Back when I was doing research for last month’s piece “Where Should You Do Your Writing (and Does There Need to be a Chandelier Present?” I stumbled across an article that Brain Pickings had done back in 2012 where they’d compiled a list of some of the daily routines of literature’s most famous writers. Since I haven’t found a routine that works for me yet, I started going over these and others I found on via the Google machine to both get an insight into how the masters tick as well as see if there were any similarities in their methods that I might be able to use while developing my own routine.
Recent interest in writers’ daily routines was kickstarted online when a collection of letters Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) wrote during his lifetime were published back in 2011 in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Because of this, it seems apt that we should start with a a sample taken from one written to his wife in 1965, outlining his routine:
In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.
Next up to bat, one of my all-time favorite writers Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) recently did an interview with Noah Charney for the Daily Beast’s How I Write series. In the interview, Díaz describes his morning routine:
I’m an early waker, not as early as some. I get up at 7. I try to only do a little bit of emailing, scan the most important things, see if anything is urgent. Then try to work for a few hours, until lunch, and call it a day. It’s only when things are really moving that I work more than that.
He goes on to say that when he writes,
I will listen to movie soundtracks. That’s the only thing that stands apart. I can’t listen to any music that has words in it, so soundtracks are good for this. I wrote my first book listening to the soundtrack to the movie Conan the Barbarian on a loop. That’s how I ride.
Díaz also adds that he doesn’t write at a desk anymore; rather, he tends to write standing up or lying in a bed.
In 2004, Haruki Murakami (1Q84) told The Paris Review in an interview:
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.
He adds, “I spend six months writing the first draft and then spend seven or eight months rewriting.”
In another Daily Beast How I Write interview, Khaled Housseni (The Kite Runner), when asked if he has any unusual rituals in his writing process, says:
I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can’t listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode.
Housseni also says that he considers a productive writing day is when he has “at least three good sentences. And an idea of what [he] will use the next day” because he can’t “go in blank the next day, the seed has to be planted today.”
In a 1954 interview with George Plimpton published in The Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms) says when asked about his routine:
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.
An additional fun fact: Hemingway liked to stand when he wrote, and that had been a work habit of his since the beginning. Wonder if that’s why Junot Díaz started doing that.
Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking) said in an interview with Linda Kuehl in 1977 when asked about her 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.
Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) says:
I tend to wake up very early. Too early. Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.
She also elaborates on the challenges of being both a writer and a mother:
I became a novelist and mother on the same day. Those two important lives have always been one for me. I’ve always had to do both at the same time. So my writing hours were always constrained by the logistics of having my children in someone else’s care. When they were little, that was difficult. I cherished every hour at my desk as a kind of prize. As time has gone by and my children entered school it became progressively easier to be a working mother. My oldest is an adult, and my youngest is 16, so both are now self-sufficient—but that’s been a gradual process. For me, writing time has always been precious, something I wait for and am eager for and make the best use of. That’s probably why I get up so early and have writing time in the quiet dawn hours, when no one needs me.
Earlier this month, another one of my favorites, Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone), tells Noah Charney at The Daily Beast about his morning routine:
[I] Get up at dawn or close to it, then do what needs to be done that day. Usually, it’s write fiction, but some days are all about research. I do feel that I have the world to myself at that hour.
In regards to beginning a novel, he says:
I have tried to outline, but all that seems to guarantee is that the book will not much resemble the outline, so I long ago stopped. I never really know where a book is going, and each new book has it’s own voice—and I have to be available to hear it. That’s what can be frustrating between novels—the way I wrote any previous book won’t work with this one. I’ll make notes, do little sketches of characters or places, but every new book has to be discovered, and maps to the older books won’t help much.
Finally, Woodrell says that he writes “longhand, then keyboard,” and says that he’s “used the same coffee cup since 1974.”
So there you have it! This is a *very* incomplete list, and many authors didn’t make the cut for this piece just because I didn’t want to overwhelm you, dear reader, with information overload (you’re welcome). I do plan on doing follow up pieces on this as well, so be sure to leave a suggestion or comment if you want to be absolutely sure that your favorite author makes it into the next one. Until then, I’m off to try this writing in the morning thing, though it’ll have to be tomorrow, seeing as it’s past noon already (whoops).