Writers at Work: The Things They’ll Do To Help Find the Right Words

By Jack Limpert

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“I’ve got to be puffing and sipping,” Truman Capote said.

A cartoon in this week’s New Yorker, titled “A Visit from the Procrastination Muse,” shows a young woman sitting at a computer. Behind her the muse is saying:

“You look tired.Why don’t you take a nap?”

“You’ll think so much clearer after a run.”

“Don’t forget to call your mother.”

“You need to do the dishes right now.”

I emailed it to daughter Ann, a writer, with the subject line, “Is this you?” She responded, “You know me so well.”

I’m going to suggest she pick up a copy of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. The author, Mason Currey, researched or asked lots of writers how they dealt with the procrastination muse and many talked about how they prepared themselves to write. The poet W.H. Auden believed that a life of almost military precision was essential to creativity. He said, “The surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time,” and many successful authors follow a routine.

But every writer is different. Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley: “Her favorite technique to ease herself into the right frame of mind for work was to sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible.”

Truman Capote also liked to write in bed: “I am a completely horizontal author,” Capote told The Paris Review. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out 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.”

When to write? Novelist Ann Beattie says she works best at night. “I really believe in day people and night people.” Ernest Hemingway: “When working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.”

Coffee is a part of the daily routines of many writers, with Balzac famous for drinking up to 50 cups of black coffee a day as he wrote from 1 a.m. to 8 a.m., took a 90-minute nap, and then wrote from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. He ate a light dinner at 6 p.m., then went to bed until getting up at 1 a.m.

Sugar? The filmmaker David Lynch: “For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar….I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas!”

Novelist John Cheever used alcohol. By age 50 he would write for only a few hours before pouring himself a few “scoops” of gin. In his journal he recorded his struggle with alcoholism and his attempts to “achieve some equilibrium between writing and living.” F. Scott Fitzgerald thought alcohol was essential to his creative process. He also preferred straight gin–he said it worked fast and was harder to detect on one’s breath. He was 44 when he died.

Graham Greene, while writing his thrillers in the morning and working on what he thought was his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, in the afternoon, took Benzedrine, an amphetamine, twice daily.

Most writers take healthier approaches, with long walks a good time to think. Woody Allen, the writer and filmmaker: “I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy….If go up and take a shower, it’s a big help. So I’ll sometimes take an extra shower.”

The physician and author Oliver Sacks: “Swimming gets me going as nothing else can.”

Author Stephen King on unlocking your mind: “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule…exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream.”

When Jonathan Franzen was having trouble with his 2001 novel, The Corrections, “he would seal himself up in his Harlem studio with the blinds drawn and the lights off, sitting before the computer keyboard wearing earplugs, earmuffs, and a blindfold.”

The strangest of all was Thomas Wolfe: “One evening in 1930, as he was struggling to recapture the feverish spirit that had fueled his first book, Look Homeward Angel, Wolfe decided to give up on an uninspired hour of work and get undressed for bed. But standing naked…Wolfe found that his weariness has suddenly evaporated and that he was eager to write again….Looking back, Wolfe tried to figure out what had prompted the sudden change—and realized that…he had been unconsciously fondling his genitals…”
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As an editor, I often talked with writers about their work but rarely about their work habits. Back before newsrooms became smoke-free, lots of writers said if they couldn’t smoke, they couldn’t write. Most staff writers closed the door when they wrote. Some liked to write to music. One wrote only on weekends when no one else was in the office. Another rigged his computer so he could write standing up. Several claimed they did their best work sitting in coffee shops. Whatever works.
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A writer’s block story: We had a very smart staff writer who couldn’t meet deadlines, who sometimes couldn’t write at all. One day he came in and said, “Jack, I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist and we’ve figured it out. It’s either fear of success or fear of failure.” He then moved to New York City and became a very successful editor.

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