Vanilla Wafers, Long Walks, and Word Quotas
By Susanne Carter
When Mary Gordon was writing her third novel, Men and Angels, in the mid-1980s, she was the mother of two young children who found it difficult to balance motherhood and her writing career. She and her husband purchased a simple cabin and there she went to write each day. “I probably have it a lot easier than most writers with children,” she said during a New York Times interview. “When the baby sitter takes over after breakfast, I leave the house, get into my car and drive for 15 minutes to a little cabin on the Hudson River. There I light the fire and gain the physical separation that I need to work. Between 9:30 and 1:30 I turn into a writer.”
Similar to many people who enjoy writing, I have often dreamed of trekking off to a cozy cabin away from civilization where I can escape the mundane everyday routines of life and write in blissful seclusion. But that writer’s retreat remains a distant fantasy for most of us. We carve time and space to write whenever and wherever we can, whether it’s in cafes, airports, or the front seats of our cars while our children are at soccer practice.
Whether writers have the luxury of hiding away in a secluded cabin to write or create great literature at the kitchen table, I’m intrigued by how they go about the process of writing. Do they adhere to a daily “workout” regimen or simply wait for inspiration to strike? Do they set daily word quotas for themselves similar to the way joggers tally miles? Do writers compose on electronic gadgets, bang on manual typewriters, or write their thoughts in longhand? Do novels and short stories come streaming out of their imaginations once they begin writing or is the composing process a long and tedious one that occurs in fits and starts?
In this guest blog, I provide insights into the often quirky writing processes of great writers. In the Writers’ Notes I distill these insights into guidance from some of our greatest writers.
Celia Blue Johnson’s curiosity about how writers write led her to research the often quirky writing habits of great writers collected in Odd Type Writers (2013). The wide variance in writing habits, superstitions, and idiosyncrasies Johnson discovered in her research led her to conclude there is no “secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in this book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.” (p. xix)
Mason Currey’s similar curiosity about how artists create led him to write Daily Rituals (2013). By examining the regimens of more than 200 artists in a variety of fields, Currey sought to “show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.” (p. xiv)
Raymond Carver smoked and drank while he wrote short stories, often holed up in the privacy of his car. Flannery O’Connor nibbled on vanilla wafers. Ray Bradbury ate ice cream. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up while Truman Capote insisted on writing in a horizontal position. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down,” he said during an interview with The Paris Review. A. J. Jacobs writes while walking on a treadmill.
Schedules and Word Counts
Ann Beattie regularly writes from midnight to 3 AM while Toni Morrison finds creative inspiration writing at the first sign of light each day. Barbara Kingsolver awakes “too early,” already immersed in the creative process:
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.
Stephen King and Margaret Atwood set daily writing quotas of around 2000 words while Ernest Hemingway was satisfied with 500. Other writers, such as Karen Russell, shun word quotas:
I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day, but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day… Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.
Because Maya Angelou could not write at home (“I can’t write in a pretty surrounding,” she said), she rented a motel or hotel room that she never slept in but used as her daily work space.
Virginia Wolff derived creative energy from wandering the busy streets of London but also cherished her solitary strolls through England’s South Downs “to have space to spread my mind out in.”
Rick Bass and Sherman Alexie have almost contradictory opinions on their writing environments. Bass stresses the importance of concentration for writers. “Don’t have any distractions nearby, don’t write in a room full of books if you can help it,” he advises. “Don’t browse through anything else when the going gets slow.”
In contrast, Alexie believes it’s important to read while writing and “to not be afraid of the influence of other writers.” He often has 10-12 books open on his desk while he writes and says he “dip(s) into them randomly for inspiration along the way.”
A Space of One’s Own
Virginia Wolff believed that writers needed “a room of one’s own” whereas Ray Bradbury told The Paris Review during an interview that he could write anywhere:
I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.
In On Writing (2000) Stephen King states that the only requirement for a writing space is a door: “A door you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world that you mean business.” He elaborates: “When you write, you want to get rid of the world, don’t you? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.”
Reading about the routines of great writers taught me several things:
- If you are serious about writing, you must write every day.
Regardless of the quirkiness of habits, each of these writers said they maintain(ed) a daily routine of writing as religiously as the most driven marathon runner. None of them waited for a lightning bolt of inspiration to strike before sitting down and staring at a blank page. “If I waited for inspiration,” Flannery O’Connor once said, “I’d still be waiting.”
O’Connor followed a daily ritual of writing in her small Milledgeville, Georgia bedroom after she attended mass. That way, she could be certain, “if anything comes, I am there waiting to receive it.” While some writers set word quotas for the day, most of them set aside a block of time each day to write.
Although many writers may tear up much of what they have sweated to produce, they are more concerned about quality than productivity and realize they will spend much more time rewriting than writing. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific writers in the United States, writes an average of eight hours daily. “I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a full day’s work, it is a single page and these pages add up.” Barbara Kingsolver comments: “I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away. It’s just part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”
As Maya Angelou said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
- If you are serious about writing, you must read every day.
Stephen King advocates reading and writing four to six hours a day, seven days a week. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that,” he says. He continues:
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page.
Ray Bradbury also advocated reading and writing every day, saying:
You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.
3. Let the quirks roll.
Whatever quirky preferences you have when you write, enjoy them, embrace them, cultivate them. But make sure you keep writing.
What are your quirky writing habits?