Every writer likes to read tales of the habits and quirks of famous writers and the how’s and where’s and the settings and surroundings they preferred in which to draft their prose. Unfortunately, the interest in where famous writers wrote (or write) sometimes is less historically based and is instead founded upon a belief that some magic there will rub off and improve or enhance our own prose.
We all have our preferences for the ideal environment to be surrounded by as we write—light, temperature, and accouterments. The ideal reality is that such characteristics are the products of circumstances that have proved or been made comfortable and thus evolved from preferences into habits. For example, I like to do my rough drafting on one of my tablets sitting on the couch, at the dining room table, or on the deck, then, when I reach some undefined point of critical mass, transfer my efforts to my desktop for the final edits and tweaks that end up in a formatted file I send to my web guru for review and posting.
I like starting off with a high level of portability, but prefer to end my efforts in a more traditional and focused environment—at my desk in my padded office chair in front of iMac attached to a printer within easy reach. Having descended from print journalism, I prefer to see my words ultimately on paper to ferret outs needed edits and revisions.
I have a book about where famous writers did their writing and was amazed by the number of them who wrote in bed, as if someone was trying to form a movement of horizontally-generated literature. Likely it was the best way to keep warm.
I’m sure that if we all were asked to list the conditions under which we prefer to write, we could easily come up with a half dozen—right down to our favorite pen and paper. Being a journalist, the keyboard has always been my preferred manner of literary input, and I’ve gotten a bit persnickety about the touch and feel of my keyboards. A career in lawyering and journalism gave me my preferences for keyboard and desks, but considerably more famous others had more romantic and unique notions:
Truman Capote was a “supine” writer, which he claimed helped him to think . . . as he also sipped coffee and puffed cigarettes. Latter on, it likely wasn’t Folgers in his cup!
John Cheever wrote wearing only his underwear. To him it made perfect sense; why wrinkle a suit to write. Count me in!
Francine Prose borrows her husband’s flannel pajamas. (Is there an opportunity for a product endorsement here?)
Ernest Hemingway focused more on content—aiming for his famous 500 words a day, but apparently told F. Scott Fitzgerald that he wrote “one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit.” (Perhaps that’s when the alcohol kicked in.)
William Faulkner sipped whiskey while he wrote, a habit he picked up from his drinking buddy Sherwood Anderson. Maybe that explains why sometimes it seems he couldn’t find the “period” key on his typewriter.
Flannery O’Connor maintained a strict procedure—writing for two hours every morning, at precisely the same time. She also sat facing the non-descript surface of her dresser, not unlike Damon Runyon’s preference to face a blank wall.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote most of his novels on 3 x 5 cards. He was said to operate on a flexible schedule but insisted that his supplies include sharp, but not too hard, pencils with capped erasers. (I prefer the yellow Ticonderoga 2 ½ hardness when not using a keyboard or currently favorite fountain pen.)
Eudora Welty liked to pin the pages of her stories together into one long strip. (I think we might define that as a scroll?)
While Mr. Hemingway measured his production in the number of words, Thomas Wolfe preferred counting pages—ten a day, triple-spaced. That calculates to a daily output of about eighteen hundred words. Because he was so tall, he also wrote leaning over his refrigerator. That conjures up an interesting image of shorter people rushing out to buy one of the miniature reefers like those in an at-home bar.
A few more: Alexander Chee likes to write on trains, but you can’t run around on those all the time so he settles for anyplace where he can enjoy “anonymity and displacement.” He likes to “feel like I’ve vanished and no one can find me.” Emily St. John Mandel is like most of us, doing her writing in her home office at “an unbelievably messy desk,” but writes anywhere she has the time to write, which is frequently on the New York subway. “I spend two hours a day on the F train, five days a week, and I always carry a notebook with me.” She’s telling us to always be prepared. In that regard, New Yorker Nova Ren Suma takes the prize. She goes to a place called the Writers Room. “When you pay for an office space like this and have a dedicated place to go, one filled with other working writers typing up their own pages, it makes you all the more motivated to do your own work.” Might we all consider gathering a few writer friends and rent such a place? Then you could fight over who’s going to stock the bar!
Certainly the list could go on, but if you think about these various behaviors, they reflect characteristics that serve as very important “training lessons” for the rest of us. They are, bottom line, the product of habit and of discipline. You could say disciplined habit! But what’s important to remember is that they didn’t create a writer’s life; they were the product of a writer’s life.
Woe to the person who thinks duplicating the behavior or preferred venue of a famous writer will contribute to him or her becoming a famous writer. That smacks of the same logic as “if I play Mozart on the radio, I’ll become another Mozart.” You need to learn to hum it first! Rather than copy someone else’s behavior, a writer is better advised to develop his or her own individual disciplined procedural dedication to the craft. But there might be a danger lurking in that effort, too. Habits are usually developed and flow from a conviction of behavior rather than being constructed from a set of borrowed and perceived ideals.
These dedicated behaviors of the writers of yore were also products of times more amenable to such routines. Today, writers are confronted by demands beyond volitional choices. We live in a world of interruption, which reduces to a few options any unswerving dedication to a schedule. Things are simply more complicated for most of us today, and since the development and explosion of all things electronic, especially phones and e-mail, it would by near to impossible to lock yourself in a room to quietly work without interruption. Annoyances and interruptions seep through the walls, stand staring at you from in front of your desk, or nag at you from off stage. But those same technologies of interruption can also supply us with freedom and flexibility that or forebears did not enjoy.
This might motivate you to try even harder to control the environmental variables that encapsulate you, but that would sap your attention and drain your physical and mental strength and creative reserves. And there, too, is potentially something worse at play—becoming so focused on the forms of creative behavior (what, when, where, how) of your writing that you lose sight of the quality and substance of your creative efforts. You can’t become Mark Twain by copying Twain’s behaviors. You’d be better off searching for some hidden magical meanings or secrets contained in his prolific output. Good luck with that, because what you won’t find is any cause and effect linkage there either; they’re just habits and behaviors that resulted from managing the variables that surrounded him. Sure, you could plan an around-the-world voyage to magically enhance the level and quality of your output, but Twain did most of his travels after he had “arrived” at his successes and fame and had money in the bank; otherwise he probably could not have afforded the travels.
But back to basics: “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is the product of observation of the environment in which Twain found himself. It’s a creative interpretation of a reality, not the reality. Observe, relate, interpret, create, act. Those are the key verbs to keep in mind wherever a writer finds him or herself—in bed, in an office, or tucked on the farthest back seat of a bus or train. There you find and mine the creative nuggets hiding in what you see, and read, and hear.
Where you are and the pressures under which you live and function as you write, will impact your writing. That’s obvious logic. The choices in how you incorporate the encountered pressures, will most certainly impact to some extent the nature and content of your literary output. They are the realities of your life. You are floating in them. They permeate you. Rather than trying to alter them, you might be better advised to learn how to best maneuver around or through them . . . preferably with good humor a great observational skills . . . and grab onto a few you can use in your writing. They constitute the raw materials that a writer needs to deliver an entertaining interpretation of life and the characters that inhabit it. But to write about all of it requires a place insulated from it—a sort of observation deck above the fray from which you can observe, assess, and interpret.
All this is why it’s vitally important for the writer to be able to differentiate between existent realities from the environment in which they operate and how to interpret all of it. It’s not always as easy to change your environment as to close the door to shut out the noise. If you cannot control the noise (surroundings), then you must learn to control your reaction(s) to it all. By doing that, you gain an ability to control reality to serve your literary needs. Esoteric? Perhaps, but a writer must practice reflection about the world around him from a safe and secure observation point. That is where the power of creativity hides.
Some hints to find it:
- Yoga or some similar relaxation technique.
- Noise cancelling software—they make it.
- Taking a break to regain you mental strength, agility, and flexibility. After all you are playing a game of control and that can be tiring. A basketball player sits on the sidelines to regain his strength and focus. You might try walking around the block.
- Learn to ignore all things extraneous.
- Replace it. The only radio station I listen to is KDFC-FM, a San Francisco station that plays classical music in a non-stuffed shirt way. It blends into and commands my background. So many media are delivered to us by high-volume announcers that you find yourself in a level of elevated angst without knowing why.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but likely you don’t think about. You’re too busy being busy to invest in occasional self-assessment. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the need to step back, look around, and regain your perspective. Rather than becoming disgruntled, you might learn to gruntle yourself! There’s a thought! A movem