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Routines of Successful Writers

Although I’m pretty certain there is no answer to it, I sometimes secretly tend to question whether there is a panacea for good writing. This got me thinking about the habits of successful writers and what kinds of routines they go through to produce work that they deem valuable. Here are some writers’ routines which I found by digging through the wonderful The Art of Fiction Archives from The Paris Review:

Haruki Murakami keeps to a very tight routine when writing. He explains that he attempts to keep himself mesmerised, so he can stay wholly immersed in his work and state of mind.

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.

Reading through the Tennessee Williams interview it was almost as mesmerising as I’m sure reading his scripts would have been. He talks of his sister, mother and father and the dark downside of their mental states. He also talks of his illness and being admitted to a clinic. And buried within his heart wrenching story, was some detail of his writing process:

In writing a play, I can get started on the wrong tangent, go off somewhere and then have to make great deletions and begin over, not all the way over, but just back to where I went off on that particular tangent. …I do an enormous amount of rewriting.

And some more habitual intricacies:

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.

And the raison d’etre:

I try to work every day, because you have no refuge but writing. When you’re going through a period of unhappiness, a broken love affair, the death of someone you love, or some other disorder in your life, then you have no refuge but writing.

Joseph Heller

For Heller, writing comes from meeting a realistic objective, not a matter of time.

I keep a small sheath of three-by-five cards in my billfold. If I think of a good sentence, I’ll write it down. It won’t be an idea (“have him visit a brothel in New Orleans”). What I put down is an actual line of intended text (“In the brothel in New Orleans was like the time in San Francisco”). Of course, when I come back to it, the line may change considerably.

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.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

For Marquez, firstly, it’s about health. Although there always seems to be this generalised perception that writers are depressed, or that creative genius emenates from a depressive downside, Marquez holds another view:

To be a good writer you have to be absolutely lucid at every moment of writing, and in good health. I’m very much against the romantic concept of writing which maintains that the act of writing is a sacrifice, and that the worse the economic conditions or the emotional state, the better the writing. I think you have to be in a very good emotional and physical state. Literary creation for me requires good health…

It’s also a state of mind,

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.

P.G Wodehouse at 91 years old.

This interview was conducted when he had just finished writing Bachelor’s Anonymous.

I still start the day off at seven-thirty. I do my daily dozen exercises, have breakfast, and then go into my study. When I am between books, as I am now, I sit in an armchair and think and make notes. Before I start a book I’ve usually got four hundred pages of notes. Most of them are almost incoherent. But there’s always a moment when you feel you’ve got a novel started. You can more or less see how it’s going to work out. After that it’s just a question of detail.

I never work after dinner. It’s the plots that I find so hard to work out. It takes such a long time to work one out. I like to think of some scene, it doesn’t matter how crazy, and work backward and forward from it until eventually it becomes quite plausible and fits neatly into the story.

Angie Garrett / Flickr

Angie Garrett / Flickr

Woody Allen

Allen found no correlation between length of time attributed to developing and creating a piece and its success,

There have been stories where I’ve just sat down at the typewriter and typed straight through beginning to end. There are some New Yorker pieces I’ve written out in forty minutes time. And there are other things I’ve just struggled and agonized over for weeks and weeks. It’s very haphazard… Annie Hall was just endless—totally changing things. There was as much material on the cutting-room floor as there was in the picture—I went back five times to reshoot. And it was well received. On the other hand, the exact opposite has happened to me where I’ve done things that just flowed easily and were very well received. And things I agonized over were not. I’ve found no correlation at all.

Papa Hemingway

The description of Hemingway’s writing routine almost seems at odds with his relatively minimal style. Hemingway stood when he wrote. Moving from handwriting to typewriter. He works in his bedroom, but moves to the tower when writing his characters. The interviewer points out that Hemingway finds it hard to discuss writing, “he feels so strongly that such ideas should remain unexpressed, that to be asked questions on them “spooks” him (to use one of his favorite expressions) to the point where he is almost inarticulate.” Later in the interview we see that it’s because scrutinizing work and part of writing is fragile.”

It is in this interview where Hemingway talks about the writing iceberg,

I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

Donna Tartt

As on the very front page of this site, Donna Tartt has said, “if you’re not enjoying something it’s because you’re doing it too fast.” This her response to the frequent question she gets asked as to why there are such great spaces of time between her works (for example between The Secret History and Goldfinch, an entire decade lapsed).  It is simply part of her writing process. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune she elaborates,

The way I enjoy working, and am happiest working, is by spending a lot of time on one subject and getting to know it deeply. I enjoy exploring things in depth, and I love the sense of richness that you can achieve in a text by spending a long time with it.

In other interviews that I have come across Tartt explains that when she writes, she’s always writing. When she’s on the bus, in the library, at home, she — referring to Joan Didion — scribbles “bits of the mind’s string too short to use” in her notebook which she carries everywhere.

Featured Image: Paperback Writer, Rob Albright / Flickr

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