Writers at Work: Ways to Get the Words Flowing

By Ray E. Boomhower

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Joan Didion: “I need an hour alone before dinner…to go over what I’ve done that day.”

“I asked Ring Lardner the other day how he writes his short stories, and he said he wrote a few widely separated words or phrases on a piece of paper and then went back and filled in the spaces.”—Harold Ross

“A writer should never install himself before a panorama, however grandiose it may be. . . .Like Saint Jerome, a writer should work in his cell.”—Blaise Cendrars

“So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. . . .My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.”—William Faulkner

“First thing I do is transcribe my notes. This is not an altogether mindless process. You’re copying your notes, and you get ideas. You get ideas for structure. You get ideas for wording, phraseologies. As I’m typing, if something crosses my mind I flip it in there. When I’m done, certain ideas have accrued and have been added to it, like iron filings drawn to a magnet.”—John McPhee

“When I am 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.”—Ernest Hemingway

“My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.”—Ray Bradbury

“The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace.”—Jack Kerouac

“I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.”—Susan Sontag

“A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary.”—Don DeLillo

“I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.”—E. B. White

“I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages.”—Joan Didion
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Ray E. Boomhower is interim senior director at the Indiana Historical Society Press, where he edits the quarterly popular history magazine Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. He has also written biographies on such notable Hoosiers as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, and May Wright Sewall. His book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog was recently published by Indiana University Press. He is now working on a book about the World War II writing from the Pacific by Time and Life journalist Robert Sherrod.

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