecht.|
|Aharon Appelfeld||2014||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||10AM–1PM, ?PM–?PM||Paris Review||An additional two hours after a late afternoon lunch.|
|Candace Bushnell||2019||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||11–12AM||New York Times|
|Alain Robbe-Grillet||1986||Fiction||Morning–evening||11AM–4PM, 8PM–12AM||Paris Review|
|Alan Hollinghurst||2011||Fiction||Morning?||?||Paris Review||Hollinghurst was a
“evening-and-alcohol writer”for his first novel but turned himself into a
“morning-and-caffeine writer”for all later ones,
|Robert Fagles||1999||Fiction||Morning–?||7:30AM–?||Paris Review|
|August Kleinzahler||2007||Fiction||Morning||8AM–1AM||Paris Review|
|Matthew Weiner||2014||Fiction||Evening||?||Paris Review|
|Alberto Moravia||1954||Fiction||Morning||9AM–noon||Paris Review|
|Aldous Huxley||1969||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||?||Paris Review||
“four or five hours”in the morning
|Alice Munro||1994||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||8AM–11AM||Paris Review||Historically, mixed schedule around school & work; currently, exclusively morning.|
|Ali Smith||2017||Fiction||Afternoon-evening||2PM–9PM||Paris Review|
|Amos Oz||1996||Fiction+nonfiction||7AM–3PM||Paris Review||Starts ~6:45AM, then is there
“at least seven or eight hours every day”.
|Amy Hempel||2003||Fiction||Evening?||?||Paris Review||Used to be
“All night”but shifted to at least partly daytime.
|Andrea Barrett||2003||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Angus Wilson||1957||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||8AM–4PM||Paris Review|
|Carl Phillips||2019||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Anita Brookner||1987||Fiction||Morning–evening||?AM–?PM||Paris Review|
|Ann Beattie||2011||Fiction||Afternoon–evening?||?–?PM||Paris Review||Beattie apparently had a reputation for writing late at night, but disclaims it now.|
|David Mamet||1997||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Annie Proulx||2009||Fiction+nonfiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Anthony Burgess||1973||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||?||Paris Review|
|Thomas Mann||1973||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM–1PM||Paris Review||As described by interviewer & Burgess.|
|Anthony Powell||1978||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Arthur Koestler||1984||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||9:30AM–1PM||Paris Review|
|William Weaver||2002||Fiction||Morning||?AM–noon||Paris Review|
|Barry Hannah||2004||Fiction||Evening||?PM–?AM||Paris Review||Hannah describes writing after his college teaching job when he was younger, sometimes as late as 4AM.|
|Beryl Bainbridge||2000||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Charles Wright||1989||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review||Wright says he did work in the afternoon for years, but that was not his most common pattern, instead working on things at any time of day where possible.|
|Blaise Cendrars||1950||Fiction||Morning||6AM–?AM||Paris Review||Ascribed to Cendrars by PR.|
|Carlos Fuentes||1981||Fiction||Morning||8:30AM–12:30PM||Paris Review|
|Chinua Achebe||1994||Fiction||Morning–evening?||?||Paris Review||<q“>I am not an early-morning person; I don’t like to get out of bed, and so I don’t begin writing at five A.M…I write once my day has started. And I can work late into the night, also.”|
|John Guare||1992||Fiction||Morning?||?AM||Paris Review||
“I like to get up in the morning and go to work.”
|Christopher Isherwood||1974||Fiction||Morning?||?AM||Paris Review||Attributed by the interviewer:
“Isherwood works every morning and then usually walks to the ocean to swim.”
|Cynthia Ozick||1987||Fiction||Evening||?||Paris Review||
“through the night”.
|Claude Simon||1992||Fiction||Afternoon–evening||3:30PM–8PM||Paris Review|
|Alice McDermott||2019||Fiction||Morning–evening||9AM–6PM||Paris Review||Previously, until 3PM when her children returned home.|
|Dag Solstad||2016||Fiction||Morning?||?||Paris Review||Solstad implies that he doesn’t write in the afternoon by describing how on one day of his
“3-1-3 system”that he gets drunk in the afternoon; on the other hand, he might be implying that he writes in the afternoon on all the other days.
|David Grossman||2007||Fiction||Morning||6AM–12PM||Paris Review|
|Don DeLillo||1993||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?AM–?PM, ?PM–?PM||Paris Review||He works for 4 hours in the morning, breaks for run, then 3 hours in the afternoon.|
|Edmund White||1988||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Edna O’Brien||1984||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?AM–2PM||Paris Review|
|Czeslaw Milosz||1994||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Elias Khoury||2017||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Elie Wiesel||1984||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review||4 hours.|
|David Ignatow||1979||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review||At evening during original printing job; morning while on grants; but any time at time of interview while a teacher.|
|Elizabeth Spencer||1989||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||8AM?–2PM||Paris Review|
|Ernest Hemingway||1958||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||6AM–noon||Paris Review|
|Eudora Welty||1972||Fiction||Morning?||?||Paris Review|
|Erskine Caldwell||1982||Fiction||Morning–evening||6AM–11AM, 4PM–7PM||Paris Review|
|Derek Walcott||1986||Fiction||Morning||5AM–9AM||Paris Review|
|Francine du Plessix Gray||1987||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||11AM–7PM||Paris Review|
|Gabriel García Márquez||1981||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM–2:30PM||Paris Review||As a journalist, wrote late at night.|
|Gore Vidal||1987||Fiction||Morning||?AM–?AM||Paris Review||For 3 hours in the morning after waking.|
|Graham Greene||1953||Fiction||Morning?||?AM||Paris Review||He seems to imply regularly writing in the morning after rereading previous day’s work.|
|Günter Grass||1991||Fiction||Morning–evening||10AM–?PM, ?PM–7PM||Paris Review||Break for coffee.|
|Guy Davenport||2002||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Gustaw Herling||2000||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review||As described by PR:
“Most mornings..Herling rose…and went to his desk to continue”
|Ha Jin||2009||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||7AM–?PM||Paris Review||Short break for breakfast, then writing until
|Harry Mathews||2007||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||11AM–?PM||Paris Review||Previously, began at 9AM.|
|Haruki Murakami||2004||Fiction||Morning||4AM–10AM||Paris Review|
|Heinrich Böll||1983||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?AM–12:30PM, ?PM–?PM||Paris Review|
|Henry Green||1958||Fiction||Evening||?||Paris Review||As summarized by Paris Review, based in part on Green’s memoir.|
|Henry Miller||1962||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review||Miller also mentions writing midnight–dawn, or morning–afternoon, when he was younger (pre-1950s).|
|Hilary Mantel||2015||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Ian McEwan||2002||Fiction||Morning||9:30AM–?||Paris Review|
|Isaac Bashevis Singer||1968||Fiction||Morning–afternoon?||Paris Review|
|Italo Calvino||1992||Fiction||Afternoon||?||Paris Review|
|Ismail Kadare||1998||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review||Only 2 hours.|
|James Baldwin||1984||Fiction||Evening||12AM?–6AM||Paris Review|
|William Styron||1984||Fiction||Morning?||6AM–?||Paris Review||As described by James Baldwin while staying at Styron’s guest house, both starting/ending at dawn.|
|Jack Kerouac||1968||Fiction||Evening||12AM–6AM||Paris Review||
“midnight till dawn”
|James Jones||1958||Fiction||Morning||8:30AM-2:30PM||Paris Review||Up at 7, fiddles ~1.5 hours, writes ~6 hours.|
|Frederick Seidel||2009||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review||
“…quite early in the morning and work throughout the day with occasional interruptions. And again at night”
|Javier Marías||2006||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Geoffrey Hill||2000||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Sam Shepard||1997||Fiction||Morning||7AM?–noon||Paris Review|
|Jeffrey Eugenides||2011||Fiction||Morning–evening||10AM–6PM?||Paris Review|
|Jerzy Kosiński||1972||Fiction||Any||?||Paris Review||Kosiński slept biphasically, but emphasizes writing at any time.|
|J. G. Ballard||1984||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?AM–?AM, ?PM–?PM||Paris Review||2 hours in late morning, 2 early afternoon.|
|Ishmael Reed||2016||Fiction||Morning||?AM–?||Paris Review|
|Joan Didion||1978||Fiction+nonfiction||Afternoon?||?||Paris Review||Didion emphasizes needing to review what she wrote
“an hour alone before dinner”
|Jim Harrison||1988||Fiction||Afternoon, evening||2PM–4PM, 11PM–1AM||Paris Review|
|Tennessee Williams||1981||Fiction||Morning||6AM–?AM||Paris Review||‘dawn’/‘daybreak’, stopping apparently before lunch.|
|John Barth||1985||Fiction||Morning||6AM–noon||Paris Review|
|John Dos Passos||1969||Fiction||Morning||6AM?–1PM||Paris Review||Dos Passos says he can’t sleep past 7AM and describes getting up
“early in the morning”to finish by 1PM, suggesting before 7AM.
|Arthur Miller||1999||Fiction||Morning||?AM–?||__Paris Review_|
|Jack Gilbert||2005||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|John Edgar Wideman||2002||Fiction||Morning||?AM–?AM||Paris Review||4–5 hours, starting from
|Tom Stoppard||1988||Fiction||Evening||11PM?–?||Paris Review||Stoppard writes
“when everybody has gone to bed and I feel completely at peace”
|Sinclair Lewis||1986||Fiction||Evening||?AM–?AM||Paris Review||As described by his former assistant, John Hersey: he would
“get up in the middle of the night, cook up some coffee, and work for two or three hours”
|John Mortimer||1988||Fiction||Morning||?AM||Paris Review|
|John le Carré||1997||Fiction||Morning||5AM–noon||Paris Review|
|John Updike||1968||Fiction||Morning||?AM||Paris Review|
|Jonathan Lethem||2003||Fiction||Morning||?AM||Paris Review|
|Joseph Heller||1974||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?AM–?PM||Paris Review|
|Joyce Carol Oates||1978||Fiction||Morning||?AM–noon?||Paris Review||Oates writes before breakfast, and on good days, eats only at 2–3PM|
|José Saramago||1998||Fiction||Morning?||?||Paris Review||Saramago describes himself as
“very regular…very disciplined”and mentions writing 2 pages that morning and implying another 2
|Peter Morgan||2019||Fiction||Morning||6AM–?AM||New York Times|
|J. P. Donleavy||1975||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||8AM?–4PM?||Paris Review|
|Julian Barnes||2000||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||10AM–1PM||Paris Review|
|J. H. Prynne||2016||Fiction||Evening||?PM–?AM||Paris Review|
|Katherine Anne Porter||1963||Fiction||Morning||?AM–?AM||Paris Review||Porter tries to start working when she gets up
“very early in the morning”and works 3–5 hours.
|Kenzaburo Oe||2007||Fiction||Morning||7AM–11AM||Paris Review|
|Ken Kesey||1994||Fiction||Evening||?||Paris Review|
|John Ashbery||1983||Fiction||Afternoon||?PM–?PM||Paris Review||
|Kingsley Amis||1975||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||10:30AM–2:15PM||Paris Review|
|John Hall Wheelock||1976||Fiction||Evening||?PM–?PM||Paris Review|
|Louis Auchincloss||1994||Fiction||Evening||?PM||Paris Review||Auchincloss qualifies this by noting he wrote during work and weekends as well.|
|Louis Begley||2002||Fiction||Morning–evening?||?||Paris Review||Based on movies & afternoon naps interrupting writing.|
|Luisa Valenzuela||2002||Fiction||Evening||?||Paris Review|
|Karl Shapiro||1986||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?||Paris Review||While writing his autobiography, otherwise, any time.|
|Kay Ryan||2008||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||7AM?–1PM?||Paris Review|
|Manuel Puig||1989||Fiction||Afternoon–evening||4PM–8PM||Paris Review|
|Marguerite Young||1977||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM–5PM||Paris Review||During the writing of her major novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling|
|Margaret Drabble||1978||Fiction||Morning||9:45AM–noon||Paris Review|
|Marilynne Robinson||2008||Fiction+nonfiction||Any||?||Paris Review|
|Mark Helprin||1993||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||5:30AM–9AM||Paris Review|
|Mario Vargas Llosa||1990||Fiction||Morning||?AM–?AM||Paris Review|
|Martin Amis||1998||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||11AM–1PM||Paris Review|
|Mary McCarthy||1962||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM–2PM||Paris Review|
|Mary Lee Settle||1990||Fiction||Morning||6AM?–7AM?||Paris Review||Settle rises with the sun and writes for an hour.|
|May Sarton||1983||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning||8AM?–11PM||Paris Review||Sarton wakes at 5AM but listens to music or writes letters to get started, writes for 2–3 hours, and finishes at 11AM.|
|Mavis Gallant||1999||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Octavio Paz||1991||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||?||Paris Review||Paz originally wrote anytime or often late at night, but by ’91 had shifted to
“late morning and into the afternoon”.
|Maya Angelou||1990||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||6:30AM–1:30PM||Paris Review|
|Pablo Neruda||1971||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Nadine Gordimer||1983||Fiction||Morning||8AM?–noon?||Paris Review||Gordimer writes in the morning but for 4 hours after breakfast, implying starting ~7–8AM to finish while still ‘morning’.|
|Paul Muldoon||2004||Fiction||Afternoon||noon?–?PM||Paris Review|
|Jerry Saltz||2018||Nonfiction||Morning||?AM–?PM||Longform podcast|
|Nathalie Sarraute||1990||Fiction||Morning||?||Paris Review|
|Naguib Mahfouz||1992||Fiction||Afternoon–evening||4PM–7PM||Paris Review|
|Peter Levi||1979||Fiction||Any?||?||Paris Review|
|Mary Oliver||2006||Fiction||Morning||5AM–9AM?||Paris Review|
|Philip Larkin||1982||Fiction||Evening||8–10PM||Paris Review|
|Norman Mailer||1964||Fiction+nonfiction||Morning–afternoon||10AM–12:30PM, 2:30PM–4:30PM||Paris Review|
|Orhan Pamuk||2005||Fiction||Morning–afternoon?||?||Paris Review|
|Norman Rush||2010||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM–?PM||Paris Review|
|Patrick O’Brian||1995||Fiction||Morning–afternoon||9AM?–noon, 3:30PM?–5PM?||Paris Review||After breakfast, then
“after tea I go on until about dinnertime”
Additional anecdotes of writers’ preferred time I’ve collected:
I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a
“Crash”. During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9AM to 10:30PM, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner.
The Paris Review (The Art of Fiction No. 196, 2008) outlines non-crash writing:
I usually write from ten o’clock in the morning until about six o’clock. I try not to attend to e-mails or telephone calls until about four o’clock.
Mr. Brown, 53, spent four years writing and researching the book. He is nothing if not disciplined. He rises at 4AM each day and prepares a smoothie comprising
“blueberries, spinach, banana, coconut water, chia seeds, hemp seeds and … what’s the other kind of seed?”he asked.
“Flax seeds, and this sort of weird protein powder made out of peas.”He also makes so-called bulletproof coffee, with butter and coconut oil, which he says changes
“the way your brain processes the caffeine”so as to sharpen your mind. His computer is programmed to freeze for 60 seconds each hour, during which time Mr. Brown performs push-ups, situps and anything else he needs to do. Though he stops writing at noon, it’s hard for him to get the stories out of his head.
“It’s madness,”he said of his characters.
“They talk to you all day.”
Every day from roughly 10 until 1, Pullman sits at his desk in a monkish study at the top of the house and produces three pages, longhand. He has written three pages a day ever since he started writing. Habit, he is fond of saying, has written far more books than talent. The ritual is sacred. As is the space.
“Nobody’s photographed this, and nobody will ever photograph this,”he told me, both fierce and faintly amused by the severity of his own rule.
“I’m superstitious about that, very superstitious about that.”…For a man whose novels are restless, whose characters never stop traveling, Pullman leads a relatively static life. After the morning shift at his desk, he spends his afternoons either tending to the 800-odd trees he and Judith have planted in the fields behind their house or in his carpentry workshop, where he makes things like reading stands and chopsticks. Occasionally, he drives an elderly woman in the village to the library, and he goes to the cinema once a week with his publisher and close friend David Fickling and their wives.
“I have the company of the people I’m writing about,”Pullman told me.
“Jude and I are quite happy here with our hermit-like existence.”
“Do you spend most of your time there at the typewriter?”
“By no means. I get up with the birds, which is about half-past 7, because they wake one up, and then I go and bathe in the ocean before breakfast. We don’t have to wear a swimsuit there, because it’s so private; my wife and I bathe and swim a hundred yards or so and come back and have a marvelous proper breakfast with some splendid scrambled eggs made by my housekeeper, who’s particularly good at them, and then I sit out in the garden to get a sunburn until about 10. Only then do I set to work. I sit in my bedroom and type about fifteen hundred words straightaway, without looking back on what I wrote the day before. I have more or less thought out what I’m going to write, and, in any case, even if I make a lot of mistakes, I think, well, hell, when the book’s finished I can change it all. I think the main thing is to write fast and cursively in order to get narrative speed.”
“Then, about quarter-past 12, I chuck that and go down, with a snorkel and a spear, around the reefs looking for lobsters or whatever there may be, sometimes find them, sometimes don’t, and then I come back, I have a couple of pink gins, and we have a very good lunch, ordinary Jamaican food, and I have a siesta from about half-past 2 until 4. Then I sit again in the garden for about an hour or so, have another swim, and then I spend from 6 to 7—the dusk comes very suddenly in Jamaica; at 6 o’clock it suddenly gets very dark—doing another five hundred words. I then number the pages, of which by that time there are about seven, put them away 1n a folder, and have a couple of powerful drinks, then dinner, occasionally a game of Scrabble with my wife—at which she thinks she is very much better than I am, but I know I’m the best—and straight off to bed and into a dead sleep.”
“And you return to England in March with a completed manuscript?”
“Except for minor revisions, yes.”
Joseph Campbell (quoted from The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work): researched/studied in multiple blocks morning-evening
So during the years of the Depression I had arranged a schedule for myself. When you don’t have a job or anyone to tell you what to do, you’ve got to fix one for yourself. I divided the day into 4 four-hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four-hour periods, and free one of them. By getting up a 8 o’clock in the morning, by 9 I could sit down to read. That meant that I used the first hour to prepare my own breakfast and take care of the house and put things together in whatever shack I happened to be living in at the time. Then three hours of that first four-hour period went to reading. Then came an hour break for lunch and another three-hour unit. And then comes the optional next section. It should normally be three hours of reading and then an hour out for dinner and then three hours free and an hour getting to bed so I’m in bed by 12. On the other hand, if I were invited out for cocktails or something like that, then I would put the work hour in the evening and the play hour in the afternoon. It worked very well. I would get nine hours of sheer reading done in a day. And this went on for five years straight. You get a lot done in that time.
Charles Dickens (based on Charles Dickens: A Life, Tomalin 2011, cited by McCrum): morning-afternoon (9AM-2PM)
But then, as you go deeper into Tomalin, you discover that Dickens, in his prime, used to compress his literary energies into five hours, roughly 9am to 2pm, after which he would walk incessantly, and put his mind into neutral. He might return to what he’d written in the morning later in the evening, but those five hours held the key to his output.
Robert Frost (McCrum): afternoon-late evening (?-3AM)
Robert Frost, whose remote Vermont cabin I visited recently in company with his biographer Jay Parini, never started work till the afternoon, and often stayed up till two or three in the morning, not rising until midday, or even later.
Once all the newspapers have been perused, it’s time to answer the enormous amount of mail Churchill receives each day. A secretary stands by as Churchill dictates (his preferred method of “writing”) correspondence to private citizens and government officials. Once the mail is finished, it’s time to dictate memoranda and greet any visitors who have stopped by Chartwell.
“He will receive anyone except the King in his bedchamber,”and visitors are often tickled by the image which greets them; Vice Admiral Sir Douglas Brownrigg said he presented
“a most extraordinary spectacle, perched up in a huge bed, with the whole of the counterpane littered with dispatch boxes, red and all colours, and a stenographer sitting at the foot—Mr. Churchill himself with an enormous Corona in his mouth.”Churchill’s next task is to look through galley proofs of the latest book he’s working on, and ask his chief researcher to check and verify certain details. At this point, he often begins to work on his speeches. He paces the room, issuing phrase after phrase at a speed his secretaries have trouble keeping up with. Churchill, one of them recalls, would be
“dashing around in shorts and undershirt and a bright red cummerbund while I trotted behind him from room to room with a pad and pencil struggling to keep pace with the torrential flow of words.”This flow of masterful oratory increases as the wordsmith warms up and finds his groove;
“By noon the cadences of his prose have begun to trot; by 1:00PM they are galloping.”Lunch is at 1:15, so Churchill sets aside business and gets dressed to the nines (hence the aforementioned cummerbund)…Churchill believes his afternoon naps help him be much more productive. He has found that he can only produce good writing for a few hours at a stretch, before his brain gets tired and the quality diminishes. So by breaking up his schedule with a nap, he is able to have two creative working periods each day—one in the morning and one late at night—while also having time for socializing and duck feeding…The guests have gone home or retired to their bedrooms to stay over, Churchill begins his second working shift of the day. It’s 11:00 PM, and most of his fellow Englishmen are sleeping, but Churchill is rearing to go. He slips into something more comfortable and asks his aides to join him in the library:
His appearance heralded by the harff, harff of his slippers, he enters the room in his scarlet, green, and gold dressing gown, the cords trailing behind him. Before greeting his researcher and the two secretaries on duty tonight, he must read the manuscript he dictated the previous evening and then revise the latest galleys, which arrived a few hours earlier from London. Since Churchill’s squiggled red changes exceed the copy set—the proofs look as though several spiders stained in crimson ink wandered across the pages—his printers’ bills are shocking. But the expense is offset by his extraordinary fluency. Before the night is out, he will have dictated between four thousand and five thousand words. On weekends he may exceed ten thousand words.
Churchill’s night usually ends around 2 am, but when there is extra work to be done, he may not retire until 3 or 4.
“What is your writing schedule?”
“Well, it varies…depends on what I’m doing…writing for the magazine…but as a general rule it goes like this: I’ll get home somewhere around 5 o’clock when Bev is here, when she’s not working as she has been the last couple of weeks. She’ll have dinner ready at that time or very close to that time. I’ll then take an hour’s nap and then work sometimes until 1 o’clock in the morning. Then I hit the sack and get up and sometimes if a story is strong in me I get up in the morning and write…get up at 5 o’clock in the morning or so and write for an hour or two sometimes before going down to San Francisco.”
“And this is the thing I want to get out of because I can write 8 hours a day in 2 bursts and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be doing what I want…writing what I want to write during those times. I don’t envision supporting myself entirely by science fiction writing in the sense of writing only science fiction, because I have other axes to grind, too.”
Harry Harrison (McNelly interview with Frank Herbert): afternoon (12:30PM–5PM)
“It’s interesting…Harry Harrison describes the writing process with him rather well in a tape I made with him a few months ago. He is absolutely uninterruptible from, say, 12:30 in the afternoon ’til 5:00 at night, because the ideas as they form in his mind sort of becomes extensions of his [cough] excuse me, fingers in his typewriter and that they are up here and that …that any interruption, whether it be a telephone ringing or his wife knocking at the door or anything at all is liable to shatter that idea as it transforms itself into paper.”
When I was in college, I got a job working the graveyard shift at a hotel, which was great for my writing because I was there most weeknights from 11 pm until 7 am, and the only requirements that they put me to were,
“Just don’t fall asleep. Do whatever you want, just don’t fall asleep. We need you awake in case there’s an emergency or if anyone comes in.”I ended up spending a lot of my time working on novels during those early morning hours, and that’s how I was able to pay for school, attend it full-time, and still have time for writing. I still do most of my writing in the middle of the night…
Sanderson works best at night.
“I get up about noon,”he says,
“write until five, and then spend a few hours with the family before starting work again about eight o’clock and then I write until the early morning hours. I often don’t get to bed before three am.”He did try getting up at what most people would consider to be a more normal hour, but after a few weeks his wife capitulated, saying,
“This routine is making you miserable. Go back to being a night owl!”
“I work until about 4 a.m., and then I don’t wake up until noon. The job I do lets me have the weirdest sleep schedule ever, because sometimes I sleep for like three hours, and then I get up and work and go back to bed. An average day for me is two four-to-six-hour writing blocks during this time. In each, I try to write at least 1,500 words, and I am somewhat goal based. I have a tread desk that I walk on while I type a lot of the time. It’s not like I am getting any real exercise because it’s moving like one mile per hour, but it is good for just moving and not just sitting there. I write in my bedroom. I have an easy chair that I also sit in.”
“I get done at about 5:30, and I go out and play with my kids and hang out with my family and do all the stuff that dads and husbands do, then I put my kids to bed, hang out with my wife for a bit, then usually go back to work at about 9 or 10 and get my second block.”
Saint-Exupéry wrote beautifully, but at the price of great effort. He went out rarely, but he had friends in almost every day to lunch and dinner. In the evening, when his friends had gone, he would brew himself a great pot of coffee and sit down to work at his dining table (his desk served merely as a catchall in which his checkbook could never be found). Now and then he would write in an all-night restaurant, where, having eaten a dish of raw chopped beef drowned in olive oil and crusted with pepper, be was likely to scribble from 2 in the morning until dawn. When be had written himself stiff, be would stretch out at home on a sofa under a lamp, take up the mouthpiece of a dictaphone, and record his copy, revising as he went along. Then, towards 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, he would go to bed. The secretary would come in at 9 and type while be slept. Often, when friends arrived for lunch at 1 o’clock, they would ring and pound for 20 minutes before he woke up and let them in.
Neil Gaiman is described as a night owl (eg collaborators interviewed in Conversations With the Dream King describe him as phoning them usually late at night or as a ‘vampire’)
Back then, I wrote all day, getting up at five. By this time, I rise scratchy at six or twitch in bed until seven. I drink coffee before I pick up a pen. I look through the newspaper. I try to write all morning, but exhaustion shuts me down by ten o’clock.
Hunter Thompson: Carroll’s biography includes a supposed daily schedule where Thompson starts writing at midnight until 6AM (but the schedule is so clearly exaggerated & humorous in the level of drug use claimed that I don’t know how seriously to take any of it); one of his editors, Terry McDonnell says
“When he got you on the phone in the middle of the night to listen to someone in his kitchen read to you what he had just written, all you could say was that it sounded good and that he should send it to you”; a collection of letters includes him telling a landlady to put down carpets so his typing late at night won’t keep her up; his Paris Review interviewer describes him as keeping late hours on
“Owl Farm”and the interview went into the night, where he describes his first writing job as having the advantage of letting him write entirely at night. All together, there’s no doubt Thompson preferred late night, and midnight–6AM specifically does seem plausible.
From The Art of Fiction No. 206, 2010:
“What is your writing schedule now?”
“I wake up during the night around one a.m. I write half-awake in a semi-conscious state. Progressively, as I drink coffee, I become more conscious. And I write until I’m sick of it.”
“Do you have other requirements for writing?”
“Flaubert said you had to have a permanent erection. I haven’t found that to be the case. I need to take a walk now and then. Otherwise, in terms of dietary requirements, coffee works, it’s true. It takes you through all the different stages of consciousness. You start out semicomatose. You write. You drink more coffee and your lucidity increases, and it’s in that in-between period, which can last for hours, that something interesting happens.”
“…We sold the house in Ohio and I became a staff member [technical editor] on Plant Engineer [magazine]. What I did mostly was get up early in the morning and write for one to two hours. One of the good things about working for this magazine was that in ten minutes I could get from my front door to my desk, which gave me more writing time. I often wake up during the night, and I had rule that if it was after 4 a.m. I got up for the day, and I would write until Rosemary had breakfast ready. Then of course I wrote on Saturdays and Sundays as everybody does, and the holidays.”
“Was there a big change when you retired and became a full-time writer?”
“Yes and no. I had written on vacation, and this was like I was on vacation all the time. All I had to do was write. It was really neat. This was cruel of me, but I would set the clock radio to a station that gave traffic reports for commuters. They would be saying, ‘Oh, the Kennedy is wall-to-wall today. It’s an hour and a half from over here to the Loop,’ and I would get up and yawn and stretch and say, ‘I don’t have to be down there.’ So I’d brush my teeth, start the coffee, and go over to the desk and write.”
I’m up somewhere between 7 and 8. I don’t use an alarm clock. I go straight into the kitchen and drink a tall glass of room-temperature water…I’ll grab a cup of coffee that I’ve cold-brewed overnight and park myself in front of the computer to read the latest health related news. My go-to sites are EurekAlert!, Twitter, Science Daily and The New York Times. I also come up with a new post for my Instagram. I do one post a day and try to make it as interesting as possible…I spend a good two hours working on my book. It’s all about how to live your best life and avoid cognitive decline through your diet and lifestyle…Ben and Andrew usually head to bed around midnight. I may do a little more writing and go to sleep myself.
I know how this stuff came into existence; and though I have no right to assume that any other poetry came into existence in the same way, yet I find reason to believe that some poetry, and quite good poetry, did. Wordsworth for instance says that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and Burns has left us this confession,
“I have two or three times in my life composed from the wish rather than the impulse, but I never succeeded to any purpose”. In short I think that the production of poetry, in its first stage, is less an active than a passive and involuntary process; and if I were obliged, not to define poetry, but to name the class of things to which it belongs, I should call it a secretion; whether a natural secretion, like turpentine in the fir, or a morbid secretion, like the pearl in the oyster.
…Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon—beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life—I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once, accompanied, not preceded, by a vague notion of the poem which they were destined to form part of. Then there would usually be a lull of an hour or so, then perhaps the spring would bubble up again.
John Peale Bishop (Ghiselin 1952, The Creative Process: A Symposium)
Ghiselin, in the preface (pg20) of The Creative Process: A Symposium (which focuses largely but not entirely on the arts & fiction), commenting on writing styles, states:
Practical guidance can often be deduced from the general principles alone. Most writers find it easier to work in the morning—as one should expect, since then the mind has not been so much incited from without, focused, and fixed. John Peale Bishop recommended going as soon as possible from sleep to the writing desk. On the other hand, A.E. Housman wrote his poems mostly in the afternoon. Others have preferred to do their work at night. How shall we turn such information to guidance unless we understand that the time for work should be that time when the excited mind moves most free of the encumbrances of its consciously supported order? If we cannot because of circumstances choose the best time, we may be able to help ourselves through reducing the schematic fixation that interferes with production.
The detail about Housman is easy to attribute to Ghiselin’s selection in the volume of The Name and Nature of Poetry, but I have not been able to trace the Bishop statement any further. (While now highly obscure, Bishop extensively corresponded or interacted with major literary figures of his time such as Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, making it hard to sort through all the hits for his name, and uses of keywords like ‘sleep’ or ‘writing desk’ have not succeeded.)
The author has written 179 books…Steel releases seven new novels a year—her latest, Blessing in Disguise, is out this week—and she’s at work on five to six new titles at all times. In 1989 Steel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on the New York Times best-seller list for the most consecutive weeks of any author—381, to be exact. To pull it off, she works 20 to 22 hours a day. (A few times a month, when she feels the crunch, she spends a full 24 hours at her desk.)
…Steel is a creature of habit. She gets to her office—down the hall from her bedroom—by 8:00 A.M., where she can often be found in her cashmere nightgown. In the morning she’ll have one piece of toast and an iced decaf coffee (she gave up full-throated caffeine 25 years ago). As the day wears on, she’ll nibble on miniature bittersweet chocolate bars.
“Dead or alive, rain or shine, I get to my desk and I do my work. Sometimes I’ll finish a book in the morning, and by the end of the day, I’ve started another project,”Steel says.
She credits her boundless energy for her productivity…Her output is also the result of a near superhuman ability to run on little sleep.
“I don’t get to bed until I’m so tired I could sleep on the floor. If I have four hours, it’s really a good night for me,”Steel says. She’s always been like this, even as a kid growing up in France. Instead of playing with friends after school, she’d come home, immediately devour her homework, then set to work on her own stories. By 19, Steel had written her first book.
…Her son told her that he never works past a certain time at the office, a model of that elusive work-life balance. Steel balks.
“They expect to have a nice time,”she says.
“And pardon me, but I think your twenties and a good part of your thirties are about working hard so that you have a better quality of life later on. I mean, I never expected that quality of life at 25. I had three jobs at the same time, and after work I wrote. Now it’s a promise that it’s all going to be fun.”
…When asked if she plans to retire, give it all up, shop in Paris, sail in the South of France, even just take a nap—her answer is swift and serious.
“When I was first starting out, I had the same agent as Agatha Christie. I was about 19 years old and she was in her nineties. I met her once, and I remember she said, ‘I want to die face-first in my typewriter.’ And I feel that way. I mean, I want to go on forever, just writing.”
2006 interview with The Age:
It’s not as if she had nothing to do—Steel began writing her books at night, often making do with only four hours of sleep, in order to be there for her children during the day, and she still keeps to the same grueling schedule, hammering away at the same 1946 Olympia typewriter she has always used. But writing isn’t enough any more.
2017 interview/profile with Vanity Fair:
Danielle Steel’s wildly popular novels have made her a household name, and as the founder of the Nick Traina Foundation—so called after her late son—the mother of nine is also an ardent advocate for mental-health awareness…
“On the walls of my office are framed covers of my books and sayings that I love. One favorite, since I work very late:”What hath night to do with sleep?""
Despite being 71 in 2019, Steel has apparently kept to her schedule. While her claimed work habits have been regarded skeptically, she apparently wrote all those novels herself (unlike other extraordinarily prolific authors like James Patterson who lean heavily on collaborators or ghost-writers & are more like ‘brands’ than authors), and in general, fits a classic profile of “short sleepers” (which has been linked to rare genetic mutations): often working multiple jobs or engaged in many projects simultaneously (in Steel’s case, art galleries & mental health activism in addition to novel-writing), preferring (not merely enduring) half or less normal sleep durations and unable to sleep normal hours without it being unpleasant, with short-sleeping patterns emerging in childhood/adolescence. It would be interesting to know if any of her 8 (non-adoptive) children or grandchildren keep similar hours.
- 7 PM: Avoid ringing phone which most likely isn’t for me. Dodge into office to start the real writing time.
- 7:03 PM: Glare at hubby who has decided to sit in my office while he chats on the phone with his mother. Why? Hubby grins, and continues talking about nonsense and people I don’t know.
- 3:30–4 AM: head to bed, wondering where the time went (unless oldest is still up and decides that he needs help plotting, or with characters, but really, at 4 AM my brain is again mush and I can’t postulate what chromosomal damage would cause fire-eating, ice dragons from Mars).
On the surface, Skinner’s later years seemed conventional: He retired from Harvard in 1974 and was presented with a first edition of Thoreau’s Walden…On closer inspection, however, he had continued the intensity of his intellectual life…The circadian rhythm of his writing schedule did not miss a beat. A timer rang at midnight signaling him to arise, move to his desk, and writing until signaled to stop at one o’clock. He returned to bed and arose again to the sound of the timer at five o’clock and composed until it buzzed two hours later. He write three hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included. As the years passed, these three early morning hours were, as he often said,
“the most reinforcing part of my day.”14 The other twenty-one hours were arranged to make the writing time as profitable as possible…During the last decade of his life he frequently listened to Wagnerian music, usually in mid-afternoon, relaxing after the rigors of early morning writing and thinking.
pg21 (shortly before death):
…Toward the far end of the study, facing each other on opposite walls, are a long wooden writing desk and a bright yellow sleeping cubicle, complete with stereo system, storage compartment for musical tapes—especially Wagner—and a timer which, with circadian-like rhythm, rang at five o’clock every morning for over twenty years to bring B. F. Skinner to his writing desk, like a monk to his matins. For two hours every morning, until the timer rang again at seven, one of America’s most controversial intellectuals worked on the papers, articles, and books that would define and defend a science he called the experimental analysis of behavior.
At 11ish I write for the next hour. I get creative and problem solve. I make little videos and songs on GarageBand. It’s good for your brain. When I moved back to Connecticut, I wrote a lot, and I gained a lot of confidence in myself. I learned to sit and be with myself without needing distractions. That gives me a lot of strength.
Peter Morgan, “How the Man Behind The Crown Made the Monarchy Relevant Again: At a time when the British royals have never seemed more anachronistic, Peter Morgan has shown viewers why it isn’t easy being queen.”, NYT 2019:
Morgan rises early every day and sits down at his desk around 6 a.m. Hours will pass in fruitful silence. Unlike others in his line of work, however, he is not incorrigibly solitary. Once a week, a team of researchers, which doubles as a kind of writers’ room, comes over to his house in Central London for script meetings, based in part on documents they’ve dug up pertaining to whichever episode he happens to be working on. These could be anything from contemporary press clippings to transcripts of original interviews with those who witnessed, or participated in, the events he is in the process of imaginatively reconstructing. “He’s not precious about the material,” Annie Sulzberger, the show’s head of research (and the sister of The New York Times’ publisher, A.G. Sulzberger), told me. “As a researcher, you find a detail and you think, Wow, I hope this makes the cut. That doesn’t mean anything to him. If something doesn’t move the plot along, or reveal character, or tell us something relevant about Britain at the time, it doesn’t have a place.” Morgan isn’t precious about the scripts themselves either. “If something isn’t working in rehearsal he’ll say, ‘Can you hang on a minute? Just talk amongst yourselves’”, Colman told me. “Five minutes later it’ll be, ‘O.K., try that.’ And sure enough he’s just churned out a brilliant speech.”
Brendan Behan, Wikipedia (no clear sources):
He left Ireland and all its perceived social pressures to live in Paris in the early 1950s. There he felt he could lose himself and release the artist within. Although he still drank heavily, he managed to earn a living, supposedly by writing pornography. By the time he returned to Ireland, he had become a writer who drank too much, rather than a drinker who talked about what he was going to write. He had also developed the knowledge that to succeed, he would have to discipline himself. Throughout the rest of his writing career, he would rise at seven in the morning and work until noon—when the pubs opened.
The work that I did during the twelve years that I remained there, from 1859 to 1871, was certainly very great…I did the work of a surveyor of the General Post Office, and so did it as to give the authorities of the department no slightest pretext for fault-finding. I hunted always at least twice a week. I was frequent in the whist-room at the Garrick. I lived much in society in London, and was made happy by the presence of many friends at Waltham Cross. In addition to this we always spent six weeks at least out of England. Few men, I think, ever lived a fuller life. And I attribute the power of doing this altogether to the virtue of early hours. It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 A. M.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid £5 a year extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy. During all those years at Waltham Cross he was never once late with the coffee which it was his duty to bring me…By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.
All those I think who have lived as literary men—working daily as literary labourers—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours—so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom—and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself—to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went. But my three hours were not devoted entirely to writing. I always began my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which would take me half an hour, and which consisted chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases. I would strongly recommend this practice to all tyros in writing. That their work should be read after it has been written is a matter of course—that it should be read twice at least before it goes to the printers, I take to be a matter of course. But by reading what he has last written, just before he recommences his task, the writer will catch the tone and spirit of what he is then saying, and will avoid the fault of seeming to be unlike himself. This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year—the precise amount which so greatly acerbated the publisher in Paternoster Row, and which must at any rate be felt to be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.
I have never written three novels in a year, but by following the plan above described I have written more than as much as three volumes; and by adhering to it over a course of years, I have been enabled to have always on hand—for some time back now—one or two or even three unpublished novels in my desk beside me…In 1867 I made up my mind to take a step in life which was not unattended with peril, which many would call rash, and which, when taken, I should be sure at some period to regret. This step was the resignation of my place in the Post Office.
It is worth noting that biographers of Trollope have found that An Autobiography embellishes Trollope’s life in some cases; I wonder if Trollope really was as mercilessly methodical as he described himself, or if this is a case like Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” describing “The Raven” where Poe may have overegged the pudding.
To this day I wake up early and I have to get to my desk to write almost immediately. I mean fast. Before the demons get me. I got to get writing. And once I’ve written almost anything, I’ll pretty much write all day, I don’t leave my desk, I have no other life. I’m not part of the world except when I go to see shows.
Mary Oliver, description in The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor (dated 2017 but appears earlier without sourcing in the 2006 Keillor-edited anthology Good Poems for Hard Times which were “Chosen by Garrison Keillor for his readings on public radio’s The Writer’s Almanac”—did Oliver give an interview prior to 2006 or what?)
“I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. […] If anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day—which is what I did.”…Oliver said:
“I’ve always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”
Goodreads has conducted ~277 interviews 2008–2018 which have a semi-standardized format where one of the last few questions is typically some variant on “what’s your writing day like and do you have any unusual habits/rituals?”;
“What’s your average writing day like? When do you write?”
“Very early in the morning, before the sun comes up. Because I’m very smart at that time of day. Now, at this time of day [4PM], it’s all drifting away. But tomorrow morning I will be sharp for about 4 hours, say from 6AM to 10AM. If I get up before the sun and greet it, that’s when I start.”
Michael Connelly (Goodreads interview): very early morning when possible (4AM-6AM? pre-dawn)
Goodreads: What’s your writing process?
“Because of working on a TV show [Bosch], 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 [The Late Show character] because I like to work till dawn.”
“Do you have any writing rituals?”
“None, really, besides time of day. 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.”
2013 interview clarifies that darkness means late night, not early morning pre-dawn:
That vivid scene took place in the kitchen but these days, she writes in an office room in her house. Like most writers, Stephenie prefers to write in the evening.
“I write best at night, which is one of the reasons that I’m so slow now,”she said.
“My kids’ school schedule has forced me to be a morning person, which I am not. I don’t get so much done during the day. There are too many interruptions. It’s better if I can start at 8PM and work through till I pass out.”Laughing, she quipped,
“Maybe, I should move back into the kitchen.”
I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream…Though I had a million things to do (i.e. making breakfast for hungry children, dressing and changing the diapers of said children, finding the swimsuits that no one ever puts away in the right place, etc.), I stayed in bed, thinking about the dream. I was so intrigued by the nameless couple’s story that I hated the idea of forgetting it; it was the kind of dream that makes you want to call your friend and bore her with a detailed description. (Also, the vampire was just so darned good-looking, that I didn’t want to lose the mental image.) Unwillingly, I eventually got up and did the immediate necessities, and then put everything that I possibly could on the back burner and sat down at the computer to write-something I hadn’t done in so long that I wondered why I was bothering. But I didn’t want to lose the dream, so I typed out as much as I could remember, calling the characters
“she.”From that point on, not one day passed that I did not write something. On bad days, I would only type out a page or two; on good days, I would finish a chapter and then some. I mostly wrote at night, after the kids were asleep so that I could concentrate for longer than five minutes without being interrupted.
“What’s your average working day like? Do you have any unusual habits/rituals?”
“I start work around 8AM and usually finish around noon. If there’s more to do, I do it in the late afternoon, although that isn’t prime time for me. The only ritual is making tea. I use the loose leaves and drink it by the gallon.”
“Do you write as soon as you wake up in the morning?”
“First I say that I’m going to write as soon as I wake up. Then I postpone and postpone and start feeling guilty and horrible and feel that I don’t deserve anything. Then I say, OK, today I’m not going to write. Then I write just to not feel guilty, and I’m going to write the first sentence. Then once I’m off the ground, the plane takes off…when I’m writing, I wake up around 12 o’clock because I write until 4 in the morning. Only two weeks. Then of course, I have to make the corrections and do another draft. I have to correct the second draft. So the first draft has, let’s say, one-third more pages than the final draft. So I start cutting.”
Margaret Atwood (Goodreads interview): morning-afternoon
“Can you describe a typical day spent writing?”
“There are no typical days spent writing. Let’s pretend there is one. I would get up. We would have breakfast. Then we have the coffee. That is something I really like to have to get myself started. Then I would probably sit down and type something that I had written in manuscript the day before. It’s a kind of overlap method, in which I’m typing out what I did the day before to get myself going for what I’m going to add on to that. I’m revising and then continuing to write in the same day. Then I do the next bit of new writing in the afternoon. I don’t go by how much time I spent at it but how many pages I managed to complete.”
“Would you say you have any unusual writing habits?”
“I’m not particularly obsessive about that. But I don’t like other people using my computer. Who does like that?”Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction No. 121” 1990:
“Do you have a time, a day, or a place for writing? Does it matter where you are?”
ATWOOD: I try to write between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon, when my child comes home from school. Sometimes in the evenings, if I’m really zipping along on a novel.
Beatriz Williams (Goodreads interview): morning+evening
“But how do you find the time? What does your average writing day look like?”
“The pace has backed off, thank goodness, because I was writing two to three books a year and it was killing me. It’s much easier now. My writing day is very disciplined. I get up, get the kids off to school. Once they’re on the school bus, I try and write until noon or 1 p.m., then I usually have errands to run and the kids come home. And then I pick up again and write in the evening. So yeah, it’s busy, but it’s what I love to do. I feel so incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, so I try not to waste a moment. Obviously, every career has its ups and downs and moments of frustration. And particularly I think in an industry like this, where you’re constantly being judged, much more than you would in a regular job in a cubicle somewhere. So it’s a job where you really have to have a lot of discipline and a real sense of always moving on to the next book and the next idea and not looking back.”
“What is your writing process?”
“I get up and write longhand for the first hour of every day, before I do anything else other than make coffee. If I can do that, the whole day goes well. If I skip it, it’s almost like a ballerina who has to go and do their warm-up. It’s my warm-up. As long as I do that, the rest of the day kind of clicks along.”
“Well, I have kids. Not very little, but they’re still small enough to need to be taken to school and picked up. So that kind of bookends my writing day. I take my kids to school in the morning, and I get back to my computer. If the writing is going well, I plunge straight into my document and pick up where I left off. So I read the chapter that I wrote the day before—or sometimes the paragraph I wrote the day before—and I just carry on from where I left off. On a good day I can do several thousand words. But, you know, not every day is a good day.”[Laughs]
“I used to work part-time and squeeze the writing in around my day job. And when I gave up my office job, I thought,”Right, I’ll be able to write two books a year now because I’ve got twice as much time." But it’s just not true. Your procrastination just expands into the available space. I find the truth is that I would write the same amount no matter how much time I had."
“But I find picking up the kids really concentrates the mind. The fact that I have to squeeze writing into a certain number of hours tends to concentrate the mind. So I basically just sit down, and I get to spend two or three hours inhabiting this imaginary landscape. I feel grateful for that every day.”
“My process is I have to find a new process for each book. I am always trying to get in a state of flow where I just work for hours and the words just come. I am constrained by the hours in which I have childcare. [Novik has a young daughter.] I bitterly lament the loss of my former schedule. [Laughs] I would go to sleep at 3 a.m. and wake up at 11, and that was so nice. Those days are gone.”
“The older I get, the more I recognize that the things I would sometimes get frustrated about—the procrastination that we all do, like I check The Times or Tumblr, or read like 12 Wikipedia entries—I increasingly recognize as a necessary part of the creative process. I try to mentally allow for that. There are people who can sit down and go from zero to 60 and start writing. I am not one of them. I need to be checking the internet to see if there is anything on fire that I can do absolutely nothing about.”
Chloe Benjamin (Goodreads interview):
“Goodreads user Sophie asks: What does your writing process look like? For example, what is an average writing day like for you?”
“It’s changed a little bit because, when I was working on this book, I was working a day job in social services. And since I finished the book, I’ve been able to start writing full-time, which is an amazing gift. So I did my MFA in fiction [at the University of Wisconsin, Madison], and after that I found my way, almost accidentally, into the nonprofit world. I worked for an organization that supports victims of domestic violence. So when I was there, I worked Monday through Thursday, and I was able to write Fridays through Sundays. So my schedule was to try to be working by about 9 a.m. on those days, and I usually tap out after three or four hours…but if I can do that consistently, I can make mostly steady progress.”
“And when I was racing toward the finish line, or when I was in revisions once the book was with the publisher, I would get up early before work and write in the early morning. So right now it’s not too different; it’s just that I can do that every day of the week, or have weekends now. So, ideally, I’m up and working by about 9, and then in the afternoons I will do more research or work on promotion for The Immortalists, things like that. But I’m a morning writer. I don’t have a certain word count that I hit. I just feel like I have to show up and make some sort of progress.”
“Can you talk about your process? Did you sit down every day for two hours, or did you say,”I’m going to write 500 words today“?”
“I have never had any luck with any consistent habit for writing. Once, I bought a candle and said,”I’m going to sit at this desk, light this candle, and while the candle burns, I will write for two hours." And I just never did it. Never happened."
“I have what I would call an obsession as opposed to a process. I don’t know how I wrote the first book; I just know that I was obsessed with it. Was I staying up late working on it? Yes. Was I writing on it in the middle of the day? Yes. I had a little tape recorder in my car because I had this monster three-hour daily commute, and I would just fill up this recorder with notes and ideas and quotes. And so my process is pretty much: the rest of life becomes eclipsed by the effort to do this thing.”
I work maybe from 9:30 to 3 in the afternoon, and then if I’m really hot with something, I’ll just keep going. It used to be when I started writing, I couldn’t work if anyone was in the house. Then it got to be I couldn’t work if anyone was in the room. Once I had a kid, it was like, “Just give me 15 minutes. Sure, draw on the couch with a lipstick. Why the Chanel? Why couldn’t it be the Maybelline?” I work in drafts. I start the day by rewriting what I wrote the day before and then continue, so I pick up the tone and the emotion, so I’m back in. I usually do about three or four drafts, but within each draft there are hundreds of drafts.
“The daily writing process right now is shaped around the school day because I’m a parent, so my son goes to school and I write when he’s at school. I basically have six hours to get all my work done, and then I go get him. That’s made me be much more disciplined—I get up, I have breakfast, I have a cup of tea, and then I sit down at my desk and try to get something done. I usually try to read over what I did the day before. Usually that’s enough to trick myself into continuing. And I try to at least look at it every day even if I don’t write something.”
“What do you need to be able to write? Peace and quiet? The perfect desk setup or time of day?”
“I really make it part of my daily routine. For the first time ever I have my own office at home. [Wolitzer and her husband, writer Richard Panek, moved to a new apartment recently.] I wrote all of my books on a bed or a couch. Or in coffee shops all around the city. But now I have an actual room where I write. It is great that I have it, but you try to write wherever you can. I like using the sort of ambient sounds of New York as a backdrop. The hum and clatter of a coffee shop. Every once in a while I would let something puncture the concentration. I do like to be at home, though. And I like the morning hours.”
“Are you empty nesters now?”
“Yes. One of my children just graduated from college, and the other graduated from law school and is clerking for a judge. It is shocking to me to not have a cute answer to the question about children, like”one is four and one is six." Instead, my kids are grown, which makes my writing day very much better. It used to be, they’d go to school and it would be like a starter pistol would go off. Now it is up to me."
“Reader Christine asks,”Do you write every day? Describe a typical writing day in the life of Lisa Genova.""
“When I begin a book, I usually front-load with about four to six months of research. Then once I start writing, I write every day. I typically write in the morning, and I begin with a notebook and a pen. I feel more free to allow it to be imperfect with a pen. Sometimes it’s almost like a diary. I’ll write,”I have no idea what happens next" and then I’ll write a note to myself—“don’t freak out, don’t panic, you’ll find it!” So a lot of times it’s a pep talk, too, but after three pages of handwritten stream of consciousness, I’ve always found my way into the story, and then I switch over to the laptop."
“I write at Starbucks because there’s just too much distraction at home. So I go there and stay in the seat and I commit to writing, and I allow myself to get the words down, however horrible. So I typically write for about four hours every day once I start a book and try to do about 1,500 words a day.”
“Do you have a specific writing routine?”
“I have had different routines. I wrote Moth Smoke often late at night when I was a young man in my early to mid-twenties. It felt exhilarating to be up at night writing, living a vampire-like existence. Now I’m a 45-year-old man with two kids, so I write when they’re in school! It’s completely different.”
“There are two writers who have said things about this that I often think of. One is Haruki Murakami, who talks about physical stress being essential to writing and how he runs and pushes himself to write. In my much less physically demanding approach, I walk. I walk for half an hour or an hour a day, and that is the most fertile time for me. If I do that before I start writing, I often get to the desk in a very good frame of mind. And the second person I think of is Amos Oz, who has said that he thinks of it as opening up shop: He goes to work and opens his shop. Maybe no customers come, but he waits until the end of the day, and then he shuts his shop. I think that’s very sensible.”
“Do you have a general writing routine, or was it any different with this book?”
“It’s been pretty consistent over the last couple books. If I can write three or four days a week, and do eight to ten pages a week, I think that’s good. I have kids, so I don’t always get a full day to myself. But if I can work 10 to 3 p.m. four days a week, that’s pretty good for me.”
Typical day writing is five nights a week from 10 pm to 3 or 4 in the morning. And at this point—for the past few years—I listen pretty much exclusively to vinyl records while I write. The reason I do that—in addition to liking the sound of them—is that it forces me to get up every 20 minutes, to turn the record over or put on a new record. And that is the recommended procedure for people who sit in a chair working.
Goodreads interview #2 is less specific:
“Do you have any routines or habits related to writing? Goodreads user Mark asks, ‘How has your ability to carve out time for writing changed over the course of your career?’”
“I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to support myself by writing almost since the beginning. So in a way,”carving time out" for writing is all I can do because that’s my job and there’s nothing else competing. Although I do have four kids, and they’re getting older now, so they don’t take up the kind of time they used to. We had a lot of little kids around…. It wasn’t so much a matter of time as the kind of focus I could bring to bear during the time I had. There seemed [to be] more distraction, and that has eased up as the kids have gotten older."
“I work at night, and that helps, and that always has helped. I work in the really small hours of the morning. So distractions are fewer. The other thing I need to do a lot, still, is go away. I rely on those in terms of getting that kind of immersion in the work when you’re busy doing all kinds of daily life stuff.”
“Tell us about your writing process.”
“I write throughout the day. Sometimes on memoir, sometimes on fiction. I write in many different locations—upstairs in the attic room, downstairs on the sofa or at one of the tables, or upstairs in the bedroom on top of the bed. I might write 10,000 words in a day or I might write literally one sentence. But if I don’t write at least a tiny bit every day, I get totally derailed. It’s like my machinery rusts instantly.”
I don’t have a fixed routine. I write every day but I don’t “write” every day, if that makes any sense. In other words, I email with my friends constantly and sometimes I’ll pull out something I’ve written and save it. Or, I might write about something that happened that particular day and file it away. But I don’t sit down at nine in the morning and begin writing and then take a break for lunch and stop at four. I have no structure like that. I am at my computer constantly, more or less attached to it. I live on-line and hate being off-line and don’t care how unhealthy it is. Now, when I’m cranking against a deadline and I have to really pull my &*%$ together, then I will work around the clock until it’s done. Wolf took way longer than I expected, it was much harder to write and I just wanted to be hit by a truck by the time I was finished, I was so totally drained. I don’t know what I expected writing that book to be like, but MAN.
“Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any sort of ritual you follow? For example, do you drink a cup of coffee? Light a candle? (Is it different now than it was when you started?)”
“Sacrifice a chicken? [laughs] I’m an early riser, and I wish I wasn’t. But I’m often up by 5 or 5:15 a.m. It’s ridiculous. When my kids were up, we got up early because we had to catch the bus, we live in the country, and I would think, when they’re old enough I’ll be able to sleep until 7 or 8 a.m. Well, now I’m up at 5 a.m. It kills me! I got used to it. It just seems to be the way my body works. I get up early, before the dogs, and play around for a while. Check Facebook, play a game or read stuff, right now it’s politics. Then the dogs get up, my husband gets up, and I count down the time until he leaves for work because he’s just breathing my air, [laughs] even though he doesn’t bother me. And then if he’s gonna be around through part of the morning, I’ll just ignore him and start work anywhere between 7:30 and 9 a.m. If I haven’t started before 9 a.m, then I’m just fucking around. Then I’ll work until 2:30–3:30 p.m., it depends. Are the kids coming? Am I making dinner? Then I go work out, then fix dinner or warm up leftovers. Then I watch TV or read a book and then do it all again the next day.”
“What’s your average writing day like? Is it true you write longhand in legal notepads?”
“I do. I’ve got three kids, so I try to get three hours a day of composing in and then some editing. Then I take two long periods to work by myself, one in the spring when I go to St. John for five weeks and one in the fall when I’m revising and I go to Boston and work around the clock. Other than that, when I have the kids—I’m divorced—I work when I can. I’m not picky about my work conditions. I’ve worked at the baseball field or when my daughter’s in dance rehearsal. I bring my work with me everywhere because I never know when I’m going to have five or ten minutes.”
“Do you have any unusual writing habits? Do you sit down and write for 12 hours, for example?”
“Well, if I could. But life isn’t quite like that because there’s always a meeting and an appointment or a read-through. But I’m very fortunate that I began my writing career proper when I was still acting, and that means I had to write wherever I was. I couldn’t go,”Oh, I must get this desk and I can only have coffee out of this mug." That wasn’t allowed. If I was in Scotland making a series or somewhere waiting to catch a plane, that’s where I had to write. And I never lost that. I write in the country, I write in London. I write in the House of Lords—they give me a little cupboard with a desk in it, and I can shut the door and write there. So basically I write when I can. I have breakfast, I start at about half past nine, and I bang on. And sometimes I have a lunch date or an appointment, and I go and come back and I normally go on until about half past seven or eight, if I haven’t gone to a drinks party or something. I’ve got one writer friend who starts at about five in the morning and stops at lunch and doesn’t work for the rest of the day, which is fine except he has to go to bed about 9:15, which I don’t think would work for most of us. So I prefer to try and make it fit around a fairly normal life. But I am quite a workaholic, really, if I’m honest. I do sort of bang on, but otherwise I don’t think I’d get it done."
“Goodreads member Kayleigh says,”Out of all of the authors I follow on Goodreads, you are certainly the most active on the site, and I always see you posting updates or answering questions from readers. Most of your updates are about how much writing you have completed, and I am just amazed that you have already finished the books for the Age of Myth series! I’m curious what your writing process is like….""
“You’ll probably find that if you were to poll most writers who do this full-time—which I do—that they’re almost all consistent. There are a few anomalies, but almost everyone I’ve ever encountered has all said the same thing, which is that they write in the morning. Most people write from whenever they wake up until noon or one. That’s your writing period. I do it every day. If I’m actually writing a story and not editing, I’m probably writing somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 words a day during that period of three or four hours. After that, then I have time for social media and time for going on Goodreads. I will admit that I time those Goodreads updates. I don’t do a lot in one day. I try to spread them out so there’s always an update from me every once in a while.”
“Can you talk about your writing rituals?”
“Even though I’m not a morning person, I find I have to start in the morning. I try to be at my desk by 9:30 or 10. If I don’t start writing by noon, I just can’t get going. If I’m lucky, I write for three or four hours and take a break. When I’m really deep into a book, my work hours get a lot longer. Sometimes I write for 10 or 11 hours with small breaks because I just feel this pressure mounting of the book coming together and wanting to get it down while it’s in my head. That can be really exciting when the work is really driving you and you want to stay at your desk and keep going.”
“What’s your average writing day like? Where do you write?”
“Right now my life is upside down, so I have a new house and I am installing bookshelves. All my books are in boxes. But by January 8 [the date that Allende wrote the letter to her grandfather that became The House of the Spirits and now the date on which she begins every novel] everything will be ready to get started in this new place. To write I need a place where I can be silent and alone and quiet. And I will have it in this new house. I work many hours a day, usually starting in the morning. I’m much better then than in the afternoon or the evening. So I get up, have coffee, walk the dog, and then go to my studio and try to work for as long as I can handle it.”
“Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any sort of ritual you follow?”
“I definitely go through…Wake up. Oh, I’m going to write today, and then avoid it for a little bit. Then sit down…”Okay, we’re gonna do it." Pull my laptop forward, fill up my coffee, light a candle, and then let it go."
“Do you have any interesting writing habits, what’s your average writing day like?”
“I don’t, I’m afraid. I’m really boring. I think it’s because I was a freelance journalist so I’m quite self-disciplined. I’m used to just getting up, coming downstairs, sitting at my desk and writing. Sometimes if the writing’s going really well I can write almost all day and all night but usually it’s a pretty normal day, not quite 9 to 5 but not that far off. So, I’m very dull. And I write at home. I don’t go and sit in cafes or anything like that. I like to be somewhere quiet where I’m not distracted.”
“How do you prefer to work then? Does it change between novels and stories? Has it changed over the years?”
“Well, it’s different. It changes from book to book. With these stories, I think I was up very late at night, writing, like, at 2 a.m. And then I’d just sleep a lot and wake up and write some more. But with other books, I’ve had much more structure. It really differs and depends on lots of factors. I’m curious how the next book will work out. I’ll just have to see what works!”
“Do you have a routine that helps you create [the fictional character] Flavia?”
“It’s a fairly simple process. I like to start very early, about 4:30 in the morning. And there is quite an interesting story behind that. When I was writing the first Flavia book, we were living in British Columbia and were on Pacific Standard Time. I found during the writing of the book that usually when I was full of energy and ready to write, Flavia was wanting to sleep. But when she was full of energy, it was bedtime to me. I realized that there was a nine-hour time difference between us. Once I realized that, we negotiated some kind of happy medium. When it was 4:30 in the morning for me, it would be 1 or 2 in the afternoon for her. Then we would be good for four or five hours. After a while, she would start getting tired because it was bedtime in England, and I was just getting into the swing of the day. Now we live in the same time zone, but we still start at 4:30 in the morning because we have become accustomed to that.”
“A number of writers say that they like to write very early in the morning. How is it for you?”
“I think you are probably more in touch with your subconscious when you first wake up. The censorship part of your brain isn’t as active as it is later. The heaviest part of my writing is from 4:30 to 8 or 9 or 10. I sometimes go back later in the afternoon to edit a little bit, to look at what we’ve done for the day. Then you are finished for the day quite early, and you can go around and feel self-righteous.”
“Could you talk about your writing process in terms of rituals or habits?”
“We moved to New York in October, and I just got two monkey lamps for my office that I love. It’s a genre of lamps from a certain era. They have monkeys on the shaft of the lampshade. I’ve got a real soft spot for monkey lamps. They speak to me of a time of cargo ships and fog, when there was a fascination with far-off realms. Something very noir-ish and Bogarty about them. My ritual is every morning. I make coffee and—this is sort of a superstitious thing—I have to have an Oreo cookie, double stuffed. So it’s me and my Oreos. On a good day it’s just one. On a bad day it’s two.”
“Whoa. You can stop at two?”
“I have to stop at two.”
“That is impressive.”
“I’ll work until breakfast time.”
Invariably I get to a point where I’m just sick of doing research and the writing feels as though it has to begin. In that particular phase I get up very early in the morning, maybe about 4:30 or 5. My goal for the very early phase is one page a day. I write until maybe 7 or 7:30, then come down and have breakfast with my one daughter who remains at home in high school and my wife. And then I go back to the research. But as things start to advance, suddenly one page becomes two, two becomes three, four, five. What I then do is—I still try to start my day at like 4:30 in the morning, and I always start it with a cup of coffee and an Oreo cookie, double-stuffed. It’s just a thing. I will write again until breakfast. And then after breakfast I’ll continue to write until probably close to noon. And then I’ll knock off and then do research or deal with other miscellaneous things. It’s always a mistake to binge write. If you get up in the morning, you feel inspired, and you write for 12 or 15 hours, well what you’ve done also is probably dried up your reservoir for the next day. When I’m writing at full speed (when the research is done and I’m tooling along), I will always stop at a point where I can pick up very readily the next day. That means I will stop in midsentence, midparagraph, even though I know that I can write another page that day. I will stop because then the next morning when I wake up, I know exactly what I have to do. I know that as soon as I sit down with that coffee and that Oreo cookie, I will become productive. All I’ve got to do is finish that sentence and I’m on a roll. But I also have come to trust that because the human brain is such an amazing thing, if you leave a sentence or a paragraph unfinished, your brain quietly, without you being aware of it, will be struggling to finish that sentence or that paragraph for the next 24 hours. That’s the way the brain works. So not only do you sit down and finish your sentence, but you probably have a pretty good idea suddenly of where the next two, three, four, five pages are going to go. And I find that very useful and very powerful.
“Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any sort of ritual you follow?”
“My process evolves. The time of day I write has changed. When I started out, I was a morning writer. I had to be because I had a corporate job. I would get up at 5 a.m. and write for a couple of hours and then go to work. I was too drained to write at the end of the day. I’m not a morning person, but I wanted to finish my novel. As time went on, I would start writing from 10 a.m. until about 3 p.m. It was a good day if I wrote through lunch. Sometimes if I was on deadline, I would write after dinner in the evening. Then I had my daughter, and as you know, life changes. I started working whenever she would go down for a nap. I wrote longhand in spiral-bound notebooks. I would go to McDonald’s playland and let her play, and I would write.”
“Describe a typical day spent writing.”
“It has to happen in the morning, so I get up and I go for my two-mile walk. Then I have my breakfast and I take my shower and then get dressed, which in Key West is a T-shirt and shorts. I go into my office, which is very pretty. I love writing there. And I stay there until noon. And if it’s a first draft, I pray for the phone to ring, and I doodle a lot. Some of my best thinking comes when I have a pencil in hand. I doodle all over every printout. That’s where the good stuff happens. And then I’ll feel very hungry and keep looking at my watch. Then I’ll have lunch. That’s for the first draft. But as we go on in time, and we move from draft to draft, I’ll work longer hours.”
“My office is in a garden. Key West is tropical and lush, and you just slide open the glass wall and it’s as if you’re really working in a garden outside. It’s like you’re not confined. I feel confined in my apartment in New York now. I don’t like to work here anymore, although I have done much work here in the past.”
“Can you tell us a bit about your basic writing routine and process?”
“The secret to being a writer, of course, is discipline. I am a hard worker, an obsessive worker, and I also know that production grows exponentially according to the amount of time you spend at your desk. If you spend three hours writing three pages, in ten hours you can write 30 pages! It grows exponentially, though it consumes your soul! I work hard—coffee and tea have been my friends all my life! I write, then I give it to my publisher, and when it comes back, I change, change, and change it! The secret to writing well is editing and re-editing.”
“I’ve read that for you walking the streets at night has also been an important part of the creative process.”
“Yes, especially before my daughter was born I used to write until four in the morning. In this book, Mevlut has lots of my nocturnal and solitary habits, and my own walks helped me develop his character. I share Mevlut’s imagination! All my life, especially when I was a teenager, my friends would tell me,”You have a strange mind!" Then one day I came across the William Wordsworth quote that is one of the book’s epigraphs [“I had melancholy thoughts … / a strangeness in my mind, / A feeling that I was not for that hour, / Nor for that place”] and I decided that one day I’d write a novel about this idea. It turned out to be Mevlut’s story, and it took me six years."
“Do you have any writing rituals? A breakfast you always eat? An exercise you do? A pen you must have on hand?”
“I observe very little discipline in my life, with no set breakfast and no steady commitment to any exercise program. Once I began using a computer in 1993, I stopped carrying a pen.”
“Are there rituals that you employ to write?”
“Yeah, I write in the morning. That’s when I feel my brain is freshest. There are some rituals: I wear a pair of chain saw operator earmuffs.”
“What? For real?”
“Yeah, you know those giant things? For real. Even though my office is quiet, I find that putting those things on, I don’t know, it’s just become a thing. My earlier offices were noisy, but I just put them on, and I can concentrate. They’re very effective. You can’t really hear somebody if they’re standing in front of you talking. Weird.”
“Can you describe your writing process?”
“It’s now driven by when I have child-free time. In a way I’ve found that’s really good for me. I’m a more productive writer than when I had whole days to mess about and put it off. The only other things I do—I use that program Freedom that turns off the Internet. I love that! It’s become part of my ritual, to set it for a period of time. It’s almost like that makes me write. It’s crazy because it’s only $10, and it stopped working for a while. I thought, I’m not going to pay again for this program, I’ll try to live without it and just turn off the Internet myself. But I couldn’t! I had to pay again to get the program!”
“What’s your average writing day?”
“I try to write at least eight hours a day. I wake up and have my breakfast, I read my paper or I read a book of poetry, particularly English Romantics because they have such a felicity of phrase and expression, and it really opens up my own use of words. I write until lunchtime and sometimes take a break to eat lunch or go work out, and then I’ll come back and write for four more hours. I try to be done by 7 or 8 o’clock, because if I’m not, I’ll be up until 4 a.m., not necessarily working but being unable to fall asleep because I’ll be thinking about it, and that’s problematic because it throws me off the next day. I try to treat it like a regular job because I have this ticking clock inside me that says I should be working because I’m not really living a real life so much. It’s almost like I’m followed around by this Catholic-size guilt for not producing.”
“Do you have any particular writing habits or rituals?”
“Coffee. And I get into this zone where I’m writing and I block out everything. I wear noise-canceling headphones, and it really is traumatizing because every now and then a friend will sneak into my house and come up from behind and scare the hell out of me. It’s a very dangerous way to write.”
“Tell us about your writing process.”
“I drink tea and write at the kitchen table when the kids are at school. It’s a nice, airy room in the house, and it’s out of Internet range, so I can’t be tempted to waste time, looking stuff up on news websites. I feel wasting time brings postponement.”
Mitchell says much the same thing in his 2010 Paris Review interview.
“Do you have a typical writing day?”
“It depends very much on what phase of the book I’m in. For the bulk of the writing I aim to write 1,000 words a day, about two pages, which sometimes I can achieve very easily and sometimes is much, much harder. I do rather force myself to keep going, even if the words are awful, which often they are. It’s then going to be easier to work with something than to work with nothing. A lot of my time is spent rewriting, which is much harder to quantify. It’s just a sense of doing a good day’s work and moving the book along, even if it’s just by a millimeter. The bulk of the writing is like a day job—Monday through Friday, 9 to 4:30. But then in the last few months of it, it becomes much more intense, and I’m writing on the weekends. I just keep my head down and get on with it. It’s a tiring phase, but it’s also an exciting phase because you feel the book is really coming together.”
I’m a dad and a husband and a son and a brother, and of course these relationships bring responsibilities, around which I fit my writing. So I do the school run in the morning, write in a kind of office for three to four hours, break for lunch, another hour, then do the school run in the reverse direction. Kind of depends where I am in the publishing cycle; around publication time I do e-mailing and interviews like this one, eat, throw the kids around the garden for a bit if the weather’s nice, bedtime. Might get another hour or two in before I get to bed—a good day would be seven working hours.
“Can you describe your average writing day? Do you have any interesting writing habits?”
“I don’t have rituals, I compose directly to the laptop, and I don’t have a set number of hours in a day—though as a professional writer, each day is a working day. Here’s a typical day:”
“Rise early-ish (5:30—6 a.m.)”
“Write for a couple of hours”
“Walk the dog (she’s not an early riser) for about an hour”
“Have breakfast (oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts)”
“Write for about another four hours”
“Stretch and wonder if I should be taking a joint supplement”
“Go to stables and ride my horses”
“Come home, shower”
“Write for another couple of hours”
“Remember I haven’t had lunch, so have great big doorstep slice of toast with marmalade and a cup of tea”
“Catch up with daily”admin""
“Cook dinner and watch a movie with my husband, then read. Or I skip the movie and just read. My reading consists of my”work reading" and my “pleasure reading.”"
“Fall into bed, usually with a quick prayer of thanks for giving me so many things to do in my day that I truly love.”
“Tell us about your writing process.”
“I have a very straightforward process. My wife goes to work in her office. She leaves the house at about eight o’clock in the morning. I usually take my daughter to school at about 8:30, and then I come back and I sit down at my desk. I work in the living room of my house. At some point maybe I grab some breakfast, and I work until midday, pick up my daughter, give her a hug, go have some lunch, get back to my desk, and keep working until my wife comes home at about six. And so in that sense it’s a very standard working day. And people ask you things like,”Does Twitter distract you while you’re working?" And of course the answer is, No, I run Twitter in the background all the time, but if I am going to be distracted by something like Twitter or by anything else that I could be doing instead of writing, that’s bad news. It’s got to be cut. Because if I’m not more interested in my writing than I am Twitter, you’re not going to be more interested in my writing than I am in Twitter. So that’s a completely standard benchmark."
“The ideation process, the inspiration process, is much more mysterious—to me as much as to anybody else. I’m walking down the street, and I see something, and that dovetails with something else that I’ve been thinking about, and suddenly I have a story about, I don’t know, a dinosaur that lives in a tree in my garden.”
“Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?”
“Stagger out of bed, take the dogs outside, and then I’ll get a Diet Coke and a couple of dog biscuits and go upstairs. By the time I’ve consumed my Diet Coke and had a quick run through the morning email and Twitter feed, I will probably be compos mentis enough to work. I wake up usually between 8:30 and 9, so I’ll be”going to work," so to speak, around 11. I work maybe for an hour before lunch, and go out with my husband for lunch. Afterward I’ll work for another hour. What that work is depends where I am in a book: In the beginning stages I don’t know much about it. I’m doing a lot of research and thinking, but I write every single day, because if you don’t write, the inertia builds up. So you want to do it, whether you know anything or not. It’s sometimes only half a page, but words on page."
“Midafternoon I’ll go out and do the household errands, come home, do my gardening, go for an evening walk. I live in Phoenix, so half the year it’s so hot, I have to go out and walk at the local mall. Make dinner. My husband likes to go to bed early, around 9:30. So I’ll tuck him in, go lie on the couch with the dogs and a book. I have two big, fat standard dachshunds who are very cuddly. We go to sleep, and then I wake up again naturally between midnight and 1. We get another Diet Coke and go upstairs, and that’s when I do my main work. Between midnight and 4 am. It’s quiet; there are no interruptions. The phone doesn’t ring. No psychic noise. Nothing. It’s the ideal time to work. One of the great perks of being a writer is that you can work when you’re mentally capable of it, not when someone else thinks you should.”
“Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?”
“Well… I get up in the morning, read the paper, and have coffee. After that (by then it is usually around 9 a.m.), I start to write. At around 11 a.m., I stop. The concentration I need only lasts that long. For the actual writing I take the most comfortable position possible, the same as for reading, in fact: lying down on a sofa with a laptop.”
“Can you tell us about your writing process? What is a typical day like for you?”
“I start out every day around 8:30. I answer my emails. Inevitably a proportion of those are business emails about decisions I have to make. It seems that business is all about decision making. Then I have to start the work of the day. I try to write six to eight original pages a day, but I start out by reviewing what I wrote the day before and rewriting that. By the time I finish the book, it’s essentially the second draft. I go over it and try to iron it out and pick out any obvious mistakes. I write directly to the computer, which I think is God’s gift to writers. My first two books were written on an electric typewriter, and let me tell you, this is easier.”
“Goodreads member Carolyn Fritz asks,”As a budding author, I’m finding it hard to make time to write with a full-time job and maintaining my home/family. Do you have any suggestions for new authors on how to maximize their writing time without going crazy?""
“It’s always a struggle, isn’t it? I was super fortunate. When I got married the second time, my new husband offered me the opportunity to stay at home and write full time, which was fabulous. If I’d had to juggle everything, I don’t know if I would have ever finished a book. So my hat is off to people who are trying to do this. As far as managing your time, I think you have to get at least a dedicated hour every day. Just one hour. And just write. Don’t answer emails. Don’t write query letters. Just write. Just move forward. That’s the only suggestion I can offer. When I had my children at home, I could write when they were in day care, which was two mornings a week. It’s very hard, and I fully appreciate and understand that.”
“Apart from feeling rooted in a place, tell us a little more about what’s necessary to your writing process.”
“Sure. It is simple and unvarying. I need to write first thing in the morning. I need to sort of segue from sleep and dreams directly into writing, because I find if I go out and do a few errands or have any kind of congress with the real world, I come back and turn on the computer and look at what I’ve written and think,”Well, I’m just making this up." So it’s a question of maintaining my belief of the fictional world that I’m making up. And I write six days a week, and I’m at the computer anywhere from four to six hours."
“In a straight sit?”
“Pretty much. And then one of the things I like about New York is, I can run right out and be in the middle of all of this chaos and all of this population. I could live in any number of cities, but I couldn’t live in the country. I couldn’t finish my day’s work and then go for a walk in the woods. After those hours of solitude, I need contact. I need other people. Even just so I see them.”
“Can you describe your writing process? Is there a specific ritual you follow?”
“Once my kids have gone to school, I take my laptop, I go to a little writer’s room. I usually have headphones and music and just switch off for three hours. I have to take myself offline, because I can get horribly distracted. Now that I’m contracted to write two books a year, I go to a self-imposed writing retreat. So a couple of times a year I’ll go off to a little inn somewhere and just hole myself away for five days with no WiFi and do nothing but write. I immerse myself in my book.”
“Baltimore Blues contains the first passages I’ve ever read about the”erg" (rowing machine) in a novel. Are you a rower? How does sport help you as a writer?"
“I was a rower. But I don’t row anymore in part because when I started writing, the writing needed to take place in the time that I was rowing. I was never a good rower, but I did compete and did belong to a rowing club in Baltimore in my early thirties. Working out is enormously important to me. Over the past ten years five of my books have had big, knotty problems that were solved when I was working out. On a typical day I get up and I write all morning, and that’s anywhere from 8 to noon. Then in the afternoon, in Baltimore, I work with a trainer twice a week. I go to yoga, and I work on my cardio, at least five to seven days a week. In New Orleans, where I am a lot, I go to classes at a gym, I do boot camp. I am a workout freak. I love it!”
“Tell us about your writing process.”
“I’m dogged. When I’m working on a book, I write almost every day. If I’m really in the midst of the work, I’ll just write straight through the weekend. But I write all day long. I’m kind of slow and methodical and meticulous about the work. I’ll take a good long rest after the book tour, anyway. I believe we need a fallow time before we write again.”
“Tell me about how you wrote this novel. Do you have a writing routine?”
“I do, but I write very differently from people I know who sit down and plot out their books. When I know what I want to write, I start walking around for maybe a month just thinking about it. I carry around a small notebook in my pocket and take notes about my characters and ideas. And then when I’m ready, I’ll start writing. Mostly I like to write late at night when everything is really quiet—especially here in New York—and I’ll work right through until the morning. But if I’m home in Sierra Leone, it’s different, and I usually write early in the morning or when I can during the day in between visiting people. It all depends where I am.”
Ruth Ozeki (Goodreads interview)
“Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?”
“I wake up in the morning and meditate, for half an hour, 40 minutes. I get a cup of green tea (the green tea is pretty important, I have to say), and then I go directly to my computer. I’ll sit there and write until I can’t sit there anymore. But it also depends on where I am in a project. At the beginning of a project, when I’m getting the first draft down, it’s very difficult. That’s the hardest part for me. So I tend to be more restless and fidgety, and so I’ll get up a lot and move around. At the end of a project, when I’m really bearing down on the end, it’s completely overwhelming. I tend to spend long, long hours at the computer. Usually I write until mid-afternoon, and then I’ll do other things: check email, go for a run, cook dinner, be a human being. In the evening I’ll usually go back and review the material or spend the evening reading or researching.”
“I have these fingerless gloves—I’m wearing them in my author photo. They protect my wrists; the surface of the desk after long hours, it gets sensitive there. Wrist warmers become very important to me. It’s like putting on a piece of armor when heading out into battle—having my pulses protected is very encouraging and comforting to me.”
“My ideal writing day is, I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do is go to my favorite café. I love to write in cafés and libraries. I hate to write at home. I like the feeling of others around and having wonderful music playing softly in the background. I love feeling other people’s energies, but I’m free to be left alone to do my own thing. I don’t have unusual writing habits, but whenever I can, I write with a latte and a cookie or muffin or something. Over time I have come to associate writing with pleasure. People ask me if I get writer’s block, and I really never do, and I think it’s for this reason. Sitting down behind my laptop is my favorite thing to do. Even when a latte or a cookie is not available, the association between writing and pleasure is still so strong, it carries through.”
M.L. Stedman (Goodreads interview)
There really isn’t such a thing as a “typical” writing day for me, except insofar as I only write in the daytime—never at night. I’m rather allergic to rules about writing, and pronouncements such as “you must write at least an hour a day” or “you must plot everything in advance” or “do all your research before you write a single word.” My philosophy is “find out what works for you, and do that: Everyone is different.” So, for example, I wrote this book on my sofa, in the British Library, in a cottage by the beach in Western Australia, on Hampstead Heath, and anywhere else that felt right. I consider it a true privilege to have the opportunity to do what I love.
At this point I really don’t. I have a little writing shed for the first time in my life. It’s about 100 feet from the house. On a perfect day I walk the dogs, get a cup of coffee, and go over there and just stay for seven or eight hours. I just wait to see what happens. There’s no particular superstition. I wrote my first book and a half in an office, kind of stealing the time. That kind of purged me of any need for ritual. The only thing I need is to be happy. If I’m a little bit happy, then I can come up with something. Maybe part of the ritual is that if I’m not happy, I might do downtown, fart around, or go take a walk. If there is a little feeling of “happy to be alive” vibe, then I’m good to go. It doesn’t have to be in the writing shed. I could be on an airplane, hotel, or wherever.
I sit down in the afternoon to write generally. I don’t write more than two, three hours at a time. At least at the beginning of a book I don’t. In the evening I’m often Skyping with book clubs. Sometimes it’s two or three days a week. It’s great. Sometime I have to learn to say no. I hate to say no to readers. As I move toward the completion of a book, I do tend to hole myself off from the world. I’ll spend two or three weeks barely coming up for air and just ignoring everything else.
Well, I have four kids, so my first job is to get them off to school. One of them I have to drive, so my best workday lately is dropping him off at 8 a.m. and then hiding out in a coffee shop that is inside of a supermarket, which is a little weird. It’s a Starbucks near a deli counter. I’ve been writing there. I usually will write from 8 until noon. Some days I’ll catch another hour or two in the afternoon. The morning is my best time. I can write anyplace, and I change up my places a lot. It’s almost like riding a horse. Whatever seems to be working, I’ll do that until the horse collapses in exhaustion, and then I’ll find a new horse. Weirdly enough I was in New York, and I was writing in subways, and I was taking subway rides with a notebook and a pencil for a while. Sometimes I’ll write well while on an airplane, and I’ll start doing that as much as I can. Whatever works I will do. I don’t have that one office or that one corner room or a certain pair of socks. I’m mixing it up as much as I can.
I like to work in the morning, and I guess the only thing that I do unusual: I move around a lot when I work—I just walk around—I move a lot, and I bring my work with me. It’s one of the reasons I like to work at home, because if you’re in a library, you can’t just walk around.
Have a cup of coffee. I putter about, then I start writing. 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.
I wrote the book in both Nigeria and the U.S. I don’t have a routine. I like silence and space whenever and wherever I can get it. When the writing is going well, I’m obsessive—I roll out of bed and go to work. I write and rewrite a lot and shut everything out. When it is not going well, I sink into a dark place and read books I love.
My perfect writing day would be waking up at about five o’clock in the morning and going to my little cubbyhole. I literally write in the closet; I’ve built my desk into a closet. I have a couple of hours before any of my kids have woken up, and that’s what I call the “Dream Time.” I wouldn’t touch the Internet, I wouldn’t even make a cup of coffee, I would just go in and use that really fantastic moment when the mind is uncluttered early in the morning as the time to embark on some work.
A typical day writing is probably 6 a.m. to 12 p.m., Monday through Friday. My office is pretty standard. It’s a room above the garage; a nice, bright room with skylights. There’s a sitting area. I’ve got tons of shelves and notes sitting out everywhere. Post-its are the best invention since sliced bread. I have them covering everything.
When I’m writing a manuscript, I typically take my kids to school at 8 and then I try to do some exercise and I sit down to write at about 9:30 in the morning. I write on the computer in a small office I have in my house, and I write till about 2, at which point I go and pick up my kids. Once I’ve picked up my kids from school, then I’m a full-time dad and I try not to write. Although I’m not actually doing any writing, the characters are with me everywhere I go and I’m constantly thinking about it.
I wake up in the afternoon. I wake up and spend time with my children; when they all go to bed, I write. I write at night. Generally that involves headphones and loud music and caffeine and darkness. During the day it’s either family time or sleep time.
I’m very much a “fits” person. I’d write till five o’clock in the morning and go to sleep till about 10 or 11. Get up and spend time with the kids, and start back up again at eight o’clock at night. After a couple days of that you crash and end up sleeping till two in the afternoon. I have days where I don’t really sleep. I write and do my regular family stuff. Generally after about three or four days of that, I crash. It’s not a healthy routine. I do not recommend it.
I tend to write for considerable stretches in the morning and later afternoon. Generally mid-afternoon I go on a long walk. I live in a part of Sydney on the edge of a national park. And it’s near the sea. So there’s a great lot of walking around the coast of the harbor and the Pacific coast. So I generally take an hour and five minutes. That is very important to the day… After my walk, I work as much as I can before dinner, which is generally around 7:30. But I’ve got grandchildren to look after, too. They’re more important than novels to me. If they need to be looked after, then that’s what you do.
I wake up in the morning, I go downstairs and make coffee, because I can’t really do anything without coffee these days. And then I read The New York Times and maybe The Wall Street Journal. I start my day of writing maybe around 10:30 in my office; I have an office at home. I do take it on the road every now and then: At least twice a week I like to write in cafés on my laptop, just to get out and see the world. I write until about 4 or 5, and then I’ll either exercise—run around the park, go to a yoga class—and then my day is free.
Well, I get up at 6 a.m., which I don’t like, but with kids, animals, and a schedule that seems to eat into my writing day, it’s pretty much my only choice. My husband gets up first, gets a cup of coffee and my laptop, and shoves them both into my hands. So I do the first hour and a half in bed. I kind of come to in front of my screen. What I’ve found is, actually it can be quite good for your writing. What happens is, there’s no falter in your brain at that point. It’s before your brain fills up with all the things that occupy you in the day, like school shoes or fish fingers or the dental appointment at 4:30 or picking up the dry cleaning. What you find is that very early on in the day before that’s had a chance to hit, sometimes you can get a really clear run at ideas and problem solving.
I do that most mornings, and two days a week my husband works from home, which frees me up from the school run. Those days I try to work 12-hour days in my office. I’ll go from 7 a.m. and come back at 7 p.m., depending on how tired I am and how well it’s going. If I get really stuck, I’ll take myself away for three days. I work solidly. I get up when I get up and I sleep when I sleep. My record is 18,000 words in three days on one of my writing stints. I don’t get out of my room. I get room service, I wear a dressing gown and don’t get dressed. It’s a bit disgusting, but it works. I don’t think about anything except the book. Sometimes you need to do that.
I am an early riser. On my best writing days I’m up at 5:30 a.m., I hit the gym, and I’m back at 7:30 a.m. at home, and by 9 a.m. I’m at my writing desk. The earlier I can get started, the better, because my creative mind works best in the morning hours. As the day goes on, around 2 p.m., my creativity starts to turn off almost like an electrical current when you flip the switch. Like right now I’m here with my assistant, and we’re doing the business part of my writing career. But I reserve the mornings for fiction. Usually around 2 p.m. I will stop, though I must admit that if I’m having a really bad writing day, I knock off at 1 p.m. and watch Days of Our Lives.
I write every day that I don’t have a hiatus, and there are more than you would think—travel, kids coming home for holiday, a birthday, or just the weekend. But generally speaking, in the dead of winter when there is nothing to do except work, I would get up and be at the desk by 7:30/8 o’clock, and I would leave around 12:30 p.m.
The room must be completely dark. Seriously, totally. Blackout curtains and tinted windows. I tried writing in a closet for a while, but it was too small. I wake at 4:30. Get coffee. Refuse to let brain turn on. Sit at desk and start writing while I’m still asleep enough that I can’t think about what I’m doing. I have to stay deep in my subconscious in order to write. Once I’m wide awake I can edit, but I can’t create. I write for about three or four hours. Then I can stand light. I get breakfast, exercise, then go back to my office to edit and flesh out the scene for the next day. I never have an expected word count, and I don’t write to outline. At all times I know exactly where the overall story arc is going, but sometimes it surprises even me how it gets there. Which is good. I have a theory: If the writer is bored, the reader will be, too. If the writer is having a blast, and is 100 percent invested in and committed to his or her fictional world, the reader will be, too.
A typical day varies depending on where I’m at with the book. In the beginning (the glorious phase of inventing and dreaming), I read around the topic—whatever takes my fancy; I scribble down ideas and let my mind wander free. But then when the actual writing starts, it’s a matter of just sitting at the keyboard and putting one word down after another, all the way to the very, very end. Some days it’s a pleasure, other days it’s plain hard work. (I should add: As the mother of two young boys, there is absolutely no time to be precious about my writing conditions. I do it wherever and whenever I can, even when my sons are staging a fierce lightsaber battle in the middle of my office.)
I have child care from 9 to 3. But I swim or run for an hour in the mornings. If I don’t exercise, I get very down. So workwise I get five hours. An hour or two of that is lost to e-mail and Google and assorted tedium. So it’s a two- or three-hour day. I just type as fast as I can and try and leave half an hour for reading.
My writing process seems to involve a lot of reading and working in the morning. I get almost all my writing done by noon. Then there is reading, and I’m an editor at the Boston Review, and there is rewriting.
None that I know of. I go down to my study after breakfast, and I don’t really emerge except for a cup of coffee and perhaps to get my youngest daughter from school. I’m down there until 7 o’clock. Not writing all the time, by any means. Being alone in my study is working, whatever I’m doing, even if I’m just throwing darts into the wall. It’s communing with your conscious mind and hoping that your unconscious mind is coming along and doing some of the work for you. A lot of the time is spent reading and scratching your ass and digging your nose, inching along with slow progress. It’s on the whole a happy process with occasional crisis.
I work in the office in my house. I generally like to be at my desk by 9 o’clock, writing. I try to avoid the phone till about lunchtime, and then I’ll return some calls and take a break. I’ll probably shift gears to another project in the afternoon, and then sometime in the evening, if I’m working on the book, I’ll go over what I wrote that day. Because I have kids, I treat it as a day job.
I usually write in my office, located in a small, detached carriage house in my backyard. It is such a happy place—there’s so much sunlight, and everything is white, pink, and orange. On rare occasions, when I need a change of scenery, I write in a coffee shop or bookstore. I don’t have many rituals—but I always start out my writing day with a strong cup of black coffee and find that my writing flows more the first thing in the morning (after I get my children off to school) or very late at night.
“I have quite a noisy household, but it’s a household of routine. I stick to a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday working day so everyone knows when I’m in my study and shouldn’t be disturbed. I like to keep evenings and weekends free. Then Monday morning it’s back to work again.”
“It’s pretty much like that for me. I wrote thinking that I never would be successful. I thought if I could make some money out of writing science fiction, that would be so good. I never thought I would make a load of money out of it. It’s a lot of fun, and I keep wondering when it’s all going to end. You keep on doing it because it’s your job, but after a while you suddenly realize that it’s nice to take a holiday every now and then and actually talk to your wife. These days I try to allow myself some weekends.”
When I’m at home in Maine, I write in a remodeled boathouse down by the water. The previous owner of my house, who was a lobsterman, used to work on his traps and do repairs to his dinghy there. It was very rough, it didn’t have insulation, or a toilet, running water. I just moved a desk there. Most every day from about 8:30 to 12:30 or 1 I write, and then I go away for a while, then again from about 3:15 till 5, though mostly that’s spent planning what I’m doing the next day. It’s very orderly without being onerous. People think I’m slow. My friends who are novelists, [like] Joyce Carol Oates, make fun of me for being slow. But novels for me are long processes, and I’m slow about doing them. I have to live a very temperate life, I can’t be waking up with hangovers or regretting a terrible decision.
At my desk by 9. Work until at least 12:30. Make different decisions about how to spend the afternoon. Buy shrimp in Chinatown. Forget the spring onions. Go out again.
My first writing teacher in college, Reynolds Price, used to say, “The creative urge is like a small child; it craves routine.” I’m a great believer in the powers of routine. Every single morning I take a walk through the woods, and although I may begin my walk thinking about a recipe or a house-maintenance problem, by the time I’m on the homeward loop my characters are all at once talking in my mind, and I go directly upstairs and start writing down what they’ve said. I suppose it’s unusual in this day and age that I work in longhand. I use a Pilot P-500 black gel pen on unlined white paper, and I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite before I finally type a section up. At the end, I rewrite the whole book in longhand all over again, and then I read it into a tape recorder. This was originally so that I could follow along on the computer screen and see where I’d made any changes, but I’ve found it has the added benefit of showing me when something sounds unnatural, particularly in dialogue.
I have one new, unusual habit: I stand up all day. I didn’t start doing it out of choice; I had a running injury, and it hurt to sit down. But I read an article in The New York Times’s health section on the revelation that if you spend a large portion of your time sitting down—even if you get a lot of exercise—you elevate your risk of everything: heart disease, stroke, cancer, everything. And so when I got this injury, I decided that I’d probably used up all my sitting-down time already for my entire life. When I get up, I read the paper at the kitchen counter standing up, and then I go up to the office and have the computer on top of my Oxford English Dictionary, and I stand in front of the desk 12 hours a day.
Right now I have prepublication jitters, mental illness, and distraction. My grandson is here three days a week, so I have that as an excuse. I have four weekdays now when I’m working. I literally do the same thing every day. I believe that discipline and self-love are the total secrets to freedom. I sit down at the same time every day because I don’t want it to be an issue. I’m like a teenager. If you give me a chance to negotiate around sitting down at 9 a.m. and beginning the piece, I’m going to be like a 15-year-old. I may have a reason why that doesn’t really make sense and why you’re trying to bum my trip. My dad taught me that to be a writer is a decision and a habit. It’s not anything lofty, and it doesn’t have that much to do with inspiration. You have to develop the habit of being a certain way with yourself. You do it at the debt of honor. I’ve written 13 books now. It’s not really important that I write a lot more books, but I do it as a debt of honor. I got one of the five golden tickets to be a writer, and I take that seriously. I don’t love my own work at all, but I love my own self. I love that I’ve been given the chance to capture the stories that come through me.
On the best writing day I start immediately, because I’m still in that morning fog and it’s easy for me to pretend that it’s not work. I usually get distracted by some horrible thing on the Internet like Facebook or Twitter and then, like today, I spend hours trying to diagnose a shoulder pain I have. Then I’ll remember, “Oh yeah, I should be writing.” I use word quotas when I’m under a deadline and writing a first draft. I talk to myself so I can’t write in cafés. I don’t like to have people over, because I realize I can’t talk to myself when I’m writing.
“I wake up at five every morning (including weekends) to start my writing day. It’s a quiet time of day with almost no distractions, and I find my mind is most fertile in those morning hours. I write until I am burned out—which could be anywhere from 30 minutes to ten hours, depending on how the Muses are feeling that day. Unusual habits? Other than dressing like a Hasidic rabbi and dancing with my arms aloft after I write a great joke, I have none.”
“After I take my daughter to school and walk the dog, I make coffee, then sit and stare at the computer screen for hours. But I don’t get much writing done, because I have no keyboard, just the screen. No, seriously, I tap words out slowly, but there’s a lot of staring. It would be hideously boring to watch me write. Probably my most unusual writing habit is that, after every completed paragraph, I sacrifice a live raccoon. No, seriously, the raccoon is already dead.”
I wake up, drink espresso, walk my kid to school, take the bus to a swimming pool, swim laps, and then work, mostly longhand on legal pads, in my office at home or in one of a handful of cafés with very patient staff. I like to listen to appropriate music, and I always need a couple of unsharpened pencils nearby to tap and drum while thinking. (These don’t seem to qualify as “unusual writing habits,” at least by the standards of writers.) Then I type in what I’ve written, print it, read it again, and wait for cocktail hour.
It goes like this: Wake up. Blink a lot. Eat breakfast. Drink tea. Attempt to start writing. Get distracted. Take a shower. Get dressed. Attempt to start writing. Get distracted. Eat lunch. Attempt to start writing. Actually start writing! Write until 5. Get exhausted. Stop writing. Hang out with the three-dimensional people.
It’s funny. I haven’t had a typical day in a long time because it was 2008 and 2009 when I worked on the book. But when I was working on it, it was very blue collar. I worked 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, a super-rigid schedule. I had quit my teaching job to do a book like this and knew I would have to give it everything and not be distracted. I sat in the same chair every day at Starbucks diligently. I never worked that way before, because on my first novel I had an hour a day when my daughter napped. I’m trying to get that schedule down again.
I wake up around 7 a.m., 6:30 a.m. if I’m feeling really good, and I wander to the coffee place and buy two huge cups of coffee that will last me all day. In terms of shots, I think it is eight shots of coffee. I then walk back to my home, and the first two to five hours I am good to go. My brain is astonishingly clear, and I write a lot. After that time, I feel tired and want to go back to bed. I am not able to maintain that level of clearheadedness throughout the day. So I do a four-hour stretch. I think a lot of writers are depressed because they have a stretch of time of extreme clarity, and then they are not able to do much for the rest of the day. I think it makes a lot of writers miserable, so I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t spend the afternoons descending into misery. Instead I exercise. I go for an hour run or an hour on the cross-trainer. In the afternoon I really can’t do any writing unless I’m forced to, so instead I do research, send emails, and, around 5 or 6 p.m., I stop and watch crap TV.
I do not have a typical writing day. I’m not one of those writers who sit down every day for three hours with their coffee. I can’t do it. I have weeks where I write all day every day, and then I won’t write anything for several days. Then I’ll go back to it. I definitely have marathon writing times, which I think comes from National Novel Writing Month. I wish I could have a typical day and routine, but I really don’t. Maybe there will come a time when it will be habitual. I keep a notebook with me for when ideas show up in my head, so I can catch them before they go away.
I’m usually at my desk by 8:30 or 9:00. I like a tidy office because I find messes distracting. Being disorganized wastes time. I keep journals for every novel I write, and I start my workday by logging in, talking to myself about where I am in a novel and how I feel. I focus on the scene or story moves coming up. I worry about pacing and suspense. I revise. I stop sometimes and consult my research library, which is packed with books about crime and law enforcement. If I’m stuck, I call on the small army of experts who assist with each book. I break for a brief lunch and then work another couple of hours. Most days, I walk three to five miles when I’ve finished writing. I need the stress relief and fresh air.
I suppose what might be most unusual is my wake-up time: 4 a.m. I like the quiet of morning for writing, and I like to come to writing straight from sleep and dreams, before the world intervenes and before I’m embroiled in responding to it. I spend more than 90 percent of my writing time rereading what I’ve already written and wielding a pencil. Eventually the page is too messy to make sense of, and so at that point I retype, the better to see it again with more clarity and for another round with the pencil. This circular editing has a quality of endlessness to it, and of obsessiveness, but I persist anyway in the hope of becoming exhausted enough with it that I can add a few more atrocious lines of first-draft prose in need of repair.
Have breakfast and sit at my desk. It’s really very dull and simple. The German phrase sitzfleisch [the ability to sit in a chair and endure a task], it means you have a lot of meat on your behind. The person that has sitzfleisch can sit in the chair the longest. The Germans think this is very important for scholarship and for work in general. I agree that this is what you need for writing novels. It’s a long and slow haul, and there’s nothing about the process that is particularly interesting. I don’t have any special things I do, like a little stuffed animal that I stroke or a kind of potion that I drink. There’s nothing about it except the regularity of it.
Marisa de los Santos (Goodreads interview)
Usually, I get up to my desk as quickly as I can after the kids are off to school, and I re-read the section I wrote the day before (it might be a few pages or a few paragraphs). I tinker with that and then begin the next section. Often, I have some sketchy sense of what I want to accomplish, what I want to write, but many times the characters insist on surprising me and heading off into another direction altogether. As a general rule, I don’t write on weekends or in the evenings; both of those belong to my family, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t break that rule on occasion!
I fiddle around for a long time, all morning usually, before I finally overcome Resistance and get down to work. I try to be as stupid as possible. I just let it rip and try not to censor anything. My goal is just to get something down, good or bad, and K.B.O., Keep Buggering On. I’m very superstitious. I collect pennies. I have a little cannon on my desk that I point at me, to fire inspiration into me. That’s only the beginning. They say there’s no such thing as writing, only rewriting. I’d divide the activity into two. Yes, there’s writing. You have to be fearless and keep grinding, day after day, month after month. Then there’s rewriting. That’s almost as hard but not as scary. I try to stay as dumb as possible. Don’t think about it, do it.
Yes, I still write in longhand; it gives me a real connection to my characters. My schedule is tough. I lock myself away from 8:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon. The easier you make it look, the more difficult it is, but I love what I do.
Christina Schwarz (Goodreads interview)
I’m not as disciplined as I ought to be, and for the last few years I’ve felt, like many women with small children, like I’m trying to squeeze my work in around everything else, so, sadly, there is no “typical” writing day for me. I can do a lot of thinking about discrete problems with character or plot while walking the dog or running or driving, but it’s almost impossible for me to move forward significantly without a good long stretches of four or five hours, because to some extent I have to get myself out of the real world and into the world of the book. I have to daydream a lot and try ideas and then adjust and readjust them. I don’t give myself a set number of words to produce (part of being undisciplined), but generally I’d say I do maybe half a page to a page a day, and then the next day redo that radically and move on by about half a page to a page. Some scenes go much faster, some even slower. I do like to move around from day to day. It seems to refresh me. I’m grateful for laptops and would have a hard time being chained to the same desk in the same room for the duration of a novel. I also do some work on paper, especially when I’m trying to work out something complex and need to think nonlinearly.
I’m definitely not an up-all-night kind of writer, though I used to be. Now I’m more of an early riser. For example, it’s become a bit of a routine to do the last round of changes and tweaks and trims on the column on Monday morning between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., when it’s due. That’s not a good habit, I guess. I basically work every day. But it’s not like I’m breaking up rocks in the hot sun — I’m just talking on the phone or reading or writing. I remember reading once about this writer talking about how he does his work in this really spare room with no distractions. I kind of like distractions; I’m very prone to getting up and walking around, flipping through a magazine, listening to some NPR podcast, whatever. I have to turn things over in the back of my head for a long time before I can get to where I’m ready to write. Ideally, I like to know how something will start, and how it will end, before I really get going. I like having a basic concept — which of course often changes in the course of the writing, but it prevents me from sitting there looking at a blank screen.
I’d say that working on a novel for over 30 years is a bit unusual, not what I intended, but it turned out just great. Over the thirty-plus years that I spent writing The Little Book, I had a day job as an English teacher and headmaster, which I loved. I wrote primarily on days off and vacations. To me a writing day is from breakfast till lunch. I love the feeling of having a productive morning of writing, with an afternoon free to roam and ramble. Now that I am retired, I can write whenever I want, and mornings remain my favorites.
I don’t think I have any unusual writing habits, unless you count writing at the gym. I don’t have a writing room in San Francisco, but my gym has a coffee room with two cubicles. I go there, write, work out and take the bus home mid-afternoon. In Paris, I do have a writing room, and a little house on the Seine, and the apartment of my son when he isn’t using it — lots of options. I believe it is important for women writers to get out of the house, just as it would be for a male writer who was, say, an insurance executive, to get out of the office to do his writing.
In this case I used a very similar process. Up in the morning, go to office, read through yesterday’s pages and edit them, then move on to writing new pages. By 10 or 11 in the morning I’m done. Eventually I transfer it into a computer. Then I go exercise and spend the afternoon working on something completely unrelated. The only real difference between how I wrote Anathem and how I wrote The Baroque Cycle was that in the case of Anathem I printed out the manuscript and read through it quite a bit more frequently than I did in the case of The Baroque Cycle.
“I don’t know if it’s unusual, but a peculiarity is that when I stop writing for the day, which usually happens at something like 11 in the morning, and I—”
“And you’re starting around when?”
“Oh, maybe eight.”
It has changed a lot since I had kids. I have two kids now. Before I had kids, I would literally get up in the morning, turn on the computer, work all day — often I would not eat — and then turn it off and go to bed at night. That’s it. The problem with that is if you do that for several weeks, when you finally do go outside and see other people, you’ve forgotten how to interact. It de-socializes you, and that’s not healthy, so now I only work for eight hours a day! A lot of people say they get their best work done first thing in the morning, and that’s true if you’ve had a good night’s sleep. The other thing is, you should not be afraid of whiskey. Don’t turn something in after you’ve been drinking, but you will often come up with good ideas, and then look at them again the next morning and say, “Man, that was good,” or “That was really stupid.” But sometimes you need something like that to punch through when you’re stumped. I used to have several things that I did for coming up with ideas. Number one: I would drive on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, and for some reason I would always come up with ideas. But I don’t live there anymore, so that’s out. Number two: I would go jogging, and I still do that. And number three: really, really hot baths.
I write as much as possible. Best time is late morning or early afternoon. I don’t write at night unless I have to. I have to write in spurts and then rest. It’s the only way I can work now.
I’m at my desk by 7:30. I work until noon. I usually write in my bathrobe.
I usually write in the morning or very late at night, but I don’t write every day and I don’t have a set number of words I produce or any of those things. It’s a terrible method by which to produce work, but I’ve put nine books on the shelves in fourteen years, so it seems to be working out OK for me.
When I wrote Marley & Me I was working full time as a columnist with The Philadelphia Inquirer. So that routine was to get up at 4:45 a.m. in the morning and write from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. in the basement of my home. But for The Longest Trip Home, I quit The Inquirer and we moved into an old 1790s stone farmhouse out in rural Pennsylvania. On the property there was an old rundown cottage that I fixed up as my writing studio, and that’s where I’m sitting right now. I have a wood stove out here, humming away. It’s my private place—real rustic and simple—one room with a loft. When I’m really in the heart of writing creatively I go to Lehigh University, which is about 15 minutes from me, and sit in their academic library. It’s just a good energy for me. I wrote probably three quarters of The Longest Trip Home sitting in that library.
I don’t go to an office, so I write at home. I like to write in the morning, if possible; that’s when my mind is freshest. I might write for a couple of hours, and then I head out to have lunch and read the paper. Then I write for a little bit longer if I can, then probably go to the library or make some phone calls. Every day is a little bit different. I’m not highly routinized, so I spend a lot of time wandering around New York City with my laptop in my bag, wondering where I’m going to end up next. It’s a fairly idyllic life for someone who likes writing.
A typical day is breakfast (grapefruit and Irish soda bread and tea), then upstairs to a big, bright workroom. We have one long desk: my husband (Gordon Snell) is at one end, and I am at the other. He writes his children’s books, and I do my stories. We both try to be at our desks by 8:30 AM, and we work until 1:00 PM. This includes answering mail and filing. We have a secretary one day a week. Then when work is over, we have lunch and play a game of chess. We play seven days a week and have been doing so for over thirty years, and we are still hopeless at it, but love it to bits.
I typically get up, have coffee with my girlfriend while we watch the news or read the news on our laptops. Then I go to work. I tend to work for three, maybe four hours. Then take a break, work out, do business stuff, go to the store, then in the evening I’ll plan what I’m going to write the next day. If I’m behind on a deadline, my typical day consists of getting up, writing, or worrying about not writing, until bedtime.
I wake up as late as I can, because that is one of the few, great benefits of being a writer. You don’t have to get up early and commute to work. So the morning is wonderfully wasted: reading three newspapers, reading online, having a slow breakfast, then after getting dressed, meandering off to my downstairs office and jumping into it. My books involve a lot of research, so I’m usually surrounded by huge stacks of other books and printouts. I’m looking forward to someday writing a book without all that research and getting back to that style.
It has gotten a lot easier—now my kids are in school 8 hours a day. When they were little, they weren’t. I have to be disciplined, because there’s nobody here cracking a whip. So I have to be the one to say, “It’s a work day. I may not be feeling particularly inspired, but I have to be here, and I have to find it within me to work.” That’s probably the biggest difference between the people who make it in this industry and the people who don’t: the ones who are able to recognize that even if you love it, it’s a job versus the ones who sit and wait for inspiration to strike. There is a big difference between those two mindsets. If it’s a writing day, I am going to sit down and write.
I try to begin work as early as possible, 8:30 a.m., perhaps, and I try to work until past noon or 1 p.m. I try again to write in the evening. Much of my writing is “remembering”—I imagine scenes, entire chapters while running or walking—I am very dependent upon this meditative quiet time.
In short, Joyce Carol Oates is a major one-woman industry. Her journal [The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982 , ed Johnson 2007] tells us that she writes from 8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening. And she revises and polishes and reworks page after page after page.
I usually write in the morning, although I sometimes write later in the afternoon and in the evening. There are times when I get up very early to write, but on a typical day I start writing at about 10 a.m. and keep going until lunchtime. I often write when I am traveling—I am away so often on book tours that I have to do this. On my forthcoming tour of the USA I will be finishing the next Isabel Dalhousie book.
In the early ’50s, when I had a job, I would get up at 5 a.m., write for two hours, and then go to work at an ad agency. I did that for most of ten years—I was writing westerns then. I sold five westerns and 30 or so short stories (and a couple of those were turned into movies), so it was worth getting up that early. After I left the ad agency, I was writing at home, and I would usually get going by 9 a.m., and I would work until 6 p.m. Always. I would skip lunch—maybe have some peanuts. But in the last year or two, I’m getting to work later. I’m finding more distractions, maybe because I don’t have a very strong urge to sit down and start writing. But still, once I get going, I’m where I want to be.
I don’t really have a typical day. Sometimes I’ll write for 14 hours a day, sometimes I won’t write at all. It just varies day to day and context to context. I tend to write very intensively when I do. Having spent a decade or more writing with a word processor, I’m tentatively starting to do a few drafts in pen first. I have the worst handwriting in the world, but I am enjoying using pens and paper for the first time in a long time.
When I’m writing, I get up around 7 a.m., make a cup of English breakfast tea, and toddle down the hall to my office. My husband exercises to really loud music right next to where I write, so I answer e-mail until he’s done. I’d say I begin to write in earnest around 9. I have a bowl of Rice Crispies with blueberries at 11. Then I get dressed. At some point I try to get some exercise. I’m a big walker, but I also play tennis and do Pilates. By the end of the day I have to write a minimum of 1,000 words. Sometimes I can get that done in two hours; sometimes it takes all day. I don’t know if I have any unusual writing habits. Do the Rice Crispies count? The only other thing that might be considered unusual is that I like to have music playing, but it can’t have words, or if it does have words, they have to be in a language I don’t understand. One of my favorite CDs to listen to when writing is called Puccini without Words. It has all the great arias and soaring music, minus the words. I also like the soundtrack from Monsoon Wedding. I listen to these two CDs over and over again when I’m writing.
If I’m writing, I usually get up early. I like to get up at 4:45 a.m. I like to write when no one else is awake, the phone isn’t ringing, and nothing is happening. I write for usually about two hours, and then I might stop and have coffee or exercise, and then I go back to it. But I always feel like those first two hours produce my best work.
As writers go, I’m a binger. I don’t write every day, I carve out a 6-8 hour block, usually on a weekend and just bang away. I write best in the morning: eat breakfast, line up the espresso shots, and just go. Which is all pretty ordinary, I think. Probably my only unusual habit is that I like to read other writers while I write. Keeps me from getting lazy. While I was writing The Magicians I kept a copy of The Corrections on one side of my desk and a stack of the Narnia books on the other.
I’m horrible. I am not a good girl scout. For Little Altars Everywhere I got up every morning at 4:30 a.m., and I wrote from 4:30 to 7:30, and it was fabulous! It definitely, however, cut into my social life, because I had to go to bed so early. For Divine Secrets I got a huge writer’s block, and so I was up one night at midnight and I thought, “What the heck? Let me try writing and see what happens.” And then my old habit kicked in, and I started writing all night. With Ya-Yas in Bloom, that was a period when my husband picked me up out of the bed, transferred me to the wheelchair [due to chronic Lyme disease], rolled me down the hall, picked me up, and put me into my writing chair. I would write for a little bit, and then he put me back in bed. Back and forth. And that’s not to say I think it hurt that book. I think it taught me that maybe I’m not a good girl scout who writes from 9 to 5, but I’m a hell of a good girl scout because I still wrote it. For this book, I just stay up all night! And I sleep really late—and it’s terrible! As my mother says, “You’re sleeping half your life away.” I love the night. A lot of people who are only day people miss the night, and they think I’m just a sloth for missing the daytime.
Descriptions of writing seem as boring as descriptions of golf games (but without the exciting putts or drives, or the prospect of thinking about Tiger Woods!). I get up, drink coffee, walk the dog, spend too much time on e-mail, and try to concentrate. The variations are all dependent upon where in the process I am; early on I’m reading or trolling the Internet for facts or visiting the library. Later on, I’m typing. Dull. Really, dull. I am a slave to my deadlines, however. The fact that I do not turn in manuscripts late may be unusual; it’s all due to years and years of writing for newspapers and magazines.
I get up very early in the morning, and I drink lots of coffee. I am computer illiterate—I’m not kidding you. I’ve never used a computer. So I’ve written all of my 17 books, fiction and nonfiction, by hand. And I have an assistant who takes care of corrections for me, and a woman back East who types for me. So I work assiduously by hand. Blood’s a Rover, which is a 655-page hardcover, was a 1,000-page typed manuscript and 1,100 pages handwritten. It was entirely written in ink. It is the result of a 400-page typed outline, in which I describe the characters, the plot, the milieu, and the historical events in the most minute detail. I work every day for a long period of hours, drinking lots of coffee, with the outline on my desk and white notebook paper that I write on beside it.
Paris Review, “James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201”:
“Do you force yourself to write a certain number of words each day?”
“I set a goal of outlined pages that I want to get through each day. It’s the ratio of text pages to outline pages that’s important. That proportion determines everything. Today I went through five pages of the outline. That equals about eight pages of the novel. The outline for Blood’s a Rover, which is three hundred and ninety-seven pages, is exponentially more detailed than the three-hundred-and-forty-five-page outline for The Cold Six Thousand. So the ratio of book pages to outline pages varies, depending on the density of the outline.”
“Is it important for you to have a steady writing routine?”
“I need to work just as rigorously on the outline as I do on the actual writing of the text, in order to keep track of the plot and the chronology. But once I’m writing text, I can be flexible, because the outline is there. Take today: I woke up early, at five-thirty. I worked for a couple of hours, took a break for some oatmeal, shut my eyes for a moment, and went back at it. I was over-caffeinated, jittery-assed, panic-attacky. Sometimes I go until I just can’t go anymore. I flat-line and need some peace.”
“Do you write at night?”
“I write some nights, and I edit at night. I write by hand. I correct in red ink. When I’m close to finishing a book, I will write more and more, because I’ve got finishing fever.”
I’m a 9 to 5 writer—I never work on weekends or in the evenings. I have an office round the corner from my home, so I drop a kid off at school and walk down the road, where invariably I waste the first few hours of the day writing e-mails, playing Solitaire, reading sports news on the Internet. I don’t listen to music while I’m at the computer, but it is an important part of the working day—things tend to spark up better if I’m having an intense relationship with a song or an album.
Compared to other people, I suppose the most unusual thing about me is how completely chaotic my habits are. I have a tendency to write at night. I don’t have a regular schedule, I’m very deadline driven, and I’m very slow. Because I’m also a visual artist, sometimes I’m spending a lot of time making art while I think about the writing project I’m working on. Sometimes even when I don’t look like I’m working, I actually am.
It takes a lot of organization. The first book I dictated and then wrote with my coauthor, David Oliver Relin. At the time, my wife said if I wrote a book it would be a pamphlet, so they wanted someone to bring it out more. This book was actually much more challenging because I wrote it in first person. I compiled a list of about 600 of the Three Cups of Tea reviews and comments on Goodreads (criticism, complaints, suggestions, praise, et cetera), printed them out on paper, and went through them carefully. Some of the comments, such as “You didn’t share enough about why you do what you do; you didn’t talk about your family or your personal feelings; you describe these amazing women and girls, but you didn’t talk about how they felt when they first went to school or what it meant to their mothers,” were very insightful comments. I’ve incorporated some of the suggestions and criticism in my new book, Stones into Schools. It was a very helpful process. I really worked hard to bring out the women’s personal feelings, and I enjoyed it a lot. Some authors don’t like to read any book reviews. I have a thick skin. I also appreciate even the critical reviews, because you can learn from them. My dad was big advocate of listening not only to the people who praise you but also to your critics. I also had my wife’s book club and a couple of other book clubs go through the manuscript of Stones into Schools. They gave some incredible feedback and really improved the stories quite a bit. With the first book, I used to get up at 2:30 a.m. and work for five hours. I was under a lot of pressure. I did it because we had so many people interested in what we were doing. With this book, I got up at 4 a.m. and worked for three and a half hours. A lot of perspiration. But I actually enjoyed writing this second book.
It’s funny, writers always complain that they get tired of answering that, but whenever I meet a writer, that’s what I want to know. I don’t write every day. I used to. I think when you are an aspiring writer, you must write every day. It’s not as though anybody will call you up on the phone and say, “I understand you are a very promising, aspiring writer and I’m going to give you this assignment.” You have to create it yourself or it’s never going to happen. I spent my teens and my twenties ferociously writing every day, but now that this is my job and it’s my career, I tend to go project by project. I can go months without writing anything, which is actually quite nice. I’m very diligently researched. All my books, even the fictitious ones. With Stern Men I spent an enormous amount of time on these remote islands up on the coast of Maine because there was no other way to get that story. I don’t think I’m very imaginative. I’m not a fabulist, I’m not a story inventor. I think I’m good at going out in the world and reflecting what I’m seeing there. Obviously with a book like Committed, it takes an enormous amount of research before you even begin writing. I bury myself in research until I know inch by inch, every detail of the world that I’m writing about. Only when that’s all gotten together can I finally sit down and work. And then I work in one six-month period. Everything else goes away. I stop washing my hair. I grew up on a farm and I keep farmer’s hours. I get up really early, I work until noon, and then I take a lunch break. By mid-afternoon I’m sort of spent. That’s the only way I know how to get it done. I’m really good friends with Ann Patchett. She and I talk about this all the time, and the one thing we believe that we share as writers is that we are not geniuses. We don’t rely on the muse. We are both really hard workers. Every once in a while we get rewarded by a mysterious force. But mostly it’s just showing up at our desks at 7 o’clock every morning day after day after day. I wish it were more glamorous. We just plod our way through it, like grindy students that we used to be, we still are.
A typical day: I usually write fiction from about 6 a.m. to about 10:30 a.m. From 10:30 to 1 p.m., I am likely to connect with readers digitally: e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads. After lunch, I tend to go for a bike ride (I am an avid cyclist) or I will go to the gym. Then I will have dinner with my lovely bride. After dinner, I am likely to do some more digital marketing, read, and I am typically in bed by midnight. I do all of my drafts on a computer, but I do all of my editing longhand with fountain pens. I always use fountain pens because it forces me to go very slowly and think carefully to find the perfect synonym for “burgundy.”
I am not someone who writes with the same pace every day. I do not have fixed working hours. Instead I have an inner pendulum. When the pendulum swings to one end, I start writing my new novel. Then I write nonstop, day and night. I feel pulled into the story, and I live with the characters inside my mind. This goes on for months and months. When the novel is over, the pendulum swings to the other end. Then I do other things. I socialize more, I travel more. I become a student of life again.
I write erratically. I’m obsessed with beautiful notepads, blank books, typefaces, ink. I long to be disciplined, an 8–1 writer, but instead I find my best hours are those between dog and wolf, 5–89. I work well with a close deadline. Otherwise, I tend to read and cook and take walks.
My writing days are very ordinary: just rear to chair, just writing or trying to write. I make breakfast for the kids, and once they head to school I go up to my office in the house and work until lunch. Maybe I’ll exercise if I’m feeling enervated, but then I’ll work again until late afternoon. Nothing glamorous.
My most pronounced writing habit is trying not to write. My closest friend is a book reviewer, and we talk every morning. I walk for an hour every morning, too. I would rather exercise than write—there’s a damning fact. But by about 10 a.m. I just do it. I always have music on unless I’m reading aloud, which I always do before I hand anything in. It’s the only way to know if a sentence really works, without clunks or cul-de-sac clauses. It’s also the only way to know if dialogue sounds like human speech. I’ve read Every Last One aloud twice, once after the first draft, then after the last. I had to give up after that second time because I was so wiped from weeping. My elder son, who is a whiz at grammar, did the final copy edit so I wouldn’t have to look at it again.
I write at any time of day in any place, so long as it’s quiet and I can set up my computer. I’m a slow writer, given to playing Spider Solitaire when stuck. Otherwise, my writing habits are blindingly boring. I just sit down at the computer and write.
I don’t have a typical day anymore. It used to go like this: work from 8 to 11:30, lunch break, house and kids in the afternoon. Then it went to: work from 8 to 11:30, lunch break, back to work in the afternoon. Now it’s: interviews, queries, and small tasks first thing in the morning, try to work an hour or two, break for lunch, back to taking care of office business in the afternoon, try to cram in some more work.
I have no unusual writing habits, except I like to write in a clean environment. I like to make my bed. I like to make sure the kitchen is clean. I like everything organized. I don’t like any clutter. I don’t like to have a lot of obligations hanging over my head. I don’t like to be worried about things. This comes from the old quote from Flaubert: “In order to write like a revolutionary, you need to live like a bourgeois.” Which basically means in order to fully concentrate on the novel you’re working on, you need to have all your debts settled more or less. To create under stress, it’ll get the job done faster, but it doesn’t mean it’ll get it done better. I try to keep office hours. I work best during the day. I write better when I’m happy. I know that sounds strange. Not happy, but where I don’t have major drama going on. In fact, I’ve seen it before in my career, where there was major drama going on I wasn’t working so well. Part of the reason Glamorama took so long to finish is that there was a lot of drama going on while I was writing that book. That stopped me from completing that book in the amount of time that I wanted to. I would even say the same holds true for Imperial Bedrooms. While I was working on Imperial Bedrooms they were making the movie version of The Informers, which I’d written and I was producing, and it turned out to be a very difficult, stressful movie to make for a number of reasons. I think that did slow down the writing of Imperial Bedrooms a little. So I need things to be fairly calm in order to move ahead.
I get up at 6 a.m. pretty regularly and work until noon. Sometimes I will work in the afternoons, too, depending on whether I’ve gotten up a head of steam and want to keep going. I don’t work every day. I work when I feel like it, but I also do a book a year and have to budget my time in order to keep to that schedule. My most unusual writing habit is that I’m sort of another version of Monk. I have to work in my space and never work anywhere other than my space. I have my stuff, and it’s all where I want it to be. I don’t like it disturbed. I’m not quite into lining up my pencils in a row, but I’m pretty close.
I write on a laptop, and I write anywhere in the house or, when I am traveling, on airplanes or on trains or in hotel lobbies. I take up a book to write as I might take up a book to read; it is a pleasure and a distraction for me. Only when I am doing difficult factual work do I feel the need to be in my study. I tend to do business letters and phone calls in the morning and then walk the dog or ride my horse, and then in the afternoon I have the pleasure of writing. If I am trying to get through a scene or get on with the novel, then I reread and write again at night.
I actually have two very distinct days. In the morning I’m the creative person writing books, and in the afternoon I’m Janet the businessperson. I’m up at 5 a.m., I go downstairs, make coffee, and get a yogurt out of the refrigerator. My little dog Ollie and I go to my office where Ida, my parrot, is waiting for us. This is my favorite part of my day. I sit down at my computer, and I get to go into the world of Plum or the world of Alex Barnaby or the Wicked world. While I’ve been sleeping my head has filled up with all of these ideas. The first hour and a half is just joy. It’s the best part of my day. Then after that my head empties out, and it gets a little tougher to pull out those ideas. I work through the morning until noon, then in the afternoon I take care of business. If you’ve ever read my books, you’ll know that I have terrible food issues. I love all food. I love bad food and good food. I love a glass of wine and a glass of beer. So at 4 p.m. the trainer or Pilates instructor shows up, and they make me work for an hour.
I start writing the second my kids leave for school and finish when they get home. I perch like a bird at my desk (knees up under my chin, sitting on my feet—I’ve even been caught doing this on a yoga ball!). It takes me about an hour and a half to go through what I consider my “creative portal,” and once I’m there, I’m often good for 2,000 words. However, if I answer the phone or the door or talk to anyone, I need to spend that hour and a half again, so I’ve been known to hide behind the curtain from the mailman, etc. I once got so desperate, I moved my desk into my closet and finished a book in there.
I like to start early, usually at 7 a.m., and with breaks for the usual chores, such as shaving and lunch, I work until about 5 p.m. I do e-mails and phone calls for an hour. Then I like to have a glass of champagne.
I like to wake up at 10:30 a.m. Then I just get to work. I usually start by writing in my diary, and then I turn to whatever story I’m working on. I stay at my desk until about 1:30 p.m., and then I go back to work at 8 at night. I work for another hour, hour and a half. If I have a deadline, I’ll stay up all night, but generally it’s about four hours a day.
I wake up in the morning and immediately before anything, I walk to my office, put on my coffee, and read my little positive affirmations. Sometimes. I can’t be honest and say I do it every day. Then I sit down and start working. I stay there until 2 or 2:30 p.m., then I leave. I can’t say hello to anyone, I can’t talk to anyone on the phone, or deal with mail or television because I am severely dyslexic, and with that comes ADD. I am so easily distracted that if I see a leaf fall off a tree, I’m gone. I have friends who are writers and can sit there and answer the phone. I wish I could, but I can’t do it.
There was a Monty Python sketch that showed Thomas Hardy writing in front of a live audience, and when he’d finish a sentence, they’d all cheer. Then he’d cross out a sentence, and they’d all boo or sigh. That’s about as exciting a life as it is for a writer: You write sentences, and you cross out sentences. My day begins as all days begin for every human being. You wake up—if you’re alive, you wake up—pot of tea, read the paper, then walk to the little apartment three blocks away where I have my separate writing spot. It’s very Spartan here, nothing to do but work. I spend as much time as I can writing each day, which usually means from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.—basically a 9-5 schedule. Some days one has more stamina, you’re more on fire, it’s a marathon so you have to pace yourself. I do have a few unusual writing habits—I’m a dinosaur now. I write everything by hand and type it up on an old manual typewriter, an Olympia 1961. The one time any serious damage was done to it was when my now-33-year-old son was two, and he snapped off the return arm. I had to take it to a shop that was very much like the Hospital of Broken Objects in Sunset Park. I can say this, I’ve never been able to compose on a keyboard. I need a pen or a pencil in my hand, feel that it’s a very physical activity. When I write, words are literally coming out of my body. I’m very particular about my notebooks, and 95 percent of the time they are the same kind of notebook: They’re made in France and are very tall—Clairefontaine brand, 24 x 32 centimeters. They’re filled with pages of graph paper, which I like, as my handwriting is rather small. I tend to buy notebooks whenever I travel. I have Norwegian notebooks, Japanese notebooks, Australian notebooks. I write with a fountain pen, and over the years I’ve experimented with many different kinds of fountain pens, but for the past decade or so I’ve been using an Italian brand called Aurora. I do write with pencils, too, and those are always Pentel mechanical pencils with 0.5 leads. I told you I have small handwriting!
I wake up in the morning and frantically start dealing with e-mails and all of the problems that have accumulated over the night. I do most of my own writing when I’m shuttling between meetings on the subway. I write a lot on my Blackberry. I actually wrote all of Before I Fall on my Blackberry, e-mailing it to myself so I could read it between jobs, which people think is insane. That is when I write, because at least when I’m underground no one can e-mail me, and I’m not distracted. I do other things on my computer. I sit at my dining room table, always with coffee and food. I think I’ve eaten every meal at my computer for the past three years. I do other types of work from my computer, like editing work, but my writing I typically do on the subway on my phone. The creative commute.
Writing is a job, so I treat it like a job. Coffee, kids to school, dogs may or may not get walked. I toddle up to my office, which is a room over the garage. The household changes again at 3 p.m. when there are meals to be made, snacks to be provided, lessons for young people to be driven to… Typically I’ll come back at 10 p.m. and write for a couple more hours when the house goes quiet again. I think I’d write at night all the time if I could do it any way I wanted, but that’s not concomitant with the demands of a house with children in it. I do a lot of my thinking while exercising. I try not to think too much while at the computer. My actual writing time is sentence time, trying to move things forward. I try to write 1,000 words a day, a good operational goal, and 2,000 when I’m jamming on things. When I was trying to balance writing literary fiction with a day job, I was writing during breaks in the work week, and while that made the whole process go more slowly, I was also very focused. Now that I’m free to have my attention pulled in a variety of directions, the gaps between writing stints can be longer than I’d like at times.
I used to struggle so much to find time to write, like everybody else in the world. Eventually, after trying many different things, I got into a routine where I would wake up at 5 a.m., roll out of bed, and get into a coffee shop and write until I couldn’t stand it anymore, which was usually about five hours, wearing noise-canceling headphones. It was a very isolated process—I didn’t even have Internet access on my laptop! I’m one of these writers who cannot start writing until I know where I’m going, so a lot of my process is thinking, “fomulgating,” a word my father and I made up when I was a kid. You’ve done your research, and you need to “cook” an idea for a while, so you walk the dog, reorganize the bookshelves…that’s fomulgating. I spend a lot of time in that phrase, and that’s usually where ideas for structure come from. But you have to know when to stop!
I have a very strict routine. I wake up in the morning, and I go straight to the computer. I usually check e-mail but then write for two hours, often to the minute because I want to stop. The rule is two hours. I am very strict about the time. I have a pad of paper next to my computer, and it just has times on it. 9:17 or 10:02 or whatever. That part feels rigid, and the rest I can sit and daydream. That’s fine.
[laughs] Do you want me to describe a typical good day or a typical bad day? Here goes: Every day I drop my girls off at school, get no coffee (allergic!), turn off the Internet (when you’re having bad days, it’s easy to get distracted), read over what I finished the previous day, then try to enter that contemplative, receptive space where you can do the best creative work. Sometimes I enter that by using a handheld wooden labyrinth. Years ago I read that Rick Moody suggests writing 1,000 words a day, and I love that: I started using it. It doesn’t mean you have to write 1,000 good words, or just 1,000 words—but it does mean that you need to let yourself wander a bit until you find what catches you. You have to write all of the puzzle pieces of a novel, then see how they best fit together—or at least I have to do that. Aiming for those 1,000 words frees me from worrying about anything else. Something will catch hold, and I write—sometimes more, never less.
When I know the story and have a clear block of uninterrupted time in which to bury myself in it, I work many hours a day and finish a novel in weeks. The rest of the time, I don’t do anything at all, if I can help it. There is no such thing as a routine in my life.
This used to be such a beautiful thing. I have an 18-month-old now, so my old regimen is gone. I used to get up at 5 a.m, my preferred time to work because I can focus better. The world is quiet. There are fewer distractions. And also when you’re up at that time [I think], I better get some work done, otherwise I’m nuts to be up at this hour. I try to write every day I possibly can, it’s just become a lot more challenging with an infant. Which has been a joy, and I’m already a book and a half ahead of my publishers, so I don’t have to hurry, but I see that this is going to be tougher until my kid is in kindergarten. Sometimes that now means I have to write until 4 in the morning, and sometimes it means I have to get up at 4 in the morning.
I wish it were more interesting, like, “I do three hours of hot yoga, and I take my hot air balloon up and come back down.” Writing is the least glamorous, most boring job. I did have an amazing experience last year: I had the von der Heyden fellowship at the New York Public Library. It’s like The Price Is Right super mega-win for fiction writers. You get this office at the New York Public Library; it’s like nerd Valhalla. I had a real desk, with drawers that opened soundlessly…people would bring you cookies, you could order any book you wanted…now I’m back in my old Starbucks. It’s like a video game where you have a superpower for a little while and then it runs out. I try to write for four hours in the morning. It sounds like so little. The hardest part for me is just staying with it when it really feels bad. When I feel like I’m writing terribly, not getting distracted, not giving up. But I really envy those people who get up at dawn and write 3,000 words a day. Sometimes my big victory is deleting a bad joke about the moon or something.
Ted Dekker (Goodreads interview)
There are two parts to a writer’s life: the creative process and the business side. For me, it’s important to handle the creative process first. I need to sit down, put my hands on the keyboard, regardless of where my mind’s at, and dive into the story. I need to begin to write and be swept into that world first. So I write in the morning until I reach a certain word count, usually 2,000 words. It’s very important for me to have that kind of structure. Then, having done that, I can attend to all of the other distractions that come into a writer’s life. I write on a Mac. I drink coffee in the morning and listen to music all day long. Fairly loud. Music shuts out the rest of the world for me. The same albums, over and over and over again. I listen to atmospheric music. I was listening to the Tron soundtrack just now. It’s ambient noise, but it’s almost emotional ambient noise for me. It stirs me and shuts out the rest of the world. Another thing I do that is kind of unique is to go away for two or three weeks each novel, to a resort or a hotel totally by myself. I take my computer with me. I have to have room service, and I just lock myself in my hotel room for seven days straight without stepping foot outside of that room. During those times, I’ll write 4,000 or 5,000 words a day. All I do is write.
A typical night. I’m a night person. Generally what happens is that I get up about two in the afternoon, and I make what is my husband’s lunch or dinner and my breakfast, and we spend some time together in the evening. Then he goes to bed and I go to work. I often catch the sun rising. Mornings are terrible for me, so I’d rather sleep mornings. There’s no such thing as a writer’s block. I get inspiration from working. I just have to push through and finally it’ll start to come together again. The brain is always going, you just don’t realize it. I don’t know how many pages I’ll get done in any particular day, but I can determine how many hours I’ll put in. When I first started I was obsessed—putting in 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and loving it. My in-laws told my husband that perhaps he should get some help for me. Once the book was published it was OK because writers can be a little crazy.
A typical day—nothing’s typical, because we just moved house! My writing day starts when my eight-year-old is off to school, and I plant my bum in the chair and try and stay there for as much of the day until he comes home as I can possibly manage. When I lived in London, my neighbor was the writer Michael Lewis, and he was very prolific and industrious. He told me that if you want to write a book, you need “bum glue.” It’s very boring! At some point I stagger down and make coffee and make a bite of lunch. Sometimes I break down if the writing’s not going well and stop. We always sit down for family dinner. I don’t have any particular quirks. I’m very boring! I think being a journalist makes you very unprecious about writing. I’ve found that having kids actually invigorates writing. Reading aloud to kids reminds you of what is most important. Their books have plot, they have story! At the end of the day, that’s what matters.
I spend generally eight hours a day, usually six days a week. But I also take time off. I don’t want it to sound like army basic training! There are different stages of the process. During the outlining process, I’ll spend roughly eight to nine hours sitting and staring at my computer or at a big board behind me where I pin up each of the scenes. That’s early in the process. For instance, for my latest Lincoln Rhyme book, The Burning Wire, a psychotic killer uses electricity as a weapon. That was my outline the first day, nothing more than that. Over the course of the next eight months or so, I came up with scenes that would be exciting, which I put somewhere in the middle. I came up with the big surprises at the end and put those somewhere near the end. By the time I started to really commit the outline to my word processor, I would have maybe 70 or 80 Post-it Notes of those discrete scenes. I used to use a corkboard, but now I just tape them up on my wall. They aren’t necessarily chapters, but they are scenes where the point-of-view shifts or the geographic location shifts. So then I’ll write that into my computer, and at that stage it’ll be probably a 70- or 80-page outline. Then I start to fill in the clues because we need to know when the clues appear in the book. That’ll be “important clue scene 42.” Then I write below, “to be explained…” I’ll look toward the end of the outline, and scene 87 is where the clue in scene 42 is explained, why Lincoln says this is or isn’t an important clue. I do that with all the scenes, all the characters. Every single character and clue has to be resolved, no loose ends. It is frankly a rather exhausting process. When the outline is done, the book is done. Like Alfred Hitchcock, when he finished the storyboarding and the script, it was almost anticlimactic. I’m sure he went to the set and told the director of photography to do things, but the movie was 90 percent done. When my outline is done, the book is 90 percent done, and I feel it. Seven or eight months later [after starting the outline], it’s time to write the book. That’s sitting at my desk for as long as I physically can to generate the prose. That’s anywhere, in my office, or if I’m traveling on a book tour, on the planes or in hotel rooms. I have adapters that work all over the world, plug-ins for the back of a limo or wherever I’m traveling, so I can get some work done. To write full-time for a living, you’ve got to make sure you write full-time. Then you revise. Hemingway said, “There are no great writers, only great rewriters” (I’m paraphrasing). And that’s true. I spend the last month or so doing 30, 40, 50 rewrites, then out goes the book and out I go on a book tour. Then it starts all over again.
If I see a ritual coming on, I will stomp it down. Rituals are only destructive. They call upon your superstitious self, they take the power away from you, they use your goofy imagination in the lowest Ouija board part of your brain! I fight off everything that’s very cute and anything both ritualistic and superstitious. Because I have that little core that would fall prey to them—years ago I got into a bad computer Solitaire habit. I quit cold turkey. Now I don’t have a routine. How could I have a routine? If I’m starting a book and write for ten minutes, that’s amazing for me to sit still. By the end of that book I can stay at my desk for 12 hours! I am not an Anthony Trollope who can start by writing “Page One, Chapter One.” I will not write for a long time, and I love that! I am amazed by writers who say as soon as I’ve finished I have to keep at it. You wouldn’t call me prolific, but I think I’m average to high average output for not writing every day. I need to live my life, because writing so is so isolating, so autistic for me, and I want to be married and be a good daughter and a good friend and a good pet owner, and I’m not great at having balance when I’m writing. Because I am many different people in the course of a year, depending on if I’m working. When I’m working-working-working, I find other people intolerable.
Patchett’s disclaiming of any routine or writing time is a little at odds with Elizabeth Gilbert’s description of herself & Patchett (
“just showing up at our desks at 7 o’clock every morning day after day after day. I wish it were more glamorous. We just plod our way through it, like grindy students that we used to be, we still are.”).
Nothing is typical anymore, but usually I spend a few months researching—which is really going out there and living my story, becoming a part of it, whether that entails going to Vegas, sneaking around NASA, or chasing the Winklevii around a boathouse. Then when I start writing, it’s a marathon—a painful, torturous, 14 hours a day, nonstop, not eating, not sleeping, falling-apart kind of process. A few months later I have a book. While I’m writing, I try and eat the same meals every day. I keep my life’s routines exact and similar so all I’m thinking about is the book. I get totally caught up and crazy and trancelike, and it’s pretty awful.
I write in the morning and do whatever else I have to do after that. If I have to teach or am taking a class myself in the morning, I try to write in the afternoon. Unusual habits? Well, I actually consider writing to be an unusual habit!
Today wasn’t necessarily typical. I actually just worked all night on Superman stories for Action Comics and slept briefly. Most days I get up at 8:30 and work all day. Then I’ll have dinner and work all night. That’s because I’ve been writing the book over the last 18 months as well as a bunch of Batman and Superman comics and movie screenplays. So it’s been quite intense. I’d like to describe a future where I get up at 2 p.m., have my breakfast, and only work for an hour, but that’s still to come. I think the unusual writing habit is sitting there and not moving until I’m done. And usually it’s never done because there is another deadline. For me, it’s been working late. I remember when I started out as a writer that I could really spend most of the day walking down by the canal, having wonderful thoughts, but these days I’m working on an almost industrial scale. It’s good for the imagination.
A typical workday usually starts with catching up on e-mail, which is insane when you live on the West Coast and the world of publishing has been up for three hours ahead of you. Once I get that out of the way I try to put in a normal workday. When I was younger I was particularly into the all-nighters. But now with my husband, if I want to see him it’s nice to have my work done at 5 or 6—just like a real person. That’s definitely my goal, and it’s also essential when you’re keeping schedules with all these books. You have to treat it like a workday. I don’t leave the house; I’m too distractible in coffee shops. So it’s just me and the cats for the afternoon, hoping we get our work done. So many authors go to cool places. “I’m writing on the beach today!” Or playlists—that’s a big thing, writing to music. For me, the less stimuli in the world around me, the better. I just want to focus solely on the writing. I don’t want the interesting scenery, I don’t want the music, and that doesn’t seem strange to me until I start talking to other people who have all that cool stuff going on. I need a cone of silence.
The only thing unusual about my writing days is how conventional they are. I get up at 6 a.m.; it’s pretty much the same as when I used to get up to go to work, except I’m now working at home. I do most of my writing in the morning and late at night. The tricky thing is filing in the middle of the day when I can’t write. There is no secret to writing. It’s discipline and sticking to it. I can’t think of anything that’s unusual about my writing habits, except the best thing I heard from a fellow writer was that he would change where he was when he was writing every two hours. He would change the location, and I think that makes sense not to spend more than a couple hours in a particular place because changing your venue for where you are writing can give you new insights.
Every writer is different, and I am a real planner. I spend weeks sitting in coffee shops with a notebook, sketching out and planning a book before I begin writing. I want to be sure of where I’m going before I sit down and write “Chapter One.” When it comes to the actual writing, I always have loud music playing, which a lot of people find surprising! I find it gives me energy and blocks out the rest of the world. A dance track by the Scissor Sisters is always good to kick-start the morning. Then it’s just me and a cup of coffee and off I go. I try to write 1,000 words a day. Sometimes I do that by 11 a.m. Other times I’m still struggling at 3 p.m. Then it’s time to give up for the day! If I get really stuck I go out for cocktails with my husband and talk through whatever plot point has gotten knotted. After a few mojitos we generally manage to solve it!
My brain kicks into gear early, so I’m usually up with first light. E-mail and social networking are a huge part of every day, so I spend the first 45 minutes there. When my husband and son get up, I settle them into their day (this now includes alfresco coffee with my husband and dogs, who wait anxiously for the coffee to brew). After that, I sit down and write. Six to eight hours is my goal, with breaks for food or exercise. I prefer to write in my beautiful office, without music or other distractions. If I get stuck on a scene, I usually go outside and work in the garden or walk my dogs or take a hot tub. That almost always brings the needed focus.
A novel is such a long involvement; when I’m beginning a book, I can’t work more than two or three hours a day. I don’t know more than two or three hours a day about a new novel. Then there’s the middle of a book. I can work eight, nine, twelve hours then, seven days a week—if my children let me; they usually don’t. One luxury of making enough money to support myself as a writer is that I can afford to have those eight-, nine-, and twelve-hour days. I resented having to teach and coach, not because I disliked teaching or coaching or wrestling but because I had no time to write. Ask a doctor to be a doctor two hours a day. An eight-hour day at the typewriter is easy; and two hours of reading over material in the evening, too. That’s routine. Then when the time to finish the book comes, it’s back to those two- and three-hour days. Finishing, like beginning, is more careful work.
“Do you write every day?”
“Yeah, when I wake up in the morning.”
“Every day. People ask me if I write even when I’m on vacation. And I say, Man, do you take a shit on vacation?”
“What are your daily work habits?”
“I like working and when I have time to work, I work. But I also have to do other things like washing up and buying food. Fortunately my husband does the cooking. I sometimes have to go to London or I want to see my friends. Otherwise, I work pretty steadily all the time. I go to bed early and I start work very early. I work all morning, and then I shop and write letters—the letters take up a lot of time—in the afternoon. Then I work again from about half-past four until seven or eight. So I work steadily when I’ve got the open time, which is more days than not.”
“What is your writing schedule like?”
“When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.”
“And your schedule is steady the whole way through?”
“As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day. Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.”
“When in the day do you write?”
“There is no rule. For me it would be impossible to have a schedule. It can happen that I start writing at seven o’clock in the morning and I finish at three o’clock at night, stopping only to eat a sandwich. Sometimes I don’t feel the need to write at all.”
“When you do write, how much do you write every day? Is there no rule for that as well?”
“None. Listen, writing doesn’t mean necessarily putting words on a sheet of paper. You can write a chapter while walking or eating.”
“So every day is different for you?”
“If I am in my countryside home, at the top of the hills of Montefeltro, then I have a certain routine. I turn on my computer, I look at my e-mails, I start reading something, and then I write until the afternoon. Later I go to the village, where I have a glass at the bar and read the newspaper. I come back home and I watch TV or a DVD in the evening until eleven, and then I work a little more until one or two o’clock in the morning. There I have a certain routine because I am not interrupted. When I am in Milan or at the university, I am not master of my own time—there is always somebody else deciding what I should do.”
I work in the small building out back, and it’s just right for me. There’s no running water and no telephone. No distractions. Because it has windows on all four sides and a high ceiling, there’s no feeling of being boxed in. It’s off-limits to everyone but grandchildren. They come out anytime they wish—the smaller the better. I work all day and just about every day. I go out about eight-thirty in the morning, like I’m going to the train, come back in for lunch, look at the mail, then I go back again for the afternoon. We built it when I was writing The Great Bridge. Before that I rented a little studio from a neighbor who had built several of them, each on wooden skids. You could pick out a spot on his farm and he’d hook a studio to his tractor and drag it there for you.
We’ll go to Yorkshire for several weeks. We go to a ramshackle old house, where you can just walk out of the house into the countryside. We will get up not too late, and we will have breakfast and we will both go to our desks and all day long, until about three o’clock in the afternoon, I will write my book, and then in the afternoon we will go for a walk. Then we’ll make supper, and then I’ll probably do a bit more writing in the evening. That is my writing day in the country. It’s very quiet and very concentrated. It’s the opposite of life at Wolfson College, which is chock-full of people and meetings and committees and events and decision making.
Our conversations took place over two extended afternoons in the summer of 2012.
“What would you be doing at this time of day if I weren’t bothering you?”
“When I am working at a book, I tend to write in the mornings and do secondary work and ponder on the writing later in the day. That was not the case when I was younger and had more cumulative energy and concentration.”
“Absolutely right. When I was writing Shelley, my old dining-room table was very important because it had two leaves that folded out. It gave me a huge spread for books, card catalogues, pictures, and a big Olivetti typewriter. My neighbors in the flat below said, Richard, we hear this terrible thumping at two A.M.! So I put more books under the table legs. I’ve never been a great morning person. Everyone has a best writing time. For me, it’s midafternoon on, and reading as late as possible.”
“Does Rose work on a different schedule?”
“Yes, she’s a morning girl. After twenty-five years, we still find that works surprisingly well. We get together for meals. A light lunch, strong coffee to see us through, and then she’s finishing work and I’m starting. But it’s the evenings that are so lovely. We have late supper together always by candlelight, and talk and talk.”
“You start writing in longhand, correct?”
“Yes. I write on white legal pads. I seldom have only one draft in longhand—I’d say I probably have three or four. Then I go and do the same pages over on the typewriter, and then I throw them out. I go chapter by chapter. I can’t go on to another chapter until I feel this chapter is done.”
“Do you work from nine to five?”
“I generally get up around seven or so, and I walk to work through Central Park outlining the first paragraphs that I’m going to write that day. But the thing is, as you get into a chapter, you get wound up. You wake up excited—I don’t mean”thrilled" excited but “I want to get in there,” so I get up earlier and earlier. Sometimes Ina says, Do you know what time it is? I say, I don’t want to look. I work pretty long days. If I’m doing research, I can have lunch with friends, but if I’m writing, I have a sandwich at my desk. The guy at the Cosmic Diner, John, he knows my voice."
“Do you set daily quotas?”
“I have to, because I have a wonderful relationship with my editor and my publisher. I have no real deadlines. I’m never asked, When are you going to deliver? So it’s easy to fool yourself that you’re really working hard when you’re not. And I’m naturally lazy. So what I do is—people laugh at me—I put on a jacket and a tie to come to work, because when I was young, everybody wore jackets and ties to work, and I want to remind myself that I’m going to a job. I have to produce. I write down how many words I’ve done in a day. Not to the word—I count the lines. I do it as we used to do it in the newspaper business, ten words to a line. I do a lot of little things to try to make me remember it’s a job. I try to do at least three pages a day. Some days you don’t, but without some kind of quota, I think you’re fooling yourself.”
“Once you get started writing, do you finish a draft relatively quickly?”
“Well, I think both my family and my editor would opt for the”relatively." Generally I need at least eighteen months to write a book. I’m a relentless reviser, so the pages take a while even when I know where I’m headed. Along the way, I inevitably turn a corner and find I need to return to something in the archives. That can be wrenching—when I’m writing I want only to be at my desk. Whatever is sitting there feels fragile and fugitive. I worry that if I so much as turn my back, there will be a code blue. Moreover, I’m living inside those pages, in another reality altogether, which means I’m wholly useless at anything else. For at least a few years, you are a displaced person, holding off one world for the sake of another. And then there is the problem of lunch, in which the writer’s day craters. I avoid midday commitments when I’m writing, which endears me to no one."
“Do you punch the clock? Do you say, I’m going to work from two until five?”
“No, I could never work regularly like that. I work in erratic spurts. Once I get rolling on something I tend to be more regular. Getting started is like getting a rocket off the ground. You need the most energy and the most push to get started; once you’re up there and you’re going then it’s easier to keep it going. Sit down and pick up where you left off, you know. Getting going is always tough.”
“Is there a particular time of day when you like to write?”
“There isn’t one for me. I write in desperation. I write because the pressures are so great, and I am simply so far past a deadline that I must turn out something.”
“So you don’t espouse a particular work ethic on a daily basis?”
“No, no. I lead a disordered and hurried life.”
“Are there days when you do not work at all?”
“Yes, alas, alas, alas. But one always thinks about literature. I don’t recognize a distinction between literature and life. I am, as I keep moaning, an experimental critic. I’ve spent my life proclaiming that what is called”critical objectivity" is a farce. It is deep subjectivity which has to be achieved, which is difficult, whereas objectivity is cheap."
“What is it that you think keeps you from writing when you’re unable to write?”
“Despair, exhaustion. There are long periods when I cannot write at all. Long, long periods, sometimes lasting many years. Sometimes one just has to lie fallow. And also, you know, interests change. One goes into such different modes.”
“You mention the fax, the telephone, the computer. Let’s talk about the implements of writing and the way in which technology does or doesn’t factor into your own work.”
“Yes, I’m fascinated by the actual material techne of writing. I’m a morning creature. All my best work tends to be done in the morning, especially the early morning, when somehow my mind and sensibility operate much more efficiently. I read and take notes in the afternoon, then sketch the writing I want to do the next morning. The afternoon is the time for charging the battery. I write on very old-fashioned typewriters. The Paris Review has the largest collection of insight into this of any publication. It’s utterly irrational, but I love foolscap; in America it’s called”legal" size. It used to be available in any stationery shop, but you now have to order it in advance. I tend to type single-space on those huge sheets, badly typed without any attention, often even to paragraphing. This is the first naively typed, brute output. The second one will be double-spaced, and begin to be on normal-size typing paper, but still with a lot of hand insertions and corrections. So in a funny way, my rough draft is a single-spaced, typed scribble on foolscap. I don’t know when it began, but I’ve been doing this for many, many years and I walk up and down the room like a deprived mother hen when I do not have that odd size of paper which somehow corresponds to the way I see a problem."
“Do you work daily? What is your routine?”
“No, I have no routine. I hate routines. I have no fixed hours for sleeping, eating, waking, working.”
“Do you write at a desk or in bed or on a sofa?”
“I write in various places . . . sometimes on the sofa, sometimes in bed, sometimes sitting at the computer. I hate routine more than anything else. I’m a night person, so I tend to write later in the day rather than earlier, but I have no fixed hours and no fixed days…What I mind more than slowing down, which everyone has done by sixty-three, is that in a day you no longer have a third wind and sometimes you don’t even have a second wind. I always had a third wind for many years, and then I always had a second wind. Now, if I’ve had a hard day, I don’t feel disposed to write at night.”
“People say that you have great self-discipline and that you never let a day go by without working. At what time do you start?”
“I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.”
“When do you see Sartre?”
“Every evening and often at lunchtime. I generally work at his place in the afternoon.”
“Do your writer friends have the same habits as you?”
“No, it’s quite a personal matter. Genet, for example, works quite differently. He puts in about twelve hours a day for six months when he’s working on something and when he has finished he can let six months go by without doing anything. As I said, I work every day except for two or three months of vacation when I travel and generally don’t work at all. I read very little during the year, and when I go away I take a big valise full of books, books that I didn’t have time to read. But if the trip lasts a month or six weeks, I do feel uncomfortable, particularly if I’m between two books. I get bored if I don’t work.”
“You have wondered at Kenneth Roberts’s working methods—his stamina and discipline. You said you often went to zoos rather than write. Can you say something of discipline and the writer?”
“Kenneth Roberts wrote historical novels. He knew just what he wanted to do and where he was going. He rose in the morning and went to work, methodically and industriously. This has not been true of me. The things I have managed to write have been varied and spotty—a mishmash. Except for certain routine chores, I never knew in the morning how the day was going to develop. I was like a hunter, hoping to catch sight of a rabbit. There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.”
“Do you have writing rituals?”
“Yes. The ritual aspect is getting my head together to do it. I don’t want to add more shit to the experience, so it’s very simple. I love Wendy Williams, because she doesn’t speak English. She speaks Wendy, and that frees me to imagine my own language. I wake up early and have a little breakfast, then Wendy’s over, and I make the bed and get to work. I also like to stop writing at a thought that’s going to be waiting for me the next day so it’s less daunting sitting down again.”
Mostly mornings at home. I made a habit in grad school of getting up at five in the morning to work. When my son was born, in ’86, I had to get up really early, like four. I was teaching six sections of comp at three different schools, and that was the only time I had. For ten years there, I didn’t have time to shave both legs the same day. If I had even an hour, I could work anywhere. I was very unpersnickety. But I usually can’t write big prose while teaching. I can write journalism or lectures. And I’m always scribbling poems…But with Lit, I faced such time pressure, I had to write lying down. If I sat up and typed with this injury, I’d last maybe six or seven hours. Lying down with my laptop on my knees, I could go from seven in the morning until eight or nine at night. I did that seven days a week. I felt like a Turkish pasha. I’d lie around in silk pajamas. And eat pistachios all day.
On the days he sees patients, Phillips arrives at the office as early as six in the morning in order to read for an hour or two before his first appointment. (He claims to require very little sleep.) He also reads between consultations, whenever he can. As he puts it, “I need to hear other voices.”
“Do you go into the office to write?”
“Yes, I can only write in my office. I love the romance of people who can write anywhere, who can write in hotels, but I can’t write anywhere but in that room. At least, so far I can only write in that room.”
“Is there a consistent routine?”
“I always have a nap sometime between two and five in the afternoon. Beyond that, we’d have to talk about each book in turn and what stage I was at in a particular book. Which means, I suppose, that the answer is no. I find it incredibly difficult to settle and I have very limited powers—if we can dignify it with that word—of concentration, so at first I’m up and out of my chair every few minutes. Later on I can stay at the desk for longer periods until eventually I don’t even have to force myself to stay there. The general process is just to splurge stuff out, without being particularly worried about the spelling or anything. Just splurging to make sure there’s something there. And then I begin knocking it into shape both at the level of the sentence and the overarching structure. But that initial phase is the one I increasingly hate, so I try to get it done as quickly as possible, in the five-minute bursts that I’m capable of putting in at the desk before I get up to do something else. It would be a better way of working if I could write in proper sentences from the beginning. Why I don’t do that is a mystery to me, or would be, were it not a mystery at all. It’s because I’m so impatient. I want to get all the content down so that I can then move on to the fun part, which is sorting out the sentences. So my impatience to get to that point ends up postponing it.”
“Usually I wake up in bed with my wife. I don’t want to have breakfast with anyone. So I go from the third floor, which is our bedroom, to the fourth floor, where I keep my clothes. I get dressed as if I’m going to an office. I wear a tie.”
“Yes. I dress as if I’m going to an office in midtown or on Wall Street or at a law firm, even though what I am really doing is going downstairs to my bunker. In the bunker there’s a little refrigerator, and I have orange juice and muffins and coffee. Then I change my clothes.”
“You never write directly onto the computer?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I want to be forced to work slowly because I don’t want to get too much on paper. By the end of the morning I might have a page, which I will pin up above my desk. After lunch, around five o’clock, I’ll go back to work for another hour or so.”
It sounds very mechanical, but the effect is the exact opposite. What it does is free you to write. It liberates you to write. You’ve got all the notes there; you come in in the morning and you read through what you’re going to try to write, and there’s not that much to read. You’re not worried about the other ninety-five percent, it’s off in a folder somewhere. It’s you and the keyboard. You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside. You can read through those relevant notes in a relatively short period of time, and you know that’s what you want to be covering. But then you spend the rest of your day hoping spontaneous things will occur.
It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.
As I’ve gotten older, my habits have changed. I used to write late at night. I would wake up in the morning, and I’d kind of fidget and get things set up and clear my throat, and by the time everything was just right, it would be after dinner, and I’d get started around ten or eleven and work all night. Somewhere Walter Benjamin says that you can’t feel confident about any piece of work that you haven’t sat all night over. It’s sort of true. I do still find myself pulling all-nighters. But I’ve discovered that the best time for me these days is to start soon after waking. Try not to look at my e-mail. Try to get to it when my brain is still soft. You know, sleep entangled—because it’s more raw, and because it’s less self-conscious. Writing needs a certain kind of self-consciousness, at some point, but it will never do in launching the initial salvo.
My favorite place for writing, the place where I’m most likely to get something written, is the coast of Maine, where I’ve spent some time—never more than six weeks at a stretch, usually less—nearly every summer since 1974. I find a place to put my typewriter where I can look at the water. I tend to work best in the morning—I’m not a night person, although I have occasionally woken up with a phrase in my head and not been able to sleep. I used to keep something to write with under the pillow just in case something like that came to me—sometimes it was very hard to decipher because I don’t like to turn the light on. I’m not an obsessive writer at all. I know of people who say that they write every day—I don’t. I wish I were that organized, but I’m not. There are times when there are other things I have to do. I need some time when I’m not going to be interrupted. I can sometimes write through interruptions, but that’s because I’ve sort of set myself in that mode. I’m very erratic about it.
“When you’re not on tour, when you’re at home, do you have a regular working schedule?”
“You wait for it to happen?”
“I don’t schedule. Nobody does. In Russia, everything is improvisation. Nobody can tell where he’ll be on Friday night. Let me give you an example. When I came to America, I wanted very much to visit my dear friend Robert Lowell’s grave. We drove out from Boston in the late afternoon—a dinner had been arranged for that evening. It was dark by the time we found the grave in the forest. I was with a young poet from Boston, and I said to him,”Please, I’m sorry, excuse me, it is impolite, but leave me alone, go to your car, I want half an hour alone." Then I began to write poetry. Later I asked him to find a phone and call the people and tell them we wouldn’t come to dinner. They were all friends of Lowell’s and they were very upset with me. But how could I have gone to a dinner party and broken the mood of that encounter? Even if I hadn’t been writing a poem, I couldn’t have gone to a party after that visit to his grave."
“In any case, if I share any other literary characteristics with [W. H.] Auden, the chances are very great that I acquired them through studying his work.”
“What are your memories of him on Ischia?”[~1951]
“He kept to an inflexible schedule of work and play. He rose early, wrote and read before breakfast, which was likely to be no more than coffee. (I was told all this.) Continued work till about three PM, pausing for a light lunch. The rest of the day was for relaxation and amusement. He used to say that he was never able to work beyond mid-afternoon, but only came to understand the reason for this when he had become a convinced Christian, because he then realized that three p.m. is the canonical hour of the crucifixion. He was no less punctual about cocktails and dinner, and went home to bed, even being known to leave his own birthday parties at a fixed time in order to be up and at work at his scheduled time of, I think it was, six. He credited his parents with instilling in him this useful discipline.”
Aharon Appelfeld says that in order to be a serious writer you need to have a routine. For years his routine has been to write with a Biro on sheets of ordinary white paper in the café at Ticho House, in Jerusalem, which was once the house of a wealthy doctor and where this interview took place.
“So you come here to work at Ticho House twice a week?”
“Yes. I come here somewhere around ten or eleven. I stay here for two or three hours and then I go home. It’s a routine. Generally, when we say routine, it sounds bad, but routine is important.”
“You write longhand. How many pages per day?”
“One page, sometimes half a page, sometimes one and a half pages. I stop when I am tired—when I do not see more, when I do not hear more.”
“Then you go home and read what you’ve done?”
“Yes, in the late afternoon, after I have had my lunch, I spend another two hours on the same pages, then I leave it. I used to type them. I liked to type them very much. Suddenly you see there is something you have done. It was a joy. But now a woman comes to my house and I dictate. My old typewriter doesn’t work anymore.”
“Are you disciplined? Do you keep regular working hours?”
“No. I am not very disciplined but it usually works out that I do things at the same time. I get up late, have breakfast slowly, and start work at 11 a.m. I work through till three or four, and then I have a meal, perhaps a nap, start again around eight, and work through till midnight. So, twice four hours. At the moment I am writing the sequel to the Mirror, entitled Romanesque. It has taken me a month to write seven pages!”
“Perhaps one is never as excited by anything as much as one’s first book, because then everything is potential. I had moved to London in 1981 and was working full-time at the Times Literary Supplement, so I wrote the book in the evenings and on the weekends, with a glass or two of wine, which seemed to me a disinhibitor. Of course the third glass of wine tended to disinhibit me a bit too much. There was a big change when I began to write full-time. I turned myself into a morning-and-caffeine writer rather than an evening-and-alcohol writer. I don’t know if you can detect this at all in what I actually wrote.”
“Do you write every day?”
“I spend ages not writing, and I have quite long spells in the course of a book when I’m not writing. But once I get going, I have a strict discipline. Kazuo Ishiguro told me his technique, which he called a”crash," where he would plan a book for a long time and then set aside a period of four weeks in which he had absolutely no engagements. He would write for ten hours a day, and then at the end of the month he would have a draft of a novel. It’s a very good model for someone like myself who is naturally rather lazy. Unfortunately, in the case of The Stranger’s Child, it took four years instead of four weeks. I used to draw a line through the weeks of my diary to remind myself not to make any plans, and I would go out to see friends or to the pictures once a week. It has the defect of making you crazy and unsocialized but also the benefit of allowing you to think continuously, as Henry James exhorted himself to do. It’s wonderful just to live in the world of creation and know that there aren’t any other demands on you, and that you’re going to think as deeply and as continuously as you can about the thing in hand."
“Can you take us through a sample working day on one of these translations?”
“I have a merciless internal clock that wakes me up rather early and gets me to my desk by seven-thirty or so and puts me to work on Homer. The work itself? The easiest thing to say is here, on one side, I’d have the Homeric texts and commentaries and lexicons, and on the other, as much as I could manage of English and American poetry, in my head or in an open book—say, Derek Walcott’s Omeros. There are about twenty-seven hundred years that separate the two traditions, and the trick (and the hard labor) is somehow to bring the two together. What I always do is read the Greek aloud until I begin to feel or find some English lurking between the Greek words, between the Greek lines, and I keep on mumbling like a maniac: Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropon, hos mala polla / plangthê, epei Troiês hieron ptoliethron eperse.”Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy." The two passages are hardly equal, obviously—Homer’s infinitely greater—but trying to work from the Greek lines some English cadence of my own, trying over and over, would consume about three hours every morning. I once drove Robert Fitzgerald back to the Newark airport after he gave a reading in Princeton, and I said (fatuously, when he was halfway through his Iliad), It’s an awfully long poem, isn’t it, Robert? And he replied, Yes, Bob, but I wake up every morning with Homer as my companion. That’s the privilege. I know exactly how that feels now. It’s quite a privilege, and one you hate to leave."
“Do you have a favorite time of day in which you write?”
“Exclusively in the morning, eight to eleven. I can do things later but that’s when my energy is up. I get very impatient with company during those hours, which my wife doesn’t like. If I could afford it I’d have an office, although when I’ve had an office at universities I haven’t been able to do jack.”
A former Jeopardy! champion who once, rather than give notes, jumped up and danced to “Zou Bisou Bisou” for Jessica Paré (Megan Draper on the show), Weiner seems never to sleep. Our interview took place in four sessions that spanned almost eighteen months—real months, that is. More time than that passed on the show during the same period, but to say exactly how much would be, in Weiner’s universe, a spoiler. We spoke late into the night after he had spent full days in preproduction meetings, in editing, in sound-mixing sessions, on set, and in the writers’ room—and we could only sit down to talk on the rare nights when he didn’t have to write. Even with this schedule, he comes in every morning inspired by a movie he’s seen, an article he’s read, or a poem he’s remembered. (I’m lucky to be a writer on the show.) Weiner begins every season by rereading John Cheever’s preface to his Collected Stories:
“A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas off a fork. He appears much alone and determined to instruct himself.”The life of a showrunner leaves him almost no time to be alone, but Weiner seems always to be instructing himself.
“You know, I got a subscription to The Paris Review when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I read those interviews all the time. They were really helpful.”
“How did they help you?”
“There were people talking about writing like it was a job, first of all. And then saying”I don’t know" a lot. It’s helpful, when you’re a kid, to hear someone saying “I don’t know.” Also, they were asking questions that I would’ve asked, only I’d have been embarrassed to ask them. Like, What time of day do you write?"
“What time of day do you write?”
“I write at night on this job because I have to, except Sundays when I write all day and all night. Left to my own devices I will always end up writing late at night, because I’m a procrastinator. But if there’s a deadline, I will write round the clock.”
Another possible short sleeper.
Never. I never work from notes. I had met a woman of Rome—ten years before. Her life had nothing to do with the novel, but I remembered her, she seemed to set off a spark. No, I have never taken notes or ever even possessed a notebook. My work, in fact, is not prepared beforehand in any way. I might add, too, that when I’m not working I don’t think of my work at all. When I sit down to write—that’s between nine and twelve every morning, and I have never, incidentally, written a line in the afternoon or at night—when I sit at my table to write, I never know what it’s going to be till I’m under way. I trust in inspiration, which sometimes comes and sometimes doesn’t. But I don’t sit back waiting for it. I work every day.
I work regularly. I always work in the mornings, and then again a little bit before dinner. I’m not one of those who work at night. I prefer to read at night. I usually work four or five hours a day. I keep at it as long as I can, until I feel myself going stale. Sometimes, when I bog down, I start reading—fiction or psychology or history, it doesn’t much matter what—not to borrow ideas or materials, but simply to get started again. Almost anything will do the trick.
“Have you ever had a specific time to write?”
“When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon.”
“What about before the girls were old enough to go to school?”
“You wrote when they had naps?”
“Yes. From one to three in the afternoon. I wrote a lot of stuff that wasn’t any good, but I was fairly productive. The year I wrote my second book, Lives of Girls and Women, I was enormously productive. I had four kids because one of the girls’ friends was living with us, and I worked in the store two days a week. I used to work until maybe one o’clock in the morning and then get up at six. And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I’ll die, this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack. I was only about thirty-nine or so, but I was thinking this; then I thought, Well even if I do, I’ve got that many pages written now. They can see how it’s going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race. I don’t have that kind of energy now.”
“What was the process involved in writing Lives?”
“I remember the day I started to write that. It was in January, a Sunday. I went down to the bookstore, which wasn’t open Sundays, and locked myself in. My husband had said he would get dinner, so I had the afternoon. I remember looking around at all the great literature that was around me and thinking, You fool! What are you doing here? But then I went up to the office and started to write the section called”Princess Ida," which is about my mother. The material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up. So, once I started to write that, I was off. Then I made a big mistake. I tried to make it a regular novel, an ordinary sort of childhood adolescence novel. About March I saw it wasn’t working. It didn’t feel right to me, and I thought I would have to abandon it. I was very depressed. Then it came to me that what I had to do was pull it apart and put it in the story form. Then I could handle it. That’s when I learned that I was never going to write a real novel because I could not think that way."
“We didn’t ask you questions about your writing day. How many days a week do you actually write?”
“I write every morning, seven days a week. I write starting about eight o’clock and finish up around eleven. Then I do other things the rest of the day, unless I do my final draft or something that I want to keep working on then I’ll work all day with little breaks.”
“Are you rigid about that schedule, even if there’s a wedding or some other required event?”
“I am so compulsive that I have a quota of pages. If I know that I am going somewhere on a certain day, I will try to get those extra pages done ahead of time. That’s so compulsive, it’s awful. But I don’t get too far behind, it’s as if I could lose it somehow. This is something about aging. People get compulsive about things like this. I’m also compulsive now about how much I walk every day.”
Usually I get up around nine, I stay up quite late, till one or two in the morning, and work till quite late. But for How to be both I would get up at seven and use the first two hours to skim read—I was writing the book very fast and knew far too little about the Renaissance. So in the hours I’d usually still be asleep and dreaming, I read books about, say, the formation of building materials in Ferrara in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. At one point, for instance, the local river path was diverted, which made for a whole new possible clay mix, a new kind of brick. The stuff of dreams. But that was unusual for me. Normally I don’t do research at all. If I’m not writing to meet a deadline, I tend to spend the mornings doing admin—emails and stuff—and then start writing about two or three in the afternoon and work through until about eight or nine. I’m quite lazy, though. I spend lots of time staring into space and wandering around the room, picking things up, opening books, putting them down again.
The first rule is never to travel when I’m pregnant with a book. I tend not to travel abroad when I’m writing, and even within this country I limit myself to three or four times a year. It doesn’t always work out, but that is my pattern. As for my day, I start at six a.m. with a forty-minute walk in the desert, summer and winter…I then have my coffee and come down to this room, sit at my desk, and wait. Without reading, listening to music, or answering the phone. Then I write, sometimes a sentence, sometimes a paragraph—in a good day, half a page. But I am here at least seven or eight hours every day. I used to feel guilty about an unproductive morning, especially when I lived on the kibbutz, and everyone else was working—plowing fields, milking cows, planting trees. Now I think of my work as that of a shopkeeper: it is my job to open up in the morning, sit, and wait for customers. If I get some, it is a blessed morning, if not, well, I’m still doing my job. So the guilt has gone, and I try to stick to my shopkeeper’s routine. Chores like answering letters, faxes, and telephone calls are squeezed in an hour before lunch or dinner. Perhaps poets and short-story writers can work with a different pattern. But writing novels is a very disciplined business. Writing a poem is like having an affair, a one-night stand; a short story is a romance, a relationship; a novel is a marriage—one has to be cunning, devise compromises, and make sacrifices.
“Do you require a certain environment to work?”
“I used to write only at night. All night, with a Walkman on. Did that for the first book. Much of the second book. Now there’s too much I have to get done in the day. You try not to be precious about it. An average day includes around two hours of writing-writing, about six miles of dog walking (which also counts as writing), a lot of time on E-mail, a movie, some forensics shows, and CNN to see what I missed.”Andrea Barrett (The Art of Fiction No. 180, 2003)
“What’s your writing day like?”
“It depends. If things are lined up and I’m ahead of myself in terms of research, I’ll write in the morning, and then sort of gather stuff together in the afternoon. Say if I’m going to write about rhododendrons, I’ll get together all the stuff about rhododendrons in the house. And then I read it over in the afternoon or evening and try to write the passage the following morning. But sometimes, when I’m stuck, a scene will get to the point where I can’t write the next sentence because I don’t know something. What I just described is how I wrote Voyage and Servants of the Map and a few stories before that. My days are not as rigidly planned out now as they used to be. I travel too much. I’m always going off to give readings or to teach. I’m trying to get back to being more flexible—the way I was when I was younger, because I had to be. That little stretch of years when I was home enough and quiet enough that I could be quite firm about my schedule seems to be over, unfortunately. I don’t have that luxury right now, but I didn’t have it when I was working on my first books, and they still got written.”
“Do you work every day?”
“Goodness, no. I did that when I was a civil servant and I don’t propose to do so now. But when I’m writing a book I do work every day.”
“To a schedule?”
“Not really. No. I usually work from 8 to 2, but if it’s going well I may go on to 4. Only if I do I’m extremely exhausted. In fact, when the book is going well the only thing that stops me is sheer exhaustion. I wouldn’t like to do what Elizabeth Bowen once told me she did—write something every day, whether I was working on a book or not.”
When I taught high school, I’d block out every Sunday morning for writing, but that’s because there was no other time for writing, so I had to make time. It happened to be Sunday, but it had nothing to do with Sunday being a day of worship for many people. So that was a kind of ritual, I suppose. For a while I had a house on Cape Cod with a garden shack that got converted into a writing studio. So there was the ritual of going into a particular space to write, but the time was random. Now I just write on the couch in my study or in the living room, whenever I feel I have an idea that could go somewhere, which is more often than not late at night. But I can’t make myself write at a given time. And frankly, I don’t want to. There are so many other things in a day to do, that I want to do, or have to do, besides write poems.
I only write in the summer holidays when the Institute is closed. Each novel has been written during a summer, over three or four months. Then I work every day all day and stop in the evening. I try to switch off completely and not think about it till the next day.
“Do you still write late at night?”
“I don’t write exclusively at night. But I do have more energy later in the day.”
“What sort of writing routine do you have? How do you operate?”
“I don’t know. I’ve actually been vehemently deluding myself, thinking that I have no set habits whatever. I know that I have very good habits of thought, and I’m trying to make them better. But as for where I go, what I do and who’s around when I work—those things are never important to me.”
The writing life is a perfect life for me. I can do my own thing and I can work at three AM if I want to….I don’t have a routine. I struggle to find time to write. This ranch is part of the problem. Yesterday I had a lot of writing to do and I couldn’t do it because a neighboring ranch called to say they were going to put bulls out in the pasture there. So I had to get over to the bridge over Jack Crick and let down the panels across the stream to stop the bulls from coming through onto my property. And that’s what happened to the afternoon. So I don’t have a set schedule for writing. When I was doing those Fine Just the Way It Is stories last summer, I think it was a two- or three-month stint to do all of the stories, and I could just work on it constantly from first light till late at night. When I’m in the groove, believe me, I’m in the groove. Nothing gets in the way. I do it.
“At what time of day do you usually work?”
“I don’t think it matters much; I work in the morning, but I think the afternoon is a good time to work. Most people sleep in the afternoon. I’ve always found it a good time, especially if one doesn’t have much lunch. It’s a quiet time. It’s a time when one’s body is not at its sharpest, not at its most receptive—the body is quiescent, somnolent; but the brain can be quite sharp. I think, also, at the same time that the unconscious mind has a habit of asserting itself in the afternoon. The morning is the conscious time, but the afternoon is a time in which we should deal much more with the hinterland of the consciousness.”
“That’s very interesting. Thomas Mann, on the other hand, wrote religiously virtually every day from nine to one, as though he were punching a time clock.”
“Yes. One can work from nine to one, I think it’s ideal; but I find that the afternoon must be used. The afternoon has always been a good time for me. I think it began in Malaya when I was writing. I was working all morning. Most of us slept in the afternoon; it was very quiet. Even the servants were sleeping, even the dogs were asleep. One could work quietly away under the sun until dusk fell, and one was ready for the events of the evening. I do most of my work in the afternoon.”
“Have your working methods varied much over the years?”
“Not a lot. I really always, whenever I could, have worked all the morning. But in my early days I would quite often sit in front of a typewriter the whole morning without producing anything at all—it was not at all uncommon. Latterly I’ve got much more control as regards producing something, but one pays for that by not being able to do it later in the day. And when I was younger I found I could usually work all morning and then again after tea for an hour or so. But now I find that any serious work has got to be done in the morning, that I really am pretty well out for what you might call inventing anything after that, although I copy things out. My system is to do endless copies.”
“Do you take holidays?”
“I sometimes displace myself to a sunnier climate but I always take the office with me.”
“The south of France, the Austrian Tyrol. I’m always working, you know. Nine-thirty until one. I have much reading to do and I’m a very slow reader, one of my misfortunes. If I’m reviewing a philosophical book it takes me a week to read it.”
“Let’s talk a bit about the realities of translation. What were the differences between the various writers you have worked with? Who was easy to work with? Who was hard? Who was pleasurable? Who was a pain in the neck?”
“Elsa was a pain in the neck. In fact, Alberto used to say that she was part witch. She was certainly a kind of clairvoyant. When I was translating La Storia (History), I was living in Tuscany. Every now and then she would call me up in the morning. I had told her once that I worked from the time I got up until about ten-thirty, and then I would have a cup of coffee, and then I would work again until lunchtime. She would always phone at ten-thirty, thinking that that was my break. The reason I took the break was that I didn’t want to think about translation for half an hour or so before I went back to it. But she would call and start asking questions. She said, Now on page three hundred and fifty-nine when I use the word so-and-so, how will you translate that? And I said, Elsa, I’m on page one hundred and twenty-three. I’ve got no idea! That didn’t stop her, and she started calling me almost daily at ten-thirty, ruining my morning. Finally I sat down and wrote her a long letter: Dear Elsa, I’m giving up the job. I think you better find somebody else. I don’t think that this is working. I made a copy for the publisher and another for my agent, and I sealed them all in airmail envelopes on a table in the entrance hall, from which the mail went out in the morning. It wasn’t going to go out until the next day. Just then Elsa called and said, I’m calling to say this is the last time I’m going to call you because I realize that this is not helping you. She had read my mind. I thought I’d torn up all the letters, but I apparently saved a carbon for myself, and years later when a student of mine was going through my papers he said, Bill, here’s this weird letter to Elsa Morante. I’d completely forgotten about it. She was by far the hardest person I worked with. The most pleasurable is certainly Umberto Eco, not only because he’s so much fun anyway, but also because he knows that you have to change some words when translating.”
“Right. Gosh, I hate to publish this, because young people will do anything it takes. But at first, yes. Teaching at Clemson was very hard work. I’d come home, put down the babies—and I was trying to be a good father and I think I was—but then that freedom, it was astonishing, my God. Every man or woman who comes home and takes a glass of wine or a couple of hits of bourbon on the rocks knows what I mean. Just this total loosening and release from the white noise of the day, so that you enter another zone. Instead of going to sleep I would hit the typewriter and sometimes write until four and teach my classes very haggardly. But I was often taught that everything is worth it for art. Everything. It was a cult. I remember Bill Harrison saying,”Don’t play with your child that much." In other words, don’t be that good of a father. Get to that book. The ideal was Flaubert, who labored seven years on Madame Bovary and sweated out every word, le mot juste, the right word. So yeah, I learned things that way, but on the other hand I would have learned things had I been sober."
“Right now, it’s just what life gave me. It’s my backyard. Thank God I never ran over a child or had a car wreck. I scared my young children, driving fast and being loony. That’s the most regrettable thing, that I scared my young children.”
“Today, I’m well out. I couldn’t do it physically. I wish my genes were different, that I could have taken three beers max, like most people.”
“Do you have a strict routine?”
“When I’m writing, yes. I work day and night. I don’t go out. I sometimes don’t go to bed, but just nap on that sofa. I often don’t have a bath, because the treat of having a long bath after five days and washing my hair revitalizes me. I smoke, but I don’t drink. When I’m writing journalism, I sometimes have one drink, or if I get stuck in a book, I might have a shot. I live like that day and night for about four months, then it is over, the book is finished and I have a long bath. But by then, often the paperback of the previous book is out, or the American edition, and one has to do the publicity for it, with all that it entails by way of traveling and so on. Lately it has been a rat race.”
“I guess what I really wanted to ask is a question about your daily routine—if there is one. Do you schedule your writing, or does it come in desultory bursts?”
“I used to have a routine—for years I wrote in the afternoon, unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard of, When I was in Italy I translated Monrale in the morning, and twenty years later, in 1983, I did it again when I was working on the Campana. But that makes it sound as though I had a fixed routine, certain hours when I did certain things. And I don’t have any such thing. And never did except for the hour and a half it takes me to read the newspaper each morning. Of course there’s b.c., and a.d.—Before Child and After Delivery. The past eighteen years have been much different from the nine before that. And certainly better, I might add. The beginnings of my little experiments with dislocation and discontinuity, the abstracting of the story line, all took place out of necessity in my case. Time was grabbed when grabbable, what with teaching, family, and all the other emanations bidding for its services. Innovation was the child of necessity for me. My poems became, or started to become, disconsecutive, going from stanza to stanza as units rather than from beginning to end as a seamless piece. Later, in The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals, I tended to make an aesthetic of such impulses, and to widen them. All of which really doesn’t answer your question, does it?”
“No, but it answers another question, and I’ll ask it in just a minute. But first, let’s get back to the business of your schedule, and if you have one.”
“No, I never did have a schedule, though I was chipping away at things rather consistently. When I was working on something, I worked on it every chance I got, morning, afternoon, or evening. So work would come in bursts, but not desultory ones. For instance, on”A Journal of the Year of the Ox," I seemed to be working every day that year. Obsessively. Of course, I tend to think about writing obsessively even when I don’t have a project. I’d like to be writing all the time. I seldom read novels any more because I don’t want to get caught up in something that might take me three to four days, or longer, away from thinking about poems. This hardly becomes justifiable when I go, as I have done, three months or longer between poems. But one must protect one’s standards, mustn’t one? For a highly organized person, as I am, my writing schedule is wholly erratic."
“And your work habits? You’ve said somewhere that you get up at dawn and work for several hours.”
“I never forget that work is a curse—which is why I’ve never made it a habit. Certainly, to be like everyone else, lately I’ve wanted to work regularly from a given hour to a given hour; I’m over fifty-five and I wanted to produce four books in a row. That finished, I had enough on my back. I have no method of work. I’ve tried one, it worked, but that’s no reason to fix on it for the rest of my life. One has other things to do in life aside from writing books.”
I am a morning writer; I am writing at eight-thirty in longhand and I keep at it until twelve-thirty, when I go for a swim. Then I come back, have lunch, and read in the afternoon until I take my walk for the next day’s writing. I must write the book out in my head now, before I sit down. I always follow a triangular pattern on my walks here in Princeton: I go to Einstein’s house on Mercer Street, then down to Thomas Mann’s house on Stockton Street, then over to Herman Broch’s house on Evelyn Place. After visiting those three places, I return home, and by that time I have mentally written tomorrow’s six or seven pages.
“Do you find a particular time or place that you like to write—a time of day or a place in your house or your office?”
“I have found that I work best when I am at home in Nigeria. But one learns to work in other places. I am most comfortable in the surroundings, the kind of environment about which I am writing. The time of day doesn’t matter, really. I am not an early-morning person; I don’t like to get out of bed, and so I don’t begin writing at five A.M., though some people, I hear, do. I write once my day has started. And I can work late into the night, also. Generally, I don’t attempt to produce a certain number of words a day. The discipline is to work whether you are producing a lot or not, because the day you produce a lot is not necessarily the day you do your best work. So it’s trying to do it as regularly as you can without making it—without imposing too rigid a timetable on your self. That would be my ideal.”
“Do you work everyday?”
“I literally get sick if I don’t. I like to work; I like to get up in the morning and go to work.”
Isherwood works every morning and then usually walks to the ocean to swim. The substance of this interview was therefore recorded in a series of late-afternoon sessions—teatime. Possibly the conversation reflects something of the hour.
“You write all night. Have you always done so?”
CYNTHIA OZICK: [Speaking, not yet typing.]
“Always. I’ve written in daylight, too, but mainly I go through the night.”
“How does this affect your interaction with the rest of society?”
“It’s terrible. Most social life begins in the evening, when I’m just starting. So when I do go out at night, it means I lose a whole day’s work.”
“You don’t just start at midnight or whenever you get home?”
“I almost never get home at midnight. I’m always the last to leave a party.”
“What are your regular working hours?”
“You’re talking as if there’s some sort of predictable schedule. I don’t have working hours. I wake up late. I read the mail, which sometimes is a very complex procedure. Then I eat breakfast with the Times. Then I start priming the pump, which is to read. I answer the letters.”
“Do you follow a regular writing schedule, setting aside a certain amount of time to work every day?”
“Each afternoon I start at around three-thirty and work until about seven-thirty or eight.”
“It’s also the least”narrated" of your novels. The most omniscient. And it covers a lot of time. Have you found that your practice or your ambitions in the novels have changed over the years?"
“I suppose my practice has remained much the same—get to your desk, write. There may have been more urgency on my part when my kids were at home, when I had only until three every afternoon. Then again, at my age, there’s a similar urgency. How many more chances are you going to have to get this novel thing right? There’s still a clock at my back, it’s still ticking.”
“When Child of My Heart was published you came to UCLA to read, and someone asked what your schedule was, writing that novel. You said you worked three or four hours a day, three or four days a week. Another visitor, a male writer, had previously answered that same question by saying that he worked eight to ten hours, seven days a week. My students enjoyed guessing that both of you were fibbing, both exaggerating in the direction expected for your gender. Can you tell me more about your working habits?”
“I’ve always tried to shape my writing time as if this were a real job. At my desk by nine in the morning, break for lunch, write until five or six. Or, when my children were home, until three—another kind of ninth hour. Five days a week when I’m not teaching, four days a week when I am. But, of course, you asked me what my schedule was writing that novel, and I suppose the misinterpretation comes from the fact of my two-novel habit. At the time I was writing Child of My Heart, that book was my way of taking a break—procrastinating—from writing the novel that would eventually become After This. So my answer was, I suppose, honest, but without context. Three or four hours a day, three or four days a week on that novel, the rest of the time on the other novel, four or five days a week, nine to three, or five. Rarely on weekends, though. I think it’s always a good idea to live a bit.”
“Do you write every day?”
“For a long time I had a system, I call it the 3-1-3 system. Three days of work. On the afternoon of the third day—drinking. Then you can get as drunk as you want. On the fourth day, you rest. Then you’re ready for three new days of work. I drink less now—age takes its toll. But when I was physically in better shape, I did that all the time. And it worked very well. It gives you a lot of work days, only one day off a week.”
“So how do you do it now?”
“I start every morning around six by walking for an hour in the hills of Jerusalem—of Mevasseret—where we live. Then I go to work in a one-room apartment I rented in a village close to my home. When I was looking at the place, the landlady said, Unfortunately, there is no phone line here. I said, Wonderful! I’ll take it. I go there every morning, no matter what, for six hours of total isolation.”
“Then you’re done for the day?”
“No, then I go back and write at home. But I do different work in the afternoon or evening. I mostly revise what I wrote in the morning. I erase. It’s less creative because life is around—family and friends.”
“Do you think it made a difference in your career that you started writing novels late, when you were approaching thirty?”
“Well, I wish I had started earlier, but evidently I wasn’t ready. First, I lacked ambition. I may have had novels in my head but very little on paper and no personal goals, no burning desire to achieve some end. Second, I didn’t have a sense of what it takes to be a serious writer. It took me a long time to develop this. Even when I was well into my first novel I didn’t have a system for working, a dependable routine. I worked haphazardly, sometimes late at night, sometimes in the afternoon. I spent too much time doing other things or nothing at all. On humid summer nights I tracked horseflies through the apartment and killed them—not for the meat but because they were driving me crazy with their buzzing. I hadn’t developed a sense of the level of dedication that’s necessary to do this kind of work.”
“What are your working habits now?”
“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 Tóibín. 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.”
“Can you discuss your work process? When do you sit down to write, and what do you do to warm up?”
“Oh, it’s very tormented. I try to write in the morning, and I write in longhand, and I write in very beautiful notebooks [White displays a couple of hardbound notebooks filled with thick, hand-laid paper] and with very beautiful pens. I just write away, and then . . . This is a first go at it, and then I start crossing out, and it gets crazier and crazier, with inserts and so on. Finally, two or three years of this go by and then one day I call in a typist. I dictate the entire book to her or him. The typist is a sort of editor in that he or she will tell me what is really terrible and what’s good, or what’s inconsistent and doesn’t make sense. I get together a whole version this way and then I stew over it some more. Eventually my editor reads it, and then he tells me to change things, and it goes on like that. If I write a page a day, I’m lucky. But I write less. And months go by without my writing at all, and I get very crazy when I write! Sick, physically.”
“You seem to be more a creature of inspiration than habit, which counters the dictum many writers have about getting up every morning and writing for several hours a day, come what may.”
“Writers say two things that strike me as nonsense. One is that you must follow an absolute schedule everyday. If you’re not writing well, why continue it? I just don’t think this grinding away is useful. The other thing they say: I write because I must. Well, I have never felt that, and I doubt most of them do either. I think they are mouthing a cliché. I don’t think most people write because they must; perhaps economically they must, but spiritually? I wonder. I think many writers would be perfectly happy to lay down their pens and never write again if they could maintain their prestige, professorship and PEN membership.”
“How do you organize your time? Do you write regularly, every day? Philip Roth has said that he writes eight hours a day three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Do you work as compulsively?”
“He is a man, you see. Women have the glorious excuse of having to shop, cook, clean! When I am working I write in a kind of trance, longhand, in these several copybooks. I meant to tidy up before you came! I write in the morning because one is nearer to the unconscious, the source of inspiration. I never work at night because by then the shackles of the day are around me, what James Stephens (author of The Crock of Gold) called”That flat, dull catalogue of dreary things that fasten themselves to my wings," and I don’t sit down three hundred and sixty-five days a year because I’m not that kind of writer. I wish I were! Perhaps I don’t take myself that seriously. Another reason why I don’t write constantly is that I feel I have written all I had wanted to say about love and loss and loneliness and being a victim and all that. I have finished with that territory. And I have not yet embraced another one. It may be that I’m going towards it—I hope and pray that this is the case."
“When you are writing, are you disciplined? Do you keep regular hours, turn down invitations, and hibernate?”
“Yes, but discipline doesn’t come into it. It is what one has to do. The impulse is stronger than anything. I don’t like too much social life anyway. It is gossip and bad white wine. It’s a waste. Writing is like carrying a fetus. I get up in the morning, have a cup of tea, and come into this room to work. I never go out to lunch, never, but I stop around one or two and spend the rest of the afternoon attending to mundane things. In the evening I might read or go out to a play or a film, or see my sons. Did I tell you that I spend a lot of time moping? Did Philip Roth say that he moped?”
“What is your writing process like?”
“I write every morning, whether one line or more, but only in the morning. I write in notebooks and then type drafts into my computer. I never drink coffee and never use any stimulants when I write. I do drink moderately, but only after my work. I probably don’t fit the image of the neurotic modern writer for those reasons, but who knows?”
“How did you find time to write during the war?”
“I wrote in spurts. For example, I finished the first draft of White Masks in three weeks. I wrote so fast my hand hurt. I’ve never written in that way again. There were times when I was fighting, in Beirut or outside the city, and times when I was working at the Research Center. So it wasn’t a matter of sitting down to write for three hours every morning like I do now. I wrote whenever I could, mostly in the evenings. Like I said, I was obsessed, or possessed. Do you know the story of al-Akhtal, the Umayyad poet? He was a Christian in the time of Caliph Muawiya. They say that when al-Akhtal stood to recite his poems in front of the caliph, his enemies would try to embarrass him by asking whether he prayed when he heard the muezzin call the faithful. So al-Akhtal told them, I pray whenever I’m visited by prayer. I’m the same way with writing.”
“What about the process of each? Is it a struggle, for instance, to get up each morning to write about something you would prefer not to write about?”
“It depends. I don’t have many examples of writing about the Holocaust because I haven’t written that much about it. But there is never a struggle in the morning. It’s a pleasant agony. I am myself only when I work. I work for four hours without interruption. Then I stop for my studies. But these four hours are really mine. It is a struggle when I have to cut. I reduce nine hundred pages to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.”
“Are you an impulsive writer, or do you set aside a certain number of hours to write?”
“I’ve alternated between being impulsive and scheduled. When I was living out in East Hampton, during the three grants that I was lucky to get, I organized myself on a morning schedule, and, whether I had anything to say or not, I would sit down at the typewriter and slip in a piece of paper there, and I would tell myself there was nothing to write until something finally emerged, and I’d just keep at it for three or four hours. Those were the years when I didn’t have to teach; I didn’t have any other schedule to keep except my writing schedule, and so a lot of work got produced. Now, trying to keep a schedule these days while teaching . . . it’s impossible! I write when I can.”
“How do you work, and at what hours?”
“I’m a morning worker. The minute my husband is out the door to work, out comes the paper, the typewriter, the manuscript I’m working on. I knock off at about two, eat and take a nap if possible, then I’m out for groceries, socializing, whatever.”
He keeps track of his daily progress—“so as not to kid myself”—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.
“Could you say something of this process? When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule?”
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and 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 or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. 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.”
“Do you write when you’re away from home?”
“I’ve found it possible to write almost anywhere I’ve happened to try. I like it at home better because it’s much more convenient for an early riser, which I am. And it’s the only place where you can really promise yourself time and keep out interruptions. My ideal way to write a short story is to write the whole first draft through in one sitting, then work as long as it takes on revisions, and then write the final version all in one, so that in the end the whole thing amounts to one long sustained effort. That’s not possible anywhere, but it comes nearest to being possible in your own home.”
“Do you typewrite?”
“Yes, and that’s useful—it helps give me the feeling of making my work objective. I can correct better if I see it in typescript. After that, I revise with scissors and pins. Pasting is too slow, and you can’t undo it, but with pins you can move things from anywhere to anywhere, and that’s what I really love doing—putting things in their best and proper place, revealing things at the time when they matter most. Often I shift things from the very beginning to the very end. Small things—one fact, one word—but things important to me. It’s possible I have a reverse mind and do things backwards, being a broken left-hander. Just so I’ve caught on to my weakness.”
“Do you need isolation in order to write?”
“I do like privacy. In the old days in New York you could rent a room very cheaply, and I wrote several books in rented rooms because I had no distractions whatsoever. I could put a typewriter on the bed, sit opposite it in a chair, and write that way all day and night if I wanted to.”
“Do you ever have to overcome inertia to get yourself writing in the morning?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so at all. Now, I might have the feeling coming in here that I don’t know what I’m going to do. I might be worried about that. But I’ll come in anyway and sit here until something happens. You see, it’s something I wanted to do to begin with and so I’ll still have that urge to see it through. I guess that talent is just a part of being a writer. You’ve got to have desire in order to make it all work.”
“Your new book, A Year of Living, has so far taken you a year and a half to write. Would you describe your daily writing schedule for that book?”
“Well, for this particular book I got into the habit of working twice a day. I am here at the typewriter at six o’clock with the lights on every morning and work until ten or eleven o’clock. Then from four until seven I’ll be back at it again.”
“Did other books have different schedules?”
“Yes, I used to have all kinds of schedules. Years ago, in the state of Maine, I chose to write my book on even days and work outside on odd days. When winter came, I shoveled snow and slept a little during the day, then stayed up all night to write. Another early method I used was to take a trip to write a short story. I’d ride a bus, from Boston to Cleveland maybe, and get off at night once in a while to write. I’d do a story that way in about a week’s time. Then, for a while, I took the night boats between Boston and New York. The Fall River Line, the New Bedford Line, the Cape Cod Line, all going to New York at night. The rhythm of the water might have helped my sentence structure a little; at least I thought it did. Those were all early methods, or schedules, of writing. Everything since then has been a little bit different.”
To live next door to Walcott, even for a week, is to understand how he has managed to be so productive over the years. A prodigious worker, he often starts at about 4:30 in the morning and continues until he has done a four- or five-hour stint—by the time most people are getting up for the day.
“Lately, I find myself getting up earlier, which may be a sign of late middle age. It worries me a bit. I guess this is part of the ritual: I go and make a cup of coffee, put on the kettle, and have a cigarette. By now I’m not too sure if out of habit I’m getting up for the coffee rather than to write. I may be getting up that early to smoke, not really to write.”
“What time is this?”
“It can vary. Sometimes it’s as early as half-past three, which is, you know, not too nice. The average time would be about five. It depends on how well I’m sleeping. But that hour, that whole time of day, is wonderful in the Caribbean. I love the cool darkness and the joy and splendor of the sunrise coming up. I guess I would say, especially in the location of where I am, the early dark and the sunrise, and being up with the coffee and with whatever you’re working on, is a very ritualistic thing. I’d even go further and say it’s a religious thing. It has its instruments and its surroundings. And you can feel your own spirit waking.”
“But let’s take a day when you’re finished with chores by mid-morning.”
“I like to get to this studio a little before eleven, ideally, and stay here until six thirty or seven. Three to seven p.m., that’s when the best ideas come, and if I started at nine a.m. my back would never hold up until four p.m.—I’ve had severe back problems, like many writers, and in my case only exercise brings relief. So during the six or seven hours I spend in this room I like to take an athletic break: yoga, swimming forty laps, a few sets of tennis singles or a two-mile walk, depending on the season. And in summer there’s my beloved vegetable garden to weed and pick and freeze from. Mind you, during the time I sit here very little”writing" goes on—I write first draft by hand, on yellow legal pad, before putting it into my terrific new IBM computer. I write very impulsively, so terribly fast only I can decipher my scrawl. But only one quarter of this first outpouring, at the most, is usable, so actually, I work very slowly. It’s mostly pacing, researching, brewing endless cups of herb tea while I think of how to annotate these terrible earlier drafts. Hours are spent figuring how to rewrite one single sentence—I’ve never managed to write anything, even a book review, in fewer than three or four drafts. Again, the most important aspect of coming to this room for several hours a day is a talismanic one—it’s here, for the past twenty years, by creating a presence of words alongside me, that I’ve slowly become something I can begin to call myself, and traveled away from that “ocean of gibberish” that menaces us throughout life."
“In interviews a few years ago, you seemed to look back on being a journalist with awe at how much faster you were then.”
“I do find it harder to write now than before, both novels and journalism. When I worked for newspapers, I wasn’t very conscious of every word I wrote, whereas now I am. When I was working for El Espectador in Bogotá, I used to do at least three stories a week, two or three editorial notes every day, and I did movie reviews. Then at night, after everyone had gone home, I would stay behind writing my novels. I liked the noise of the Linotype machines, which sounded like rain. If they stopped, and I was left in silence, I wouldn’t be able to work. Now, the output is comparatively small. On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day.”
“When do you work best now? Do you have a work schedule?”
“When I became a professional writer the biggest problem I had was my schedule. Being a journalist meant working at night. When I started writing full-time I was forty years old, my schedule was basically from nine o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon when my sons came back from school. Since I was so used to hard work, I felt guilty that I was only working in the morning; so I tried to work in the afternoons, but I discovered that what I did in the afternoon had to be done over again the next morning. So I decided that I would just work from nine until two-thirty and not do anything else. In the afternoons I have appointments and interviews and anything else that might come up. I have another problem in that I can only work in surroundings that are familiar and have already been warmed up with my work. I cannot write in hotels or borrowed rooms or on borrowed typewriters. This creates problems because when I travel I can’t work. Of course, you’re always trying to find a pretext to work less. That’s why the conditions you impose on yourself are more difficult all the time. You hope for inspiration whatever the circumstances. That’s a word the romantics exploited a lot. My Marxist comrades have a lot of difficulty accepting the word, but whatever you call it, I’m convinced that there is a special state of mind in which you can write with great ease and things just flow. All the pretexts—such as the one where you can only write at home—disappear. That moment and that state of mind seem to come when you have found the right theme and the right ways of treating it. And it has to be something you really like, too, because there is no worse job than doing something you don’t like.”
“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be. That’s why writing a book of short stories is much more difficult than writing a novel. Every time you write a short story, you have to begin all over again.”
“Can you tell me about your work habits? You must be enormously disciplined to turn out so much in such a relatively short time. Do you find writing easy? Do you enjoy it?”
“Oh, yes, of course I enjoy it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. Whenever I get up in the morning, I write for about three hours. I write novels in longhand on yellow legal pads, exactly like the First Criminal Nixon. For some reason I write plays and essays on the typewriter. The first draft usually comes rather fast. One oddity: I never reread a text until I have finished the first draft. Otherwise it’s too discouraging. Also, when you have the whole thing in front of you for the first time, you’ve forgotten most of it and see it fresh. Rewriting, however, is a slow, grinding business. For me the main pleasure of having money is being able to afford as many completely retyped drafts as I like. When I was young and poor, I had to do my own typing, so I seldom did more than two drafts. Now I go through four, five, six. The more the better, since my style is very much one of afterthought. My line to Dwight Macdonald,”You have nothing to say, only to add," really referred to me. Not until somebody did a parody of me did I realize how dependent I am on the parenthetic aside—the comment upon the comment, the ironic gloss upon the straight line, or the straight rendering of a comedic point. It is a style which must seem rather pointless to my contemporaries because they see no need for this kind of elaborateness. But, again, it’s the only thing I find interesting to do."
“Hungover or not, I write every day for three hours after I get up until I’ve finished whatever I’m doing. Although sometimes I take a break in the middle of the book, sometimes a break of several years. I began Julian—I don’t remember—but I think some seven years passed between the beginning of the book and when I picked it up again. The same thing occurred with Washington, D.C. On the other hand, Myra I wrote practically at one sitting—in a few weeks. It wrote itself, as they say. But then it was much rewritten.”
“Well now, how do you work? Do you work at regular hours?”
“I used to; now I set myself a number of words.”
“500, stepped up to 750 as the book gets on. I re-read the same day, again the next morning and again and again until the passage has got too far behind to matter to the bit that I am writing. Correct in type, final correction in proof.”
“What is your daily schedule when you work?”
“When I’m working on the first version, I write between five and seven pages a day. For the third version, three pages a day. It’s very slow.”
“You do this in the morning or in the afternoon or at night?”
“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 nine and ten o’clock 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 seven o’clock in the evening.”
“Let’s begin with a homely question: How do you spend your days?”
“Downstairs, writing and drawing; upstairs, painting, or reading Rex Stout, P.G. Wodehouse, and Georges Simenon. Talking with visitors and friends. In the backyard there’s a studio, designed and built by Keith Plymale for an architecture seminar. Cement floor, tin roof, nine windows, one at floor level for observing”sunlight on a wall" (a phrase from Tatlin! that Keith wanted to build into the structure), a small square window at the back, with a painted-wood still life in it (jug and apple), and a slender window in front, with a shelf outside, for cats to sit on (though no cat has). The neighbors call it my playhouse."
“What habits do you have as a writer? Do you keep to a schedule?”
“I like to believe that I don’t think of myself as a writer. I am an amateur. Back when I was teaching I wrote when I could. Weekends were good typewriter time. Now, it’s whenever I feel there’s something to be put on paper. I don’t care what time it is, though I always write in the notebooks at night.”
“Are the notebooks central to your method?”
“Yes, there is a kind of gestation period, which I suppose is common to all writers. The thing is to get a . . . well, I was about to say”plot," but a lot of my stories use the old Joycean epiphany."
“What’s the typical progress of an idea, then, from being something you’ve jotted down in the notebook to finding a place in one of your stories or essays?”
“Well, who knows? I suppose you wait until it’s irresistible, then start working on it one way or another. When that time comes, I move from longhand to the typewriter.”
“Do you flip through the notebooks to get sparks?”
“Certainly. They’re my workbooks. I mine them.”
“So, they aren’t diaries at all.”
“No. I keep what I call a logbook, and it’s very useful. I log in mail, and this has saved my life many times. I would say I correspond with between a hundred and two hundred people, and I learn an immense amount from letters. So, I note incoming mail, incoming books, outgoing, and very little else. You could not write my biography from it.”
“Have any of your stories come out of something you read in a letter?”
“There are examples of this happening.”The Lark" is a friend’s experience of sexual awakening, recounted in old age in a letter."
Most mornings for the better part of the last fifty years, until his death in July at the age of eighty-one, Gustaw Herling rose in the shadow of Vesuvius and went to his desk to continue what had long since become one of the great ongoing journeys in contemporary literature. A hero in his native Poland and a well-known if occasionally controversial figure in his adoptive Italy, Herling was for decades the object of quiet but intense admiration among readers and writers throughout Europe. Although a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, it wasn’t until the recent and widely acclaimed republication of several of his books in the U.S. that he was brought to the attention of a broader American readership.
“Do you wake up early to write?”
“I get up at seven and work for an hour or two. My wife cooks breakfast, and I always eat it and then go back to work. Usually by late afternoon I will say I’ve done enough writing. At night, I read and answer e-mails. I go to bed late at night—usually at one or two, sometimes three.”
“That’s not very much sleep.”
“If I’m tired, I take a nap.”
“What are your own writing habits?”
“I used to get up and be at my desk at nine in the morning. Now I’m lucky if I start at eleven. What with e-mail and the Internet, I do most of my work in the afternoon. I write first in longhand. I copy the work on my computer, print it out, correct it in longhand, and so forth.”
“How is your typical workday structured?”
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. 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.”
“Is there also a sense of not wanting to explain your books, in the way a dream loses its power when it comes under analysis?”
“The good thing about writing books is that you can dream while you are awake. If it’s a real dream, you cannot control it. When writing the book, you are awake; you can choose the time, the length, everything. I write for four or five hours in the morning and when the time comes, I stop. I can continue the next day. If it’s a real dream, you can’t do that.”
“Can you describe your usual workday?”
“Mine? That’s been difficult in the last few years because I was ill for a long time and actually still am. Normally I work mornings, from after breakfast until about half-past twelve, and then again in the afternoon, and in the evening as well, if I really get going. There are, unfortunately, quite a few interruptions—not unimportant ones, correspondence and the like—that make steady work difficult.”
Mr. Green writes at night and in many longhand drafts. In his memoir, Pack My Bag, he has described prose in this way:
“Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone …”
“First of all, would you explain how you go about the actual business of writing? Do you sharpen pencils like Hemingway, or anything like that to get the motor started?”
“No, not generally, no, nothing of that sort. I generally go to work right after breakfast. I sit right down to the machine. If I find I’m not able to write, I quit. But no, there are no preparatory stages as a rule.”
“Are there certain times of day, certain days when you work better than others?”
“I prefer the morning now, and just for two or three hours. In the beginning I used to work after midnight until dawn, but that was in the very beginning. Even after I got to Paris I found it was much better working in the morning. But then I used to work long hours. I’d work in the morning, take a nap after lunch, get up and write again, sometimes write until midnight. In the last ten or fifteen years, I’ve found that it isn’t necessary to work that much. It’s bad, in fact. You drain the reservoir.”
…So I formed a cunning plan. I thought, I’ll write another novel. I’ll write a contemporary novel. That was Every Day Is Mother’s Day. I started it in Africa. I finished it in Saudi Arabia. At times I had very little sense of where I was going with it or whether there would be any profit or success at the end of it. It was written in the teeth of everything. It was an act of defiance—I thought, I’m not going to be beaten. I got an agent, I got a publisher, then I wrote the sequel. It wasn’t planned as two books. It was, for me, a way of getting a foot in the door. But once I had secured a contract, I just rolled up my sleeves and I set about Vacant Possession in a way that I’ve never worked before. I would write through the morning, Gerald would come home midafternoon, would have his siesta, and when he woke up, I would read him what I had written in the morning. I’ve never written like that since.
“By that time you had developed regular writing habits?”
“I’d be at work by nine-thirty every morning. I inherited my father’s work ethic—no matter what he’d been up to the night before, he was always out of bed by seven a.m. He never missed a day’s work in forty-eight years in the army. In the seventies I used to work in the bedroom of my flat at a little table. I worked in longhand with a fountain pen. I’d type out a draft, mark up the typescript, type it out again. Once I paid a professional to type a final draft, but I felt I was missing things I would have changed if I had done it myself. In the mid-eighties I was a grateful convert to computers. Word processing is more intimate, more like thinking itself. In retrospect, the typewriter seems a gross mechanical obstruction. I like the provisional nature of unprinted material held in the computer’s memory—like an unspoken thought. I like the way sentences or passages can be endlessly reworked, and the way this faithful machine remembers all your little jottings and messages to yourself. Until, of course, it sulks and crashes.”
“What’s a good day’s output for you?”
“I aim for about six hundred words a day and hope for at least a thousand when I’m on a roll…A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. This joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Writers crave these moments, these sessions. If I may quote the second page of Atonement, this is the project’s highest point of fulfillment. Nothing else—cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews—will come near it for satisfaction…Like Enduring Love, this was a novel that grew out of many months of sketches and doodling. One morning I wrote six hundred words or so describing a young woman entering a drawing room with some wild flowers in her hand, searching for a vase. She’s aware of a young man outside gardening whom she wishes both to see and avoid. For reasons that I couldn’t explain to myself, I knew that I had at last started a novel.”
He refuses to discuss work in which he is currently engaged. In the mornings he won’t be disturbed; his wife answers the phone for him. In the afternoons he abandons his typewriter for other activities, all performed with enormous vigor.
“…You wrote”The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" in one afternoon, I think you told me."
“Morning. You left it on the kitchen table, and your wife, Marian, tossed it out the window.”
“Well, that’s not quite how it happened. We had one room up on the twenty-eighth floor of this hotel on Eighth Avenue. We were waiting for the rehearsals of The Gentle People to start. I wrote”The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" one morning while Marian was lying in bed and reading. And I knew I had something good there, but I didn’t want her to read it, knowing that the reaction would be violent, to say the least, because it’s about a man who tells his wife that he’s going to be unfaithful to her. So I turned it facedown, and I said, “Don’t read this yet. It’s not ready.” It was the only copy I had. Then I went out and took a walk, had a drink, and came back. She was raging around the room. She said, “It’s a lucky thing you came back just now, because I was going to open the window and throw it out.” Since then she’s become reconciled to it, and I think she reads it with pleasure, too."
Singer works at a small, cluttered desk in the living room. He writes every day, but without special hours—in between interviews, visits, and phone calls. His name is still listed in the Manhattan telephone directory, and hardly a day goes by without his receiving several calls from strangers who have read something he has written and want to talk to him about it. Until recently, he would invite anyone who called for lunch, or at least coffee.
“Could you tell me something about the way you work? Do you work every day, seven days a week?”
“Well, when I get up in the morning, I always have the desire to sit down to write. And most of the days I do write something. But then I get telephone calls, and sometimes I have to write an article for the Forward. And once in a while I have to write a review, and I am interviewed, and I am all the time interrupted. Somehow I manage to keep on writing. I don’t have to run away. Some writers say that they can only write if they go to a far island. They would go to the moon to write not to be disturbed. I think that being disturbed is a part of human life and sometimes it’s useful to be disturbed because you interrupt your writing and while you rest, while you are busy with something else, your perspective changes or the horizon widens. All I can say about myself is that I have never really written in peace, as some writers say that they have. But whatever I had to say I kept on saying no matter what the disturbances were.”
Thoughts Before an Interview: Every morning I tell myself, Today has to be productive—and then something happens that prevents me from writing. Today . . . what is there that I have to do today? Oh yes, they are supposed to come interview me. I am afraid my novel will not move one single step forward. Something always happens. Each morning I already know I will be able to waste the whole day. There is always something to do: go to the bank, the post office, pay some bills . . . always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with. While I am out I also do errands such as the daily shopping: buying bread, meat, or fruit. First thing, I buy newspapers. Once one has bought them, one starts reading as soon as one is back home—or at least looking at the headlines to persuade oneself that there is nothing worth reading. Every day I tell myself that reading newspapers is a waste of time, but then . . . I cannot do without them. They are like a drug. In short, only in the afternoon do I sit at my desk, which is always submerged in letters that have been awaiting answers for I do not even know how long, and that is another obstacle to be overcome. Eventually I get down to writing and then the real problems begin. If I start something from scratch, that is the most difficult moment, but even if it is something I started the day before, I always reach an impasse where a new obstacle needs to be overcome. And it is only in the late afternoon that I finally begin to write sentences, correct them, cover them with erasures, fill them with incidental clauses, and rewrite. At that very moment the telephone or doorbell usually rings and a friend, translator, or interviewer arrives.
“Do you work every day or only on certain days and at certain hours?”
“In theory I would like to work every day. But in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning, so I end up sitting down to write in the afternoon. I’m a daytime writer, but since I waste the morning I’ve become an afternoon writer. I could write at night, but when I do, I don’t sleep. So I try to avoid that.”
“To come back to the professional side of things, how do you divide your time between Tiranë and Paris? And your day, wherever you are?”
“I am more in Paris than in Tiranë because I can work better here. There is too much politics in Tiranë, and too many demands. I am asked to write a preface here, an article there . . . I don’t have an answer to everything. As for my day: I write two hours in the morning, and I stop. I can never write more—my brain gets tired. I write in a café around the corner, away from distractions. The rest of my time is spent reading, seeing friends, all the rest of my life.”
“What are the things that prevent you from working? Hemingway said the telephone was the big work-killer.”
“In Tiranë no one dared use the telephone except for the most anodyne purposes because the phones were tapped. But as I said, I only write two hours a day, and it is not difficult to be isolated for that length of time.”
“How many pages do you write in a day?”
“I write at night. After the day is over, and supper is over, I begin, and work until about three or four a.m.”
“That’s quite rare, isn’t it, because most people write when they’re fresh, in the morning.”
“I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young—I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.”
“But weren’t William Styron and Richard Wright, say, important to you in formulating your viewpoints?…Did you take a position on his book about Nat Turner?”
“I did. My position, though, is that I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don’t like their alternative, write yours. I admired him for confronting it, and the result. It brought in the whole enormity of the issue of history versus fiction, fiction versus history, and which is which . . . He writes out of reasons similar to mine: about something which hurt him and frightened him. When I was working on Another Country and Bill was working on Nat Turner, I stayed in his guest house for five months. His hours and mine are very different. I was going to bed at dawn, Bill was just coming up to his study to go to work; his hours going on as mine went off. We saw each other at suppertime.”
“You typed out On the Road in three weeks, The Subterraneans in three days and nights. Do you still produce at this fantastic rate? Can you say something of the genesis of a work before you sit down and begin that terrific typing—how much of it is set in your mind, for example?”
“You think out what actually happened, you tell friends long stories about it, you mull it over in your mind, you connect it together at leisure, then when the time comes to pay the rent again you force yourself to sit at the typewriter, or at the writing notebook, and get it over with as fast as you can … and there’s no harm in that because you’ve got the whole story lined up. Now how that’s done depends on what kind of steel trap you’ve got up in that little old head. This sounds boastful but a girl once told me I had a steel-trap brain, meaning I’d catch her with a statement she’d made an hour ago even though our talk had rambled a million light-years away from that point … you know what I mean, like a lawyer’s mind, say. All of it is in my mind, naturally, except that language that is used at the time that it is used … And as for On the Road and The Subterraneans, no I can’t write that fast anymore … Writing The Subs in three nights was really a fantastic athletic feat as well as mental, you shoulda seen me after I was done …. I was pale as a sheet and had lost fifteen pounds and looked strange in the mirror. What I do now is write something like an average of eight thousand words a sitting, in the middle of the night, and another about a week later, resting and sighing in between. I really hate to write. I get no fun out of it because I can’t get up and say I’m working, close my door, have coffee brought to me, and sit there camping like a”man of letters" “doing his eight hour day of work” and thereby incidentally filling the printing world with a lot of dreary self-imposed cant and bombast, bombast being Scottish for pillow stuffing. Haven’t you heard a politician use fifteen hundred words to say something he could have said in exactly three words? So I get it out of the way so as not to bore myself either….The work-preservers are the solitudes of night, “when the whole wide world is fast asleep.”"
“What do you find the best time and place for writing?”
“The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace. [Picks up harmonica and plays.] Boy, can I play!”
“Could you tell me something about your own work habits?”
“They’re pretty normal, I guess. I get up earlier than most guys—between seven and eight—but only because I like to go out in the afternoons while there’s still sun. After I get up it takes me an hour and a half of fiddling around before I can get up the courage and nerve to go to work. I smoke half a pack of cigarettes, drink six or seven cups of coffee, read over what I wrote the day before. Finally there’s no further excuse. I go to the typewriter. Four to six hours of it. Then I quit and we go out. Or stay home and read.”
“How much do you get done in a day?”
“It all depends. It might be two typescript pages, or it might be even less. Or, if it’s a dialogue or a scene I had well fixed in my mind, I might get as much as ten or twelve. Usually, though, it’s a lot less. Three pages maybe. And then I often have to go back over it all the next day because I’m still dissatisfied. I guess I’ve got some neurotic compulsion to make everything as perfect as I can before I go on.”
“What are your working hours now?”
“I start quite early in the morning and work throughout the day with occasional interruptions. And again at night, when I come back from wherever I’ve gone out to, I work. I walk around the city with the poem I’m working on folded up in my pocket. It’s a rabbit’s foot. The poem’s in my head. I don’t need the piece of paper.”
“Do you keep regular writing hours?”
“No, I can’t.”
“How many hours a day do you write?”
“Not many—three, four.”
:“When I can. I usually write down in my date book when I begin a book, when I interrupt it, and when I resume. Every fifty pages I see how many days I worked and how many days elapsed. Sometimes the working days are steady—I write fifty pages in about thirty-five or forty-five days—but sometimes one hundred and twenty days elapse before I complete my fifty pages, which means I have only been able to sit down and really work thirty-five days out of one hundred and twenty.”
“Do you have a writing routine? A particular place it must be done? Do you only write in the summer, or every day?”
“Again, there’s been a radical change. I’m writing so much now that yes, I suppose I do write every day. I just have to to keep up with myself. This isn’t quite the same thing as having a routine. I work at it as I must.”
“So the routine announces itself, more or less?”
“Yes. In my early days, I would often go for weeks, and sometimes months, without being able to set pencil to paper. And in the very early days, I finished things in my head before I set them down. I could do that because my short-term memory was much better than it is now. And because I was writing so sparsely, so infrequently, one poem wasn’t crowding out another, I had time to concentrate on the things that came. So very few drafts have survived of early stuff. Now it’s all immediate, scribbling phrases down, crossing them out, changing them. They go straight down onto paper.”
“What is your schedule like?”
“I have to begin early because I take the kids to school, so usually I’m awake by six. I come back to the house afterwards and work till lunch.”
“Do you have any rituals or devices to help you get started?”
“No, not really. I mean there’s the coffee and that bullshit, but as for rituals, no.”
“Do you write every day?”
“When something kicks in, I devote everything to it and write constantly until it’s finished. But to sit down every day and say, I’m going to write, come hell or high water—no, I could never do that.”
“Do you keep to a strict writing schedule?”
“I do. I try to write every day. I start around ten in the morning and write until dinnertime, most days. Sometimes it’s not productive, and there’s a lot of downtime. Sometimes I fall asleep in my chair, but I feel that if I’m in the room all day, something’s going to get done. I treat it like a desk job. With The Marriage Plot, the last year or so, I started doing double sessions where I would work all day, have dinner, and then go back and work at night. I didn’t want to put myself through that, but I had so much to do and a lot of things were coming together, so I had to work long hours. I’d go to bed at midnight and wake up at seven or eight and start again.”
“What about your working habits? Are you Protestant and disciplined, or European and dissolute?”
“I guess both. I still wake up around 8 A.M. ready for the day, and sleep again for four hours in the afternoon, which allows me to remain mentally and physically active until the early dawn, when again I go to sleep. Being part of the Protestant ethos for less than one-third of my life, I acquired only some Protestant habits, while maintaining some of my former ones. Among the ones I acquired is the belief that I ought to answer my mail—a belief not shared by many happy intellectuals in Rome. In terms of my actual writing habits, I am an old member of the Russian and Polish intelligentsia—neither a professional intellectual nor a café-society hedonist. I love writing more than anything else. Like the heartbeat, each novel I write is inseparable from my life. I write when I feel like it and wherever I feel like it, and I feel like it most of the time: day, night, and during twilight. I write in a restaurant, on a plane, between skiing and horseback riding, when I take my night walks in Manhattan, Paris, or in any other town. I wake up in the middle of the night or the afternoon to make notes and never know when I’ll sit down at the typewriter.”
“What are your daily working habits like?”
“Every day, five days a week. Longhand now, it’s less tiring than a typewriter. When I’m writing a novel or story I set myself a target of about seven hundred words a day, sometimes a little more. I do a first draft in longhand, then do a very careful longhand revision of the text, then type out the final manuscript. I used to type first and revise in longhand, but I find that modern fiber-tip pens are less effort than a typewriter. Perhaps I ought to try a seventeenth-century quill. I rewrite a great deal, so the word processor sounds like my dream. My neighbor is a BBC videotape editor and he offered to lend me his, but apart from the eye-aching glimmer, I found that the editing functions are terribly laborious. I’m told that already one can see the difference between fiction composed on the word processor and that on the typewriter. The word processor lends itself to a text that has great polish and clarity on a sentence-by-sentence and paragraph level, but has haywire overall chapter-by-chapter construction, because it’s almost impossible to rifle through and do a quick scan of, say, twenty pages. Or so they say.”
“How many hours a day do you put in at the desk?”
“Two hours in the late morning, two in the early afternoon, followed by a walk along the river to think over the next day. Then at six, Scotch and soda, and oblivion.”
“That sounds like the schedule of an efficient worker.”
“Well, concentration has never been a problem, and now there are few distractions. I assume that it is not entirely coincidental that, to the despair of my friends, I live in this remote backwater seventeen miles from London, in a small town where I know almost no one. However, until five years ago I had three adolescent children here, and not much more than ten years ago, at the time I was writing Crash, I was still driving them to school, collecting them, and getting totally involved in the hurly-burly of family life as a single parent. My wife died from galloping pneumonia while we were in Spain. But even in those days I kept the same hours, though then I stopped drinking at about the time I now start. At the time I wrote Crystal World, and through the five years of Atrocity Exhibition, I used to start the working day once I returned from delivering the children to school, at 9:30 in the morning, with a large Scotch. It separated me from the domestic world, like a huge dose of Novocaine injected into reality in the same way that a dentist calms a fractious patient so that he can get on with some fancy bridgework.”
“You have such a relentless imagination, even after writing so much, in so many forms, over the decades. What is your work routine?”
“I get up early in the morning. And I take a lot of notes. I get a lot of ideas when I’m swimming. I swim three times a week. Some psychics ask, Where do you talk to God? For me, the ideas come when I’m in the bathtub or when I’m swimming. Water, it does something. And I move through -different genres—that’s how I avoid writer’s block. So I’ll write a poem or draw a cartoon or work on a novel. Or I’ll write an essay. I get to reach a lot of people on Facebook.”
“Do you have any writing rituals?”
“The most important is that I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.”
“Do you keep to a specific schedule when you’re working?”
“With this woman, I’ve had good luck starting very early in the morning, which I’ve never been able to do before. My optimum hours are between two and four in the afternoon. I don’t know why and it aggravates me. It’s a circadian rhythm I can’t avoid. And then between eleven and one at night. I always work a split shift.”
It was Williams’s seventieth birthday, and he followed the routine he has adhered to most of his adult life. He got up at dawn and went to his typewriter and worked. Then he swam in the hotel’s pool. He returned to his suite and glanced through a pile of mail, mostly birthday greetings from friends. He opened several presents and a box containing a literary prize just presented to him by Italy for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. He found this somewhat puzzling because, he explained, when the novel and movie first appeared the Italians were angered by his story of a Roman gigolo romancing an older woman.
“Before the success of Menagerie I’d reached the very, very bottom. I would have died without the money. I couldn’t have gone on any further, baby, without money, when suddenly, providentially, The Glass Menagerie made it when I was thirty-four. I couldn’t have gone on with these hand-to-mouth jobs, these jobs for which I had no aptitude, like waiting on tables, running elevators, and even being a teletype operator. None of this stuff was anything I could have held for long. I started writing at twelve, as I said. By the time I was in my late teens I was writing every day, I guess, even after I was in the shoe business for three years. I wrecked my health, what there was of it. I drank black coffee so much, so I could stay up nearly all night and write, that it exhausted me physically and nervously. So if I suddenly hadn’t had this dispensation from Providence with Menagerie, I couldn’t have made it for another year, I don’t think.”
…HABITS OF WORK
“In Key West I get up just before daybreak, as a rule. I like being completely alone in the house in the kitchen when I have my coffee and ruminate on what I’m going to work on. I usually have two or three pieces of work going at the same time, and then I decide which to work on that day.”
“I go to my studio. I usually have some wine there. And then I carefully go over what I wrote the day before. You see, baby, after a glass or two of wine I’m inclined to extravagance. I’m inclined to excesses because I drink while I’m writing, so I’ll blue pencil a lot the next day. Then I sit down, and I begin to write…I’ve heard that Norman Mailer has said that a playwright only writes in short bursts of inspiration while a novelist has to write six or seven hours a day. Bull! Now Mr. Mailer is more involved in the novel form, and I’m more involved in the play form. In the play form I work steadily and hard. If a play grips me I’ll continue to work on it until I reach a point where I can no longer decide what to do with it. Then I’ll discontinue work on it.”
Of his working habits Barth has said that he rises at six in the morning and puts an electric percolator in the kitchen so that during the course of sitting for six hours at his desk he has an excuse for the exercise of walking back and forth from his study to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. He speaks of measuring his work not by the day (as Hemingway did) but by the month and the year. “That way you don’t feel so terrible if you put in three days straight without turning up much of anything. You don’t feel blocked.”
“Looking back, I don’t think I would have learned much more, and I don’t think I would have had the nerve to tackle some of the things I tackled as a young writer if I had been to university—I would have been beaten into â€¨submission by my lecturers. But I think I would have been a little more relaxed. After high school, instead of attending university I took a job as a clerk at Aer Lingus, the Irish airline. I wanted to be free, and working for an airline allowed me to travel. I didn’t socialize with literary people. Instead I would work every day and I would write every night. I’ve been doing that ever since. I’ve only very recently become what’s known as a full-time writer. I was a working journalist for thirty-five years, as a copy editor on the newspapers and then as books editor at The Irish Times. I can’t complain about that, because a day job gives you freedom.”
“The theater didn’t suit me really. I can’t sit up all night. Everything in the theater is done after midnight. I lived in Brooklyn at the time, and we always finished so late that I had to walk back home across the Brooklyn Bridge. I never got home before three a.m. and being someone who’s never been able to sleep later than seven in the morning, I just couldn’t keep up the schedule.”
“What is your ideal set of working conditions?”
“All you need is a room without any particular interruptions. Some things I’ve done entirely in longhand, but now I tend to start chapters in longhand and then finish them on the typewriter, and that becomes such a mess that nobody can transcribe it except my wife. I find it easier to get up early in the morning, and I like to get through by one or two o’clock. I don’t do very much in the afternoon. I like to get out of doors then if I can.”
“You get all of your work done before you go swimming?”
“Yes. Down here that’s my regular routine.”
“Do you have a routine for writing?”
“I wish I had a routine for writing. 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.”
“Are your writing habits the same today as they were when you were young?”
“I trust the poems more.”
“When do you work best now?”
“In the morning. But for most of my life I wrote late at night. When you get old your brain doesn’t function as well after noon.”
“Do you keep to a work schedule?”
“No, I have an approximate rhythm, but I don’t like the idea of anything creative being mechanical. That’ll kill you. On the other hand, if I was not satisfied with how much I’d written in a year, then I would set out to write a hundred poems in a hundred days. I force myself to write poems even though I don’t approve of it because it does keep something alive. So I guess I have a little bit of a pattern that I live by. For instance, the other day I woke up at one in the morning and worked until four in the afternoon. I do that a lot. I can do that because I don’t have to accommodate anybody but me.”
“When you do the writing, what is the process? Do you always start at the same time of day?”
“It’s seasonal. In the summertime I do most of what I call the brute writing, that is, putting words down on the page for the first time. Just trying to get down as many as I can. And rereading it the next day and going on from there. That happens, say, between the months of June until about November. Then I come back and teach and revise and rethink and rework. When I’m doing the brute work, I do it early in the morning; that’s the best time for me to get the stuff down on the page. That’s been my routine for years and years. I work on many things at once. I read a lot of books at the same time, I work on different projects and that changes the schedule and style somewhat. But the pattern persists. Up early before everybody else, before I get connected, before I get bugged, before I have obligations. Get the writing done first, then be the person I want to be in other ways after that.”
“And what of the mechanical details of the writing? Do you use a computer, for instance?”
“I rewrite over and over again because I don’t use a computer. I use a Bic pen and a pencil. I simply write—fill a page and write between lines and on top of lines, so my manuscripts become palimpsests. They become incomprehensible to anybody but me. That means I have to rewrite them. It’s very tedious and slow. There are many, many layers; many, many edits. And at times it seems a pain in the ass. But each one of those clarifications that is scribbled is another edit. So in a funny way, it’s like I have developed a system in which there are four or five simultaneous drafts available to me, by reading between lines and using the arrows and the different print from the ink and the pencil. It’s like having transparencies. I can almost model like you model clay, because I have a whole series of words that could be the right word. Is it dry, is it parched, is it sear? Maybe all of those words are there in one form or another.”
“How many hours per day do you spend writing during the months you’re getting down your first draft?”
“My answer would be meaningless. I work all the time. I work four or five hours in the morning. When I’m really going, I may do that four or five days a week. It might be one day, two hours, another day, eight because I’m going good. But for me, rewriting and different drafts go on endlessly. If I have a two-hundred-page book or two hundred pages of handwritten stuff, it might take six months to get it out of the incomprehensible stage into something somebody could read.”
“Do you disappear from home to write?”
“I disappear into myself. Sometimes I go away for a short period, say a week, to think and concentrate, then I come back home to carry on.”
“Where do you work and when?”
“I have a very nice long room, which used to be the stable. It has a desk and lots of paper, etc. But most of my plays are written on the kitchen table at night, when everybody has gone to bed and I feel completely at peace. During the day, somehow I don’t get much done; although I have a secretary who answers the phone, I always want to know who it is, and I generally get distracted.”
“Was he [Sinclair Lewis] a model for you in any way?”
HERSEY: He was past his important work—this was a couple of years after It Can’t Happen Here. But he was wonderfully important to me; I was able to see the life of a man totally given over to writing. Even though he was not producing important novels anymore, he was so gripped by what he was doing that it was very impressive to me. He would get up in the middle of the night, cook up some coffee, and work for two or three hours and then go back to bed. He led an irregular life, but a life that was passionately devoted to his work. I was exposed to someone who lived for writing, lived in his writing, in a way. That summer he became interested in theater, and was writing what turned out to be a very bad play about a mythical Balkan kingdom. He wanted to learn everything about the theater. There was a summer-stock company in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where we were, and every night he would have the casts over to his house. He was like a student trying to learn fundamentals; he would ask them how you get people on stage and off stage. His utter wholeheartedness was an important example for me.
“And you were heading a large family. How did you fit your writing in between working as a barrister and leading a busy family life? When did you find the time to write?”
“It was very difficult. I used to get up very early in the morning, and when I became Queen’s Counsel, a criminal lawyer, it was much easier because I would do a big case, then have a gap, then do another big case. And by the end I was only doing about five cases a year.”
“Did you find it easy? Did you have great confidence in yourself as a writer?”
“I have a great debt of gratitude to the press for this. In those days English newspapers were much too big to read on the train, so instead of fighting with my colleagues for the Times, I would write in little notebooks. I lived a long way out of London. The line has since been electrified, which is a great loss to literature. In those days it was an hour and a half each way. To give the best of the day to your work is most important. So if I could write for an hour and a half on the train, I was already completely jaded by the time I got to the office to start work. And then there was a resurgence of talent during the lunch hour. In the evening something again came back to me. I was always very careful to give my country second-best.”
“Now that you no longer write on the train to London, what is your working day like?”
“Well, I still don’t type. I write by hand, and my wife types everything up, endlessly, repeatedly. I correct by hand too. I am an absolute monk about my work. It’s like being an athlete: you have to find out which are the best hours of the day. I’m a morning person. I like to drink in the evening, go to sleep on a good idea and wake up with the idea solved or advanced. I believe in sleep. And I go straight to work, often very early. If a book’s getting to the end of its run, I’ll start at four-thirty or five o’clock in the morning and go through to lunchtime. In the afternoon I’ll take a walk, and then, over a scotch, take a look at what Jane’s typed out, and fiddle with it a bit more. But I always try to go to sleep before I finish working, just a little bit before. Then I know where I’ll go the next morning, but I won’t quite know what I am going to do when I go. And then in the morning it seems to deliver the answer.”
“I’d like to ask a bit about your work habits if I may. What sort of schedule do you follow?”
“I write every weekday morning. I try to vary what I am doing, and my verse, or poetry, is a help here. Embarked on a long project, I try to stay with it even on dull days. For every novel, however, that I have published, there has been one unfinished or scrapped. Some short stories—I think offhand of”Lifeguard," “The Taste of Metal,” “My Grandmother’s Thimble”—are fragments salvaged and reshaped. Most came right the first time—rode on their own melting, as Frost said of his poems. If there is no melting, if the story keeps sticking, better stop and look around. In the execution there has to be a “happiness” that can’t be willed or foreordained. It has to sing, click, something. I try instantly to set in motion a certain forward tilt of suspense or curiosity, and at the end of the story or novel to rectify the tilt, to complete the motion."
“And your sister’s a photographer. You come from a family of visual artists, and you trained as one in high school. Do the visual arts influence your writing process?”
“My process is dull. It’s as plodding and pedantic as Abraham’s film, painted one frame at a time. I’m a tortoise, waking each day to plod out my page or two. I try never to miss a morning, when I’m working on a novel. There are no other rules, no word counts or pencil sharpenings or candlelit pentagrams on the floor. Growing up with my father’s art-making in the house, the creative act was demystified, usefully. As a result, I see writing as an inevitable and ordinary way to spend one’s hours.”
“How long can you keep at it?”
“I ordinarily write three or four handwritten pages and then rework them for two hours. I can work for four hours, or forty-five minutes. It’s not a matter of time. I set a realistic objective: How can I inch along to the next paragraph? Inching is what it is. It’s not: How can I handle the next chapter? How can I get to the next stage in a way that I like? I think about that as I walk the dog or walk the twenty minutes from my apartment to the studio where I work.”
“What about the necessary disciplines of writing?”
“Well, I don’t have social luncheons with people. By not having lunch with people it means that I do not have two martinis, which usually means the afternoon is not shot, since all I can do after two martinis is read the newspaper.”
“What kind of work schedule do you follow?”
“I haven’t any formal schedule, but I love to write in the morning, before breakfast. Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days. On school days, days that I teach, I usually write for an hour or forty-five minutes in the morning, before my first class. But I don’t have any formal schedule, and at the moment I am feeling rather melancholy, or derailed, or simply lost, because I completed a novel some weeks ago and haven’t begun another . . . except in scattered, stray notes.”
“How do you work? Do you write every day?”
“When I am occupied with a work that requires continuity, a novel, for example, I write every day. Of course, I am subjected to all kinds of interruptions at home and interruptions due to traveling, but other than that, I am very regular. I am very disciplined. I do not force myself to work a certain number of hours per day, but I do require a certain amount of written work per day, which usually corresponds to two pages. This morning I wrote two pages of a new novel, and tomorrow I shall write another two. You might think two pages per day is not very much, but there are other things I must do—writing other texts, responding to letters; on the other hand, two pages per day adds up to almost eight hundred per year. In the end, I am quite normal. I don’t have odd habits. I don’t dramatize. Above all, I do not romanticize the act of writing. I don’t talk about the anguish I suffer in creating. I do not have a fear of the blank page, writer’s block, all those things that we hear about writers. I don’t have any of those problems, but I do have problems just like any other person doing any other type of work. Sometimes things do not come out as I want them to, or they don’t come out at all. When things do not come out as well as I would have liked, I have to resign myself to accepting them as they are.”
“…The body is not made to sit for long stretches of hours. Your heart has to be stimulated and you must get the blood through the system just to clean the sides of the blood vessels. At four o’clock in the afternoon my ears will turn red from work.”
“Are the hours that you spend writing pleasurable to you?”
“I get waves of pleasantness now and again, but I think I have finally decided they are overall unpleasant. It’s unpleasant to have to sit down and work. It’s a hurdle you have to get over in order to start the machinery of the brain working. It takes a couple of hours each morning. Then, as I reach a high point, at the midsection of the afternoon, I force myself for as long as I can. I sometimes have to make myself get up from the desk and do thirty sit-ups and thirty back exercises just to shift the blood around. If I go past four o’clock I begin to notice that my guts start to get all pressed down, and it’s time to get up and move around. And at times when I can’t indulge the luxury of stopping, by late afternoon I’m kneeling at my desk. Obviously, standing is another method of relieving this. Every writer, I think, has his.”
“Do you have any devices to get you going in the morning?”
“No, just my physical setting. I try not to force myself too much, and to take some leisure. Generally, I eat my breakfast alone about eight o’clock. From my bedroom I have to walk down a long hall to the main staircase and then downstairs walk the same length of hall back to collect my breakfast and then back again to my work room. I sit there and actually enjoy myself. It’s a great time because I overlook a southern walled orchard and flower gardens and I gaze out the window, or read the newspaper, or look at an architectural book or listen to the radio. I must say it’s momentarily very pleasant. But if I’m really driving myself, battling my way, I forbid myself to read the newspaper or turn on the radio and I just sit there alone eating my breakfast. But usually I drive myself so much all day that in the mornings I don’t make it too difficult for myself.”
“How do you work? Are you disciplined? Do you keep regular hours?”
“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.”
“I am not much of a morning person,”Jeremy Prynne warned us, as we made arrangements for this interview.
“My natural habitat seems to be the hours of darkness, ad libitum. So I’ll be pretty useless until about ten thirty or eleven a.m. at best: but at the other end of the day I never tire.”So it proved. For four days at the end of January, we met after lunch in his rooms at Gonville and Caius College, at the University of Cambridge, and talked, with a break for dinner, until we pleaded exhaustion sometime after midnight. At the conclusion of each day’s interview, Prynne graciously walked us out through the sixteenth-century Gate of Honour before returning to his desk in the rooms he has kept since he was first appointed as a fellow, in 1962.
“In the spring of 2011, I had one of these feelings that I sometimes have, that maybe I’m about to write something…I chose to go to Thailand, because I’d been to Thailand once before. I arranged and clocked into an hotel, a very modest, cheap hotel in Bangkok, with the sole purpose of writing whatever this composition was going to be. And right up to the last minute I had no idea whether it would be anything at all…This hotel, by the way, had an all-night restaurant, which meant that at four o’clock in the morning, I could go down and have ice cream and coffee and refresh my spirits and return to my writing desk and write another slab of stuff. I wrote feverishly, uninterruptedly throughout the whole three-week period. Something I’d never done in my life before. For example, I never gave it a title. I had no idea what its subject matter was going to be. I had no idea about its range of material. I had no idea about its prosodic formalism. I had no idea how long it was going to be, if it was going to be terminable or interminable. I would engage in writing sessions that lasted, say, four or five hours, and then I’d be exhausted and I’d break off. Sometimes I’d sleep. Sometimes, if it was daytime, I’d have a little walk in the outside air to clear my thoughts. Then I’d go down to the restaurant and help myself to coffee and ice cream, which was my staple nutritional support. Then I’d go back upstairs again.”
“But the new novel Ship of Fools has been in the writing since 1942. The regime for writing this must have been a good deal different.”
“Oh, it was. I went up and sat nearly three years in the country, and while I was writing it I worked every day, anywhere from three to five hours. Oh, it’s true I used to do an awful lot of just sitting there thinking what comes next, because this is a great big unwieldy book with an enormous cast of characters—it’s four hundred of my manuscript pages, and I can get four hundred and fifty words on a page. But all that time in Connecticut, I kept myself free for work: no telephone, no visitors—oh, I really lived like a hermit, everything but being fed through a grate! But it is, as Yeats said, a”solitary sedentary trade." And I did a lot of gardening, and cooked my own food, and listened to music, and of course I would read. I was really very happy. I can live a solitary life for months at a time, and it does me good, because I’m working. I just get up bright and early—sometimes at five o’clock—have my black coffee, and go to work."
“You work best in the morning, then?”
“I work whenever I’m let. In the days when I was taken up with everything else, I used to do a day’s work, or housework, or whatever I was doing, and then work at night. I worked when I could. But I prefer to get up very early in the morning and work. I don’t want to speak to anybody or see anybody. Perfect silence. I work until the vein is out. There’s something about the way you feel, you know when the well is dry, that you’ll have to wait till tomorrow and it’ll be full up again.”
“The important thing, then, is to avoid any breaks or distractions while you’re writing?”
“To keep at a boiling point. So that I can get up in the morning with my mind still working where it was yesterday. Then I can stop in the middle of a paragraph and finish it the next day.”
“What kind of writing schedule do you keep?”
“Once I start writing a novel, I write every day until it’s finished. Usually I wake at seven a.m. and work until about eleven. I don’t eat breakfast. I just drink a glass of water. I think that is perfect for writing.”
He lives in a spacious barn that was built in the thirties from a Sears Roebuck catalog. It is decorated in bright Day-Glo colors. The stairs ascending to his loft-study are covered in streaks of neon green and pink, recalling the psychedelic designs made famous by Kesey’s bus, Furthur. Inspired by these visual remnants of the sixties, Kesey works late into the night, observed, as he points out, by a parliament of owls.
“Do you have rituals?”
“Well, one of them is to use this very old, circa 1930 I would say, Royal typewriter I mentioned. I hate to think what will happen when it finally gives out, though you can still find them sometimes in those used office furniture stores on West 23rd Street, which are themselves an endangered species. And then I procrastinate like everybody else, though surely more than most. On days when I want to write I will usually waste the morning and go for an afternoon walk to Greenwich Village. (I live nearby in Chelsea, which is a pleasant place to walk from though maybe not to.) Sometimes this takes too long and my preferred late afternoon moment will pass. I can’t really work at night. Nor in the morning, very much, when I have more ideas but am less critical of them, it seems. I never can use the time I waste doing this for some other purpose like answering letters. It’s no good for anything but wasting. I’ve never tried Schiller’s rotten apples, but I do drink tea while I write, and that is about the only time I do drink tea. On the whole, I believe I have fewer hang-ups and rituals than I used to. I feel blocked much less often, though it still happens. It’s important to try to write when you are in the wrong mood or the weather is wrong. Even if you don’t succeed you’ll be developing a muscle that may do it later on. And I think writing does get easier as you get older. It’s a question of practice and also of realizing you don’t have the oceans of time to waste you had when you were young.”
“Yes. I don’t get up very early. I linger over breakfast reading the papers, telling myself hypocritically that I’ve got to keep up with what’s going on, but really staving off the dreadful time when I have to go to the typewriter. That’s probably about ten-thirty, still in pajamas and dressing gown. And the agreement I have with myself is that I can stop whenever I like and go and shave and shower and so on. In practice, it’s not till about one or one-fifteen that I do that—I usually try and time it with some music on the radio. Then I emerge, and nicotine and alcohol are produced. I work on until about two or two-fifteen, have lunch, then if there’s urgency about, I have to write in the afternoon, which I really hate doing—I really dislike afternoons, whatever’s happening. 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 six o’clock and one can get into second gear. I go on until about eight-thirty and I always hate stopping. It’s not a question of being carried away by one’s creative afflatus, but saying,”Oh dear, next time I do this I shall be feeling tense again.""
“Did you write at night after you worked your day as an editor?”
“Yes. I had to, or felt that I had to. I couldn’t resist the desire to make poems, so I made them at night, I made them on weekends. But as an editor, there’s no limit to the work. So after I became senior editor, for many years I didn’t publish a book and I hardly ever wrote a poem. Yet those twenty years of editing stand as a divide between my lesser work, and my best. Before I became an editor, I just wrote whenever I got a chance, at night and on vacations. I learned early to do my work in my head. For many years I had a vacation of only two weeks; I would work during that time, walking along the beaches of Bonac and composing poems in my head and all the time revising them, too, in my head. I wouldn’t write down any of them. When I got back to the city, I would write them down when I had the chance. I know my poems by heart. All the various revisions of them. You work so hard over them, you know, that you never can forget them. I used to give readings from time to time—I can’t do this now—but while I would always have the book there in case I lost my way through nervousness, I rarely had to use it. At night, when I can’t sleep, I can say poems over endlessly. Not mine, necessarily, but any poems that come to mind. It’s a great resource. Yet most poets today are visual. Marianne Moore told me that she didn’t know any of her poems by heart. Robert Frost knew most of his. But some of the best poets couldn’t recite any one of their poems.”
I found that writing took a bit of adjusting—essentially to be able to use little scratches of time to do it. Lots of writers have to have whole days or nights to get ready to write; they like to be by a fire, with absolute quiet, with their slippers on and a pipe or something, and then they’re ready to go. They can’t believe you can use five minutes here, ten minutes there, fifteen minutes at another time. Yet it’s only a question of training to learn that trick. If they had to do it that way, they’d be able to—the real writers, that is. I can pick up in the middle of a sentence and then go on. I wrote at night; sometimes I wrote at the office and then practiced law at home. My wife and I never went away on weekends. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else try this method, but it worked for me. And it did for Trollope. I don’t mean to compare myself to Trollope, but it was said that he made a habit of writing from nine to noon, and if he finished a novel at a quarter to twelve, he’d start another. Unfortunately, he put that all into his autobiography, which killed his reputation for decades because people wanted to think of writing as suffering.
“How do you balance your writing with your work as a lawyer?”
“I don’t balance it. My work as a lawyer and my work as a novelist coexist. I practice law during the week, and do my writing on weekends and holidays if I am not interrupted by office work. Naturally, I have had to give up taking naps, going to the movies even when there is a film I very much want to see, and, much more painful, reading as much as I would like.”
Each work finds its own time. For many years I wrote at night. Then I became scared of writing at night, probably on account of the ghosts that you call to mind when you are writing, mostly when dealing with the subject of torture and other dark political issues. I’ve returned to the night shift just recently, and am rediscovering the pleasure of total silence. But I still enjoy jumping out of bed and onto the computer—from dream to word, with no time to repent.
“What are your normal working hours?”
“I don’t have normal working hours. Although since I’ve been writing my autobiography, I’ve been working about three or four hours a day. Usually in the late morning or early afternoons.”
“At the typewriter?”
“I write prose on the typewriter. I don’t like to work in the evening or after, partly because when I use the typewriter, I think I’m keeping people awake upstairs.”
“Do you maintain a daily writing schedule?”
“I used to be much more disciplined. For twenty-five years, I’d get up, make breakfast for Carol and myself, pack her some lunch, get her off to school, and then have the house to myself. I’d go back to bed, and I’d read a little bit of something great, take out my yellow tablet, and do some writing….Always in bed. Draft after draft. Many times I’d still be in my pajamas at noon or one. I’ve always liked the uniform of the poet. I’ve gone through some nice pajamas. This was in the old days. My discipline is interior now.”
“How long does it take you to write a poem?”
“Who can answer that? An artist friend of mine once gave me a great pencil sketch of a sink. She said it only took about half an hour to draw. But it took years for everything to combine into that half hour. But practically speaking, I usually spend one very intense morning writing a poem. For me a poem isn’t a knitting project I keep in my workbasket and add a few more purls to every couple days.”
“Tell me about your schedule as a writer. Do you write every day?”
“I adore routine. I cannot work away from it. It has to be the same thing every day. It takes a long time for me to wake up, so in the morning I write letters, revise translations—things that don’t demand too much. At noon, I go to the beach and swim for twenty minutes. I come back, eat, and take a nap. Without that nap there is no possibility of creation. From four to eight I really work. Then I have dinner and that’s it. I cannot work after eating. I stop and see something on the video machine. I hate to interrupt this for weekends. Then it’s very hard to go back to work.”
“I was enchanted by the whole project. I hear music when I am writing, and I worked from nine to five, for what was to be eighteen years of breathless writing. I never stopped. I was never bored. If I was bored, I would have stopped. I realized somewhere along the line, early, that it would take a long time. I wanted it to be a book of books, a song of songs. I knew for sure that nothing else in life was going to interfere: I would not easily marry, I would not easily travel. I wanted to write this book—and I don’t regret it.”
“How do you get started in the morning?”
“I always leave off the day before, as Thomas Mann advised,”When the going is good . . . ," when you know exactly where you are, and you are in a moment of exuberance; you stop. When I hook on the next morning, if the going was good, I just go. I feel it emotionally, almost in the blood, the pulse, the excitement. I always hear inner music when I write; I hear strange music. I have all my life, which is very odd, because I am not at all musical."
I used to work in the evenings when the children were small, but now I work in the morning. I can’t write the whole day long. I have a room where I go because I can’t work at home—the telephone and other distractions. I start work about quarter to ten, work through till lunchtime. Sometimes I work in the afternoon. During the school holidays I don’t get very much done. I’ve only been able to put in the longer hours since the children have become more accommodating. Even then I feel a bit mean. I always have my head in somebody else’s book or my own.
“Do you keep to a schedule?”
“I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney. Maybe it’s a question of discipline, maybe temperament, who knows? I wish I could have made myself do more. I wouldn’t mind having written fifteen books.”
When I’m not distracted by other things, I arise at five a.m., am at my desk by five-thirty, and work until about nine. Then I run and do other exercises—rowing, gymnastics, weights—for about two hours. It used to be longer, but I’m now forty-five and I can’t run twelve miles every day. Then I read the papers and do the mail, which can take hours, take a nap if possible, and do a little work in the late afternoon before the day dissolves into dinner, putting the children to bed, reading, lights out. When I have a deadline, I just work all night and all day, like an architect on charrette.
“Do you write by hand, on the typewriter, or do you alternate?”
“First, I write by hand. I always work in the morning, and in the early hours of the day, I always write by hand. Those are the most creative hours. I never work more than two hours like this—my hand gets cramped. Then I start typing what I’ve written, making changes as I go along; this is perhaps the first stage of rewriting. But I always leave a few lines untyped so that the next day, I can start by typing the end of what I’d written the day before. Starting up the typewriter creates a certain dynamic—it’s like a warm-up exercise.”
“Hemingway used that same technique of always leaving a sentence half-written so he could pick up the thread the next day . . .”
“Yes, he thought he should never write out all he had in mind so that he could start up more easily the next day. The hardest part, it always seems to me, is starting. In the morning, making contact again, the anxiety of it . . . But if you have something mechanical to do, the work has already begun. The machine starts to work. Anyway, I have a very rigorous work schedule. Every morning until two in the afternoon, I stay in my office. These hours are sacred to me. That doesn’t mean I’m always writing; sometimes I’m revising or taking notes. But I remain systematically at work. There are, of course, the good days for creation and the bad ones. But I work every day because even if I don’t have any new ideas, I can spend the time making corrections, revising, taking notes, etcetera . . . Sometimes I decide to rewrite a finished piece, if only to change the punctuation. Monday through Saturday, I work on the novel in progress, and I devote Sunday mornings to journalistic work—articles and essays. I try to keep this kind of work within the allotted time of Sunday so that it doesn’t infringe on the creative work of the rest of the week. Sometimes I listen to classical music when I take notes, as long as there’s no singing. It’s something I started doing when I lived in a very noisy house. In the mornings, I work alone, nobody comes up to my office. I don’t even take phone calls. If I did, my life would be a living hell. You cannot imagine how many phone calls and visitors I get. Everyone knows this house. My address unfortunately fell into the public domain.”
“What’s a good day of writing? How many hours, how many pages?”
“Everyone assumes I’m a systematic and nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person. But to me it seems like a part-time job, really, in that writing from eleven to one continuously is a very good day’s work. Then you can read and play tennis or snooker. Two hours. I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work. Towards the end of a book, as you get more confident, and also decidedly more hysterical about getting this thing away from you, then you can do six or seven hours. But that means you are working on hysterical energy. I want to clean my desk again (not that it ever is clean); I want this five years’ worth of preoccupation off my desk. Because I started writing when I was relatively young, every novel I’ve written contains everything I know, so that by the time I’m finished I’m completely out of gas. I’m a moron when I finish a novel. It’s all in there and there’s nothing left in here.”
“You write a fair amount of journalism.”
“Journalism, particularly book reviewing, brings with it another magnitude of difficulty. Fiction writing is basically what I want to do when I get up in the morning. If I haven’t done any all day, then I feel dissatisfied. If I wake up knowing that I have some journalism to write, then it’s with a heavy tread that I go to the bathroom—without relish, for many and obvious reasons. You’re no longer in complete control.”
“How often do you write?”
“Every weekday. I have an office where I work. I leave the house and I’m absent for the average working day. I drive my powerful Audi three quarters of a mile across London to my flat. And there, unless I’ve got something else I have to do, I will sit down and write fiction for as long as I can. As I said earlier, it never feels remotely like a full day’s work, although it can be. A lot of the time seems to be spent making coffee or trolling around, or throwing darts, or playing pinball, or picking your nose, trimming your fingernails, or staring at the ceiling. You know that foreign correspondent’s ruse; in the days when you had your profession on the passport, you put writer; and then when you were in some trouble spot, in order to conceal your identity you simply changed the r in writer to an a and became a waiter. I always thought there was a great truth there. Writing is waiting, for me certainly. It wouldn’t bother me a bit if I didn’t write one word in the morning. I’d just think, you know, not yet. The job seems to be one of making yourself receptive to whatever’s on the rise that day. I was quite surprised to read how much dread Father felt as he approached the typewriter in the morning.”
“Does it matter to you at all where you write?”
“Oh, a nice peaceful place with some good light.”
“Do you work regularly, every morning, say?”
“Normally; right now I haven’t been. Normally I work from about nine to two, and sometimes much longer—if it’s going well, sometimes from nine to seven.”
“Typewriter, yes. This always has to get into a Paris Review interview! I very rarely go out to lunch.”
“I want to talk about the writing process, that is, you as a writer at work. What is the most productive time of day for you?”
“Morning. By the time I am deep into a book, it is very early. I once worked late in the afternoon, and then I realized that I was missing most of the human race, so I kept setting my work time back until now it is a joke—the sun and I get up at the same time. I go straight upstairs to my workroom; if I don’t, if I stop at all, I’m lost. There are all those vastly important things to do, like the laundry! So I go there, and I meditate, and I wait. Waiting for the voices is for me the most important part.”
“Tell me about waiting for the voices.”
“How can I tell about silence? I think that that period of being able to wait until the sound and vision of a book forms unconsciously like a dream, and then is allowed to reach your conscious mind so that you can hear it, see it, and tell about it, is the single moment that separates the fiction writer from all the others who depend on craft, real memory and intelligence… When I’m finally going I write about a thousand words in an hour. Then I’m totally wiped out, and I garden or fuss around to recover.”
“What is the maximum number of hours you can write in a day? Fiction, I mean.”
“Just about that hour until the end, and then I move into a hotel, inn, whatever. Wake up, write, go to sleep, wake up, write, a twenty-four hour schedule. The novel tends to be so powerful by then for me that it takes me with it. I do it so that what energy I have by the end can all go onto the page. I learned long ago, reading Thomas Hardy, that the end of a book can be ruined by letting the writer’s fatigue creep into it.”
“Everyone wants to know about a writer’s work habits . . .”
“I do all my work before eleven in the morning. That’s why I get up so early. Around five.”
“Have you pretty much stuck to the same kind of discipline over the years?”
“Yes, I have. That I got from my father. I think the great thing he gave me was an example of what steady work, disciplined work, can finally produce. In not waiting for”the moment," you know, but saying: “I’m going to write every day for two or three hours.” The trouble, for me, is the letters. They interrupt, and I give much too much energy to that. It’s an insoluble problem."
“Would it be helpful, say, if you were stuck in your work, to switch over to the letters?”
“I sometimes start the day with the letters. Just to get the oil into the machine.”
“Do you have other ways of getting oil into the machine?”
“Music. I play records, mostly eighteenth-century music. I find that the Romantics—Beethoven—don’t work for me. I love them to listen to, but not to work with, alongside of, whereas Mozart, Bach, Albinoni . . . Haydn, I love. I feel the tremendous masculine joy of Haydn. That gets me going.”
“What is a typical day? Do you organize your day around writing or do you not need a schedule?”
“I write every day except when I am traveling—I gave up trying even to keep a travel journal years ago; it always sounds artificial. When I’m here, chez moi, I write every day as a matter of course. Most days in the morning but some days anytime, afternoon or evening. It depends on what I’m writing and the state of the thing. It is not a burden. It is the way I live.”
“Has it ever been impossible to write? Have you never not had something in mind to write?”
“I can’t imagine not having something in mind.”
“Do you have any habits that help you write?”
“Reading some poetry early in the morning is a habit—I read it before I start to work. Whenever people say, Nobody reads poetry anymore, I think, Well, I do.”
“Do you have a schedule for writing?”
“I’ve never been able to maintain a fixed schedule. For years, I wrote in my few free hours. I was quite poor and from an early age had to hold down several jobs to eke out a living. I was a minor employee in the National Archive; I worked in a bank; I was a journalist; I finally found a comfortable but busy post in the diplomatic service, but none of those jobs had any real effect on my work as a poet.”
“Do you have to be in any specific place in order to write?”
“A novelist needs his typewriter, but you can write poetry any time, anywhere. Sometimes I mentally compose a poem on a bus or walking down the street. The rhythm of walking helps me fix the verses. Then when I get home, I write it all down. For a long time when I was younger, I wrote at night. It’s quieter, more tranquil. But writing at night also magnifies the writer’s solitude. Nowadays I write during the late morning and into the afternoon. It’s a pleasure to finish a page when night falls.”
“You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible…And is the bottle of sherry for the end of the day or to fuel the imagination?”
“I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry.”
“When you are refreshed by the Bible and the sherry, how do you start a day’s work?”
“I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls.”
“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.”
Conversations for the interview were held in short sessions. In the morning—after Neruda had his breakfast in his room—we would meet in the library, which is a new wing of the house. I would wait while he answered his mail, composed poems for his new book, or corrected the galleys of a new Chilean edition of Twenty Love Poems. When composing poetry, he writes with green ink in an ordinary composition book. He can write a fairly long poem in a very short time, after which he makes only a few corrections. The poems are then typed by his secretary and close friend of more than fifty years, Homero Arce.
“What are your working hours?”
“I don’t have a schedule, but by preference I write in the morning. Which is to say that if you weren’t here making me waste my time (and wasting your own), I would be writing. I don’t read many things during the day. I would rather write all day, but frequently the fullness of a thought, of an expression, of something that comes out of myself in a tumultuous way—let’s label it with an antiquated term,”inspiration“—leaves me satisfied, or exhausted, or calmed, or empty. That is, I can’t go on. Apart from that, I like living too much to be seated all day at a desk. I like to put myself in the goings-on of life, of my house, of politics, and of nature. I am forever coming and going. But I write intensely whenever I can and wherever I am. It doesn’t bother me that there may be a lot of people around.”
“You cut yourself off totally from what surrounds you?”
“I cut myself off, and if everything is suddenly quiet, then that is disturbing to me.”
“What conditions do you find to be most conducive to writing?”
“Well, nowhere very special, no great, splendid desk and cork-lined room. There have been times in my life, my God, when I was a young divorced woman with a small child living in a small apartment with thin walls when other people’s radios would drive me absolutely mad. And that’s still the thing that bothers me tremendously—that kind of noise. I don’t mind people’s voices. But Muzak or the constant clack-clack of a radio or television coming through the door . . . well, I live in a suburban house where I have a small room where I work. I have a door with direct access to the garden—a great luxury for me—so that I can get in and out without anybody bothering me or knowing where I am. Before I begin to work I pull out the phone and it stays out until I’m ready to plug it in again. If people really want you, they’ll find you some other time. And it’s as simple as that, really.”
“How long do you usually work every day? Or do you work every day?”
“When I’m working on a book I work every day. I work about four hours nonstop, and then I’ll be very tired and nothing comes anymore, and then I will do other things. I can’t understand writers who feel they shouldn’t have to do any of the ordinary things of life, because I think that this is necessary; one has got to keep in touch with that. The solitude of writing is also quite frightening. It’s quite close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch. The ordinary action of taking a dress down to the dry cleaner’s or spraying some plants infected with aphids is a very sane and good thing to do. It brings one back, so to speak. It also brings the world back. I have formed the habit, over the last two books I’ve written, of spending half an hour or so reading over what I’d written during the day just before I go to bed at night. Then, of course, you get tempted to fix it up, fuss with it, at night. But I find that’s good. But if I’ve been with friends or gone out somewhere, then I won’t do that. The fact is that I lead a rather solitary life when I’m writing.”
“Is there a time of day that’s best?”
“I work in the morning. That’s best for me.”
“There’s no specific routine that gets you from the bedroom or the living room into the writing room, bridging that terrifying gap between not writing and writing?”
“No—that’s the advantage if you’re free to choose the time you’re going to write. That’s the advantage of writing in the morning. Because then one gets up and in one’s subconscious mind one knows: I am going to write. Whatever small thing you have to do, such as talking to other people at breakfast, it’s only done with one part of you, so to speak; just done on the surface. The person with whom I live, my husband, understands this and has for a very long time. And he knows that to say to me at breakfast,”What shall we do about so-and-so?" or, “Would you read this letter?”—he knows that isn’t the time to ask. I get irritable, and irritated; I don’t want to be asked to do things then. And I don’t want to phone an order to the grocer at that time. I just want to be left alone to eat my breakfast. Ideally, I like to walk around a bit outside, which you can do, of course, with a garden. But I often think that even that becomes a kind of procrastination because it’s so easy then to see a weed that one has to stop and pull up and then one sees some ants and wonders, Where are they going? So the best thing to do is to go into the room and close the door and sit down."
“When I was nineteen or twenty I’d already had lots of poems broadcast on the BBC, and when an ad appeared in the local paper looking for radio producers I thought I would apply. At the interview—I’m quite confident this is what got me the job—I came in, and about thirty seconds later the tea trolley came in. It was parked right beside me so, being a credit to my mother for once in my life, I said, Well, can I pour you some tea? So I poured them all tea. Which, of course, when you get right down to it is really what a radio producer is. A tea pourer. I worked quite hard for a couple of years and then I sort of got fed up with it all. But they took me in at the BBC. I kept a Dylan Thomas quote over my desk for thirteen years:”In olden days poets ran away to sea. Nowadays they run away to the BBC.""
“You were writing poems over your lunch breaks.”
“For many years. And that’s still how I write. The lunch breaks have got longer. I think it’s fair to say that I’m disciplined. I say that because I work almost every day. Does that equal discipline? I’m not sure. But I’m in the habit of writing. It’s what I do. I suppose I could be cleaning windows, and that could be a discipline, window cleaning.”
For the past twenty years Sarraute has gone every morning to write at the same neighborhood café in Paris. The following interview took place at her home in the sixteenth arrondissement, near the Musée d’Art Moderne.
“You have written all your books, from the first to the latest in the same café, where you work every day. Why not at home?”
“At first because the house was full of children; my husband was a lawyer and received his clients here, so I couldn’t work. Going to a café is like traveling—you get out of your own environment and its distractions. Writing is difficult; it is like jumping into the void. One tries to avoid it by any means—looking for a lost piece of paper, making a cup of tea, anything. In a café you jump in. Nobody disturbs me there and I don’t hear the conversations. I had the same set-up in the country, until one day they installed a jukebox in the café where I worked, and that does stop you from thinking. So I arranged a cowshed across the courtyard, and every morning I go there and work.”
“Turning once more to your writing: do you work according to a regular schedule?”
“I have always been compelled to. From eight till two I was at work. From four until seven I wrote. Then from seven until ten I read. This was my schedule every day except Friday. I have never had time to do as I please. But I stopped writing about three years ago.”
“If I may return to your own writing, perhaps you could say something about the way you approach your work. Do you have any sort of writing routine?”
“I write when I have the leisure to. Up until last Christmas it’s been when I didn’t have a lot of unanswered letters. Do you remember Lowell speaks somewhere about a”malignant surf of unanswered letters?" I know what he means. Or after doing some job, when I felt I really deserved a few days to myself. And frequently I write poetry when I think, Now I have leisure; now I have peace; now I can do some scholarly thing. I sit down at my desk and it isn’t a scholarly thing at all; I write poetry for a few days. But I seldom write more than a poem a fortnight. Sometimes, three in three days. Very occasionally two in a day. A poem can take two or three days to finish, usually two at the most because I can’t stand the strain, can’t hold it together. Though sometimes I go back to an old poem and finish it, when I thought I was going to leave it unfinished forever. Suddenly one feels relaxed and gleeful, and does anything."
“What is your daily routine?”
“My life is as simple as I can make it. Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings. I almost never go out. I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time: some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way—making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.”
“You didn’t mention a schedule for writing . . .”
“Yes, I was afraid you’d ask about writing. Anything I say about writing poems is bound to be retrospective, because in fact I’ve written very little since moving into this house, or since High Windows, or since 1974, whichever way you like to put it. But when I did write them, well, it was in the evenings, after work, after washing up (I’m sorry: you would call this”doing the dishes“). It was a routine like any other. And really it worked very well: I don’t think you can write a poem for more than two hours. After that you’re going round in circles, and it’s much better to leave it for twenty-four 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. Another top-floor flat, by the way. I wrote between eight and ten in the evenings, then went to the University bar till eleven, then played cards or talked with friends till one or two. 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 organize that now.”
“They vary with each book. I wrote The Naked and the Dead on the typewriter. I used to write four days a week: Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.”
“Yes, very definite hours. I’d get up about eight or eight-thirty and I’d be at work by ten. And I’d work till twelve-thirty; then I’d have lunch. I’d get back to work about two-thirty or three, and work for another two hours. In the afternoon I usually needed a can of beer to prime me. But I’d write for five hours a day. And I wrote a great deal. The average I tried to keep was seven typewritten pages a day, twenty-eight pages a week. The first draft took seven months, the second draft—which really was only half a draft—took four months. The part about the platoon went well from the beginning, but the Lieutenant and the General in the first draft were stock characters. If it had been published at that point, the book would have been considered an interesting war novel with some good scenes, no more. The second draft was the bonus. Cummings and Hearn were done in the second draft. If you look at the book you can see that the style shifts, that the parts about Cummings and Hearn are written in a somewhat more developed vein. Less forceful but more articulated. And you can see something of the turn my later writing would take in the scenes between Cummings and Hearn.”
Mailer also refers to writing in the morning in his second TPR interview in 2007.
“Ten years ago I found a flat overlooking the Bosporus with a view of the old city. It has, perhaps, one of the best views of Istanbul. It is a twenty-five-minute walk from where I live. It is full of books and my desk looks out onto the view. Every day I spend, on average, some ten hours there.”
“Ten hours a day?”
“Yes, I’m a hard worker. I enjoy it. People say I’m ambitious, and maybe there’s truth in that too. But I’m in love with what I do. I enjoy sitting at my desk like a child playing with his toys. It’s work, essentially, but it’s fun and games also.”
“Orhan, your namesake and the narrator of Snow, describes himself as a clerk who sits down at the same time every day. Do you have the same discipline for writing?”
“I was underlining the clerical nature of the novelist as opposed to that of the poet, who has an immensely prestigious tradition in Turkey.”
I try to be very diligent about writing every morning. On an ideal day, and there aren’t many of those, I would get upstairs by nine and work until lunch on new material, then spend the afternoon revising it, or doing other literary work: reviews, introductions, and so on. Generally I produce a very raw, highly associative, difficult-for-anybody-else-to-interpret version in the morning, which I then break down, edit, and try to make readable in the afternoon. But my work life has been irregular.
Our house is built on the side of a steep slope: the terrace and the balcony therefore jut out, providing two long, low, sheltered rooms. In one, which is lined with bookshelves, I do work that requires continual reference: in the other, which I try to keep clear, I make my attempts at purely creative writing. There is also a small stone house in the mountain vineyard to which I can retire when there is too much noise in the village. I write or sit at my desk with paper before me just after breakfast and work or ponder until lunch. Unless writing is flowing very well, the afternoon is usually free—garden, mountain vineyard, lagoon, or seeing friends. Then after tea I go on until about dinnertime.
- Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Currey 2013
- The Miracle Morning for Writers: How to Build a Writing Ritual That Increases Your Impact and Your Income, Elrod; http://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers
- When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink
Hemingway denies this in his 1958 Paris Review interview:
"I don’t think I ever owned twenty pencils at one time. Wearing down seven number-two pencils is a good day’s work."↩︎
We should note that considerable doubt has been cast on both ego depletion and decision fatigue as part of the Reproducibility Crisis.↩︎
The Sio & Ormerod 2009 finds length of incubation to be a moderator (longer=better) but all incubation periods are less than 2–3h and more often a few minutes, and sleep was not used in any meta-analyzed studies, so the incubation effect literature appears to be unhelpful on whether & how sleep might cause any benefits here.↩︎
Having been involved with modafinil for a long time, I can say that in the anecdotes I have read or talking to people or in my modafinil survey, I have seen many people praise it for nonfiction writing or programming, but I am not sure I have ever seen someone describe trying to write fiction on it (with one exception), and a not infrequent complaint is that people feel less “creative” on it.↩︎
With the striking exceptions of Balzac’s love of coffee and Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs, who, however, in a case of the “exception proving the rule”, tended to write ‘semi-autobiographical’ fiction, and heavily indulged in amphetamines for sleep deprivation to the point of amphetamine psychosis, assisted by wide availability at the time due to asthma treatment and diet prescriptions, see Rasmussen 2008, On Speed.↩︎
Proportion/binomial test of responses split by chronotype:↩︎
prop.test(matrix(c(196,193,467,633), nrow=2)) # # 2-sample test for equality of proportions with continuity correction # # data: matrix(c(196, 193, 467, 633), nrow = 2) # X-squared = 7.0006564, df = 1, p-value = 0.008147983 # alternative hypothesis: two.sided # 95% confidence interval: # 0.01545214897 0.10848738773 # sample estimates: # prop 1 prop 2 # 0.2956259427 0.2336561743 df <- as.data.frame(matrix(c(196,193,467,633), nrow=2)) df$V3 <- df$V1+df$V2 df$Morning <- c(TRUE, FALSE) library(brms) brm(V1 | trials(V3) ~ Morning, family=binomial(), data=df, chains=32) # ...Population-Level Effects: # Estimate Est.Error l-95% CI u-95% CI Eff.Sample Rhat # Intercept -1.19 0.08 -1.35 -1.03 28662 1.00 # MorningTRUE 0.32 0.12 0.09 0.55 26242 1.00
One interview with a poet was broken on the website and I couldn’t download it.↩︎