How to Be a Writer in 10 Easy Steps
Hone your craft by studying the rituals of world-famous writers. Lesson one: Caffeine, alcohol, alcohol, and more caffeine. And some walking.
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Mason Currey quotes poet W.H. Auden in his book, Daily Rituals, a compendium of artists’ daily routines.
In this day and age, it seems like everyone is interested in disclosure—how great artists (or other people we admire) are successful, what routines work for them, what products they use to create their work. It’s as if an imitation—having the right pen or drinking a particular brand of coffee could bring us closer to greatness. If nothing else, learning more about great writers routines just proves how difficult the creative process is, even for those whose output seems to make it look easy.
Daily Rituals contains the habits of writers, musicians, directors, dancers, and artists of all stripes. But readers should take note of the similarities between the writers routines in particular, of which caffeine, alcohol, and office work seem to be the commonalities. As Kafka wrote in a letter, “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wiggle through by subtle maneuvers.” Here then, is how to be a writer in 10 easy steps, according to those who know best.
1. Get Up Sometime
Plenty of writers claim that their best hours are in the morning, when the house is quiet and they can concentrate. Others get up and get to work whenever they damn please.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (pictured left with his family) would generally rise at 11 A.M. and sometimes would not start writing until 5 P.M. “In reality, however, most nights were spent on the town,” Currey writes, “making the rounds at the cafés with Zelda.” Marcel Proust, ill from asthma, would not wake until 3 or 4 in the afternoon.
Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
2. Don’t Eat Anything (or Eat The Same Thing Every Day)
The writer’s diet seems to consist mostly of coffee and alcohol, and if he or she did decide to eat something, it was always the same thing, like a peanut-butter sandwich. Marcel Proust (pictured left) supposedly survived on café au lait and two croissants per day. “Sometimes only one croissant!” his faithful housekeeper Celeste exclaimed.
Mark Twain would eat a hearty breakfast, but no lunch. Saul Bellow would break every day for a light lunch of tuna or whitefish, Currey writes, “accompanied—if the work had gone well—by a glass of wine or a shot of gin.”
Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
3. Write Standing Up or Laying Down
At 6’6”, author Thomas Wolfe had trouble finding a desk that could accommodate his long legs. He would usually write standing up, “using the top of the refrigerator as his desk,” Currey writes. Virginia Woolf (pictured left), too, used a standing desk.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Patricia Highsmith, who would write in bed, “surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible.
Truman Capote claimed he was “a completely horizontal author,” telling The Paris Review he couldn’t think unless he was lying down, “puffing and sipping.” Legend has it that eccentric poet Edith Sitwell would even recline in a coffin before writing. Currey writes: “This forecast of the grave was supposed to inspire her macabre fiction and poetry.”
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4. Consider Taking a Day Job
Writer Nicholson Baker used to work a day job in which he would make notes during his lunch hour for his novel in the middle of the day. He later took a job with a 90-minute-commute on purpose so he would have time to “dictate his writing while he drove,” according to Currey.
Poet T.S. Eliot (pictured left) worked in a bank, and novelist Henry Greene worked for his family’s manufacturing business. George Orwell worked in a bookshop. Franz Kafka worked for an insurance company in Prague, as did poet Wallace Stevens, working for a local insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut, until his death. “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he said. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be, and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.”
Photo: John Gay / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
5. Or At Least An Office
Maya Angelou prefers to keep her work separate from her home life. “I try to keep home very pretty,” she said, “and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.” So instead she keeps a hotel room where she works from morning until 2 P.M.
“For much of his career, John Updike (pictured left) rented a small office above a restaurant in downtown Ipswich, Massachusetts, where would write for three or four hours each morning,” Currey writes. “Around noon the smell of food would start to rise through the floor,” Updike said, “but I tried to hold out another hour before I tumbled downstairs, dizzy with cigarettes, to order a sandwich.”
Photo: CHRIS DRUMM / Flickr
6. Suffer from Insomnia, Anxiety, and/or Sexual Addiction
Gertrude Stein would rise and drink coffee, though, “against her will,” according to a Harold Ross profile of the writer in The New Yorker. “She’s always been nervous about becoming nervous, and she thought coffee would make her nervous, but her doctor prescribed it.”
Franz Kafka, and many other writers, suffered from anxiety and resulting insomnia. “If I were to tell you about it at length,” Kafka wrote to his girlfriend, “I should never finish.”
Novelist George Simenon (pictured left), one of the most prolific writers of all time, had a voracious sexual appetite and “frequently slept with four different women in the same day,” Currey writes.
John Cheever suffered serious anxiety and guilt over his sexual orientation, and believed a good sex drive was essential to concentration. He wrote: “With a stiff prick I can read the small print in prayer books, but with a limp prick I can barely read newspaper headlines.”
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7. Smoke Like a Chimney
Thomas Mann limited himself to 12 cigarettes (limited!) and two cigars daily. Haruki Murakami (pictured left) used to smoke upwards of 60 cigarettes a day, until he realized his sedentary lifestyle was making him fat.
Donald Barthelme was a chainsmoker, and in constant fear of fire, Currey writes, “ended each writing session by emptying his ashtray in the kitchen.”
Photo: Michal Cizek / AFP / Getty Images
8. And Take Drugs
“To maintain his energy and concentration, W.H. Auden relied on amphetamines, taking a dose of Benzedrine each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin,” Currey writes. “At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep.”
The Fountainhead author Ayn Rand (pictured left) was also fond of Benzedrine. She suffered from what she called “the squirms,” feeling angsty or unsettled over an idea at her desk. She would play solitaire to work out the problem, and if that didn’t work, then she moved on to amphetamines. Proust would take a caffeine pill if he couldn’t concentrate, and then, when he was ready to sleep, would pop Veronal, a sedative.
Photo: cea + / Flickr
9. Go for a Daily Constitutional
Charles Dickens worked as a city clerk but every day at 2 P.M. he would go for a three-hour walk, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon,” in his writing. Charles Darwin would always take a short walk after breakfast, as would Nabokov and his wife, Vera.
Carson McCullers (pictured left) would write in the local library, “taking sips from the Thermos full of sherry that she would sneak inside,” Currey writes, then she would take a long walk back home.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
10. Drink Like a Fish
As John Cheever worked, he would help himself to “scoopfuls of gin,” Currey writes. W.H. Auden would begin cocktail hour at 6:30 P.M. sharp, when he would mix “several strong vodka martinis,” followed by “copious amounts of wine.”
Kingsley Amis (pictured left) would take a taxi to the pub for lunch “where he could have his first drink of the day, a Macallan malt with a splash of water.” He might have three or four more of those throughout the course of the day, followed by wine, coffee, claret, or burgundy.
Jonathan Franzen would get drunk on Friday nights, realizing all the writing he’d done during the week was bad. “I’d get drunk on vodka-shot glasses. Then have dinner much too late, consumed with a sick sense of failure. I hated myself the entire time.”
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