The Habits of Highly Effective Writers

It's a cliche even to mention this, but at book signings the two cliche questions are: How do you write? and When do you write?

I couldn't care less whether a writer uses a computer, a quill or a typewriter so ancient that a special assistant must be hired in order to track down replacement parts, but I'm desperate to know how a writer fits such a solitary activity into the hurly-burly of ordinary life. At times, it seems that the only people who find the time to write are childless folks, with stay-at-home spouses, doting servants, and an unstoppable urge to wake up at 4:30 a.m. So I'm out of luck.

Not so, I discovered at Daily Routines, a blog that scans interviews, profiles, biographies, and the like to report how "interesting people organize their days." For instance, the blog reports (via a 1965 interview in the Paris Review) that Simone de Beauvoir didn't begin her writing day until 10 am. And she took afternoons off! And she vacationed for two or three months a year! Very civilized.

Will Self threatens to become a cliche himself by getting up early, using a manual typewriter and smoking a pipe, though he gets points for drinking "strange infusions" brewed on a stove on his desk.

And W.H. Auden, well, I guess the best that can be said for him was that he aspired to maximum efficiency. According to a piece that John Lanchester wrote in the New Yorker in 2003, Auden was "the finest writer to ever use speed systematically."

He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a "labor-saving device" in the "mental kitchen," with the important proviso that "these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down."

Indeed. I think I might just work on waking up earlier.

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  March 9, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Rachel Hartigan Shea
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Writers, including great writers, vary widely of course. Some are disciplined like Trollope (getting up early every morning and writing before going to work at the Post Office); some are obsessive like Balzac (fueling himself with gallons of coffee during his overnight writing binges); and then there's Simenon (holing himself up in a hotel room for a week or so as he hammered out a novel--rewarding himself at the end of each writing-day by calling in hookers).

Faulkner I've always found the most amusing, famously saying he only wrote because he couldn't stay drunk all the time. On other occasions he said he wrote for the same reason that people wrote "KILROY WAS HERE" in restrooms. James Salter liked that Faulkner would sometimes wake fitfully and scrawl on his bedroom walls.

I do wish Faulkner would have had modern technology. I read once of him copying an early collection of his poems for a week or so (making seven copies or something). (Faulkner used to say--with his usual humor--that he considered himself a "failed poet.") I think of him hammering away on his old Remington or Underwood. How much more might he have added to that already marvelous oeuvre had he had our modern writing environment?

I read that during his stint at the University of Virginia, some student asked him something--perhaps how Uncle Buck and Miss Sophonsiba, of all people, could have ended up married--Faulkner's eyes twinkled as he reflected for a moment: "You know, I never did get around to writing that."

Also in those Charlotteville days a student asked him: "Do you ever jump up in the middle of the night and write something down?" Faulkner said, "Oh yes. Yes, lots of times. I've never had any order. I have heard of people that can set aside so many hours a day--or to write so many words a day, but that has never been for me. I like to write when it's hot and then I quit and rest and then get at it again. And sometimes, fourteen or sixteen hours a day, and then sometimes I won't write a word for fourteen or sixteen days."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | March 10, 2009 1:48 PM

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