Writers Are People, Too

Preparing to write this month's column, I was thinking about books, and writers, and writing, and I recalled hearing, once upon a time, that some famous writer (was it Fitzgerald? Salinger?) would map his story out, character by character, on index cards which were affixed to the wall. Then he would cross reference each characters arc to keep his story in synch.

And I started wondering what other quirks writers exhibit - admittedly, they are an odd breed.

So, here are just a few of the more interesting ones.

Speaking of index cards (as we were a couple of paragraphs back), Vladimir Nabokov also wrote his stories on index cards - except he wrote them standing up at a lectern. Reportedly in his socks.  Kurt Vonnegut supposedly wrote only one page at a time, editing each page until he was satisfied, before moving on to the next. And Issac Asimov simply wrote as the story came to him - straight out, no stopping.

Hemingway wrote 500 words a day; Stephen King writes 10 pages per day, every day; Trollope wrote 250 words per quarter of an hour between 5.30 and 8.30 in the morning;

As for clothing, blogger Judy Reeves has compiled a list of some of the odder sartorial tastes of men of letters:

  • Edgar Allen Poe always wore black;
  • Emily Dickinson only white;
  • Mark Twain also attired himself in white, with shirts he personally designed that buttoned down the back;
  • Carl Sandburg sported a green eyeshade when he worked;
  • E. B. White tied on a surgical mask in public to protect himself from contagious disease;
  • John Cheever donned his only suit of clothes when he went to his studio in the morning. He hung it up while he worked in his underwear, then dressed and returned home;
  • Allan Gurganus said he wears a moving man's zip-up uniform because "I perspire so freely that I sweat my way through the fiction;"
  • Forest McDonald is said to write history on his rural Alabama porch - naked. 

Gayle Bradeis likes to open her dictionary to a word she's never heard of before, then write a poem around it to kick her muse into gear.

Before Alice Hoffman made it, she would get up at 5am so she could get a few hours writing time in before she had to get her family up and off, and herself to work. Popular author Jodi Picault still starts her writing day at about 5am, but winds up mid-afternoon - but then, look at how many books she's written!

Jeanne Birdsall, on the other hand, sits down to write in the late afternoon or early evening, and naps when writer's block strikes.

Odd personal habits? Writers definitely have them:
  • Louisa May Alcott was addicted to opium.
  • W. B. Yeats paid surgeons to transplant monkey glands into his scrotum (to help in the days before Viagra)
  • J. R. R. Tolkien slept in his bathroom (because he snored so loudly!)
  • Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership before hitting the big time.
  • Gustave Flaubert kept his lover's slippers and mittens in his desk drawer.
  • Alexandre Dumas, the elder, ate an apple at 7 a.m. each morning under the Arc de Triomphe.
  • Bjarati Mukherjee will not leave the house if someone sneezes just as she's getting ready to leave and she doesn't cut her nails on certain days of the week.
  • Charles Dickens walked twenty to thirty miles a day. He also placed objects on his desk in exactly the same position, always set his bed in north/south directions, and touched certain objects three times for luck.
  • Hans Christian Andersen put a sign next to his bed that read "I am not really dead."

From the blog of writer Jurgen Wolff  (http://timetowrite.blogs.com/weblog/2009/12/the-strange-habits-of-three-successful-writers.html)we learn:

"Dan Brown works seven days a week, starting at 4am. He uses an hourglass as a timer and every hour gets up and does some push-ups, sit-ups, and stretches. He wrote the outline for the DaVinci Code in a laundry room, sitting on a lawn chair and using an ironing board as a desk (I think it’s pretty safe to say he doesn’t see the inside of many laundry rooms anymore.)

"Val McDermid starts at 10am but works into the night. She wrote a draft of her latest book in only two months. She told The Writer magazine that working this way is “…not something any sensible person should do. But this is the way it’s happening now.” She also doesn’t like anybody to see works in progress. When she’s happy with a manuscript it goes directly to her agent and editor.

"Margaret Atwood writes longhand to create a tree of characters and notes their birthdays and then uses those to cast their horoscopes. “You wouldn’t want your character to have the wrong horoscope any more than you would want them to have the wrong name,” she told the New York Times, possibly with tongue in cheek."

And finally this, from the blog Write to Done (http://writetodone.com/2008/09/04/learn-from-the-greats-7-writing-habits-of-amazing-writers/):

"Truman Capote. The author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” claimed to be a “completely horizontal author.” He said he had to write lying down, in bed or on a couch, with a cigarette and coffee. The coffee would switch to tea, then sherry, then martinis, as the day wore on. He wrote his first and second drafts in longhand, in pencil. And even his third draft, done on a typewriter, would be done in bed — with the typewriter balanced on his knees.

"Philip Roth. One of the greatest living American writers, Roth works standing up, pacing around as he thinks. He claimed to walk half a mile for every page he writes. He separates his work life from personal life, and doesn’t write where he lives — he has a studio built away from his house. He works at a lectern that doesn’t face the view of his studio window, to avoid distraction.

"James Joyce. In the pantheon of great writers of the last century, Joyce looms large. And while more prolific writers set themselves a word or page limit, Joyce prided himself in taking his time with each sentence. A famous story has a friend asking Joyce in the street if he’d had a good day writing. Yes, Joyce replied happily. How much had he written? Three sentences, Joyce told him."

All of which goes to show you don't have to be weird to be a writer, but it probably helps.


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