They say truth is stranger than fiction – well at least Mark Twain did and he for one had some weird writing habits, preferring to pen his literature lying down. But he wasn’t the only one.
In a 1957 Paris Review interview, Truman Capote is famously quoted as saying:
“I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”
Capote also had some less pragmatic habits. He would change hotel rooms if there was a 13 in the room’s phone number, he would never begin or end any of his work on a Friday and would only leave three cigarette butts in his ashtray – the others would go into his coat pocket.
Other writers were seemingly more practical
Many writers measure their output using a daily word quota. In Stephen King’s On Writing he reveals the importance of writing 2000 words a day and doing whatever it takes to reach it. Thomas Woolfe in his 1991 interview with the Paris Review said about his writing habits: “I use a typewriter. I set myself a quota — ten pages a day, triple-spaced, which means about eighteen hundred words. If I can finish that in three hours, then I’m through for the day. I just close up the lunch box and go home — that’s the way I think of it anyway. If it takes me twelve hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it.”
Jack London, William Golding, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Conan Doyle also used quantitative metrics to map their progress while others such as Flannery O’Connor measured success by butt-in-writing-chair time. During her two hour a day writing sessions, O’Connor faced the blank surface of her dresser to limit distractions.
In fact, writers often come up with creative methods to avoid distraction
My favourite way to minimise distraction was used by Victor Hugo when writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Facing a seemingly impossible deadline, Hugo put himself under self-imposed house arrest, locking away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside. He purchased himself a pot of ink, a grey shawl (the only outfit he was able to wear – even during the winter) and his only access to the outside world was through an open window where he watched the seasons change. He used the entire bottle of ink and finished the manuscript before the deadline.
Hugo wasn’t the only one partial to writing in the nude
Hemmingway was said to type naked and standing up, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed ‘air baths’ where he would sit nude in a cold room to write, while D.H. Lawrence is rumoured to have climbed mulberry trees in nothing more than his birthday suit before climbing down to begin his work.
Food for thought
While some writers found a lack of clothing set their creative minds free, others turned to food to fuel their muses. Agatha Christie munched on apples in the bathtub while nutting out murder plots, Faulkner drank a lot of whiskey, Voltaire’s vice was coffee while Vladimir Nabokov preferred molasses. Friedrich Schiller probably had the strangest habit of shutting himself in his writing room with rotten apples. According to his wife, the aroma inspired him and he “could not live or work without it.”
As a crazy dog lady I do empathise with writers who turn to their pets for inspiration but I doubt I would find creative solace by plucking fleas from Brielle’s back as Collette was said to do with her French bulldog. While we’re on the subject of eccentric pet people, renowned cat lover T.S. Elliot is said to have made visitors to his writing hideaway ask for him only as ‘The Captain’. When they went upstairs to see him his face would have been tinted green with powder in order to make him look cadaverous. More commonly though, writer’s taken with their pets immortalise them in literature as was the case with Dickens’ pet raven, Grip who appears in Barnaby Rudge. My favourite pet story though has to be that of Edgar Allan Poe, who believed his tabby cat, Catterina was his literary guardian and often balanced her on his shoulders while working.
And finally there were the colour coders
Virginia Woolf used different coloured inks with purple being her favourite – reserved for letters and manuscript drafts – while Charles Dickens preferred blue ink because it dried faster. Dickens – whether at home or away – changed his surroundings to suit his needs, requiring the same design of his study in each place with his travelling desk ornaments. Alexandre Dumas was fond of organisation as this quote from his most famous work, The Count of Monte Cristo suggests: “Order is the key to all problems.” He was also an aesthete, penning his articles on pink paper, poetry on yellow and fiction on a particular shade of blue. While he was exploring Eastern Europe he ran out of this paper and was convinced it made his work suffer.
So what does all this mean for you?
As Celia Blue Johnson states in her book Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors – from which this blog post was inspired – all these tales of writerly habits aren’t a formula for creating a work of art but rather that “the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.” If you’d like to read more about the strange habits of writers check out Celia Blue Johnson’s book Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors
What are some habits of famous authors that have stuck in your mind or influenced your process? Do you engage in any bizarre techniques to help you write? Let me know in the comments.