Famous Writers At Work

I have been interested in the writing habits of authors since studying the works of William Faulkner in college. In that class I learned that Faulkner wrote the outline for his book, The Fable, on his study’s walls in Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi. His wife was none too pleased; she had the walls repainted. Undeterred, Faulkner rewrote the notes and then shellacked the walls.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Tyler, has a meticulous writing process. She writes her novels longhand, on unlined paper, types the manuscript, and then does the re-writes in longhand. Tyler will also read the manuscript into a tape recorder, listening for anything that rings false.

Many writers use index cards to organize their thoughts on plot, setting, and character, but Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels, including Lolita, on index cards. If he wanted to change the order of the narration, Nabokov would shuffle the cards. A technique mystery writers need to take care in doing; you don’t want to reveal whodunit in chapter two.

Jack Kerouac, not wanting to waste time loading sheets of paper into his typewriter,  wrote On The Road on a 120-foot paper roll. Upon its completion, he brought his groundbreaking manuscript to his publisher and unfurled the scroll across his editor’s office floor. When the editor told Kerouac the scroll would need to be cut, the angered Beatnik refused and left. Another interesting fact about the scroll: The book’s original ending is missing from it. Like schoolchildren who don’t do their homework, Kerouac blamed a canine named Patchkee for the scroll’s ragged edge.

Mark Twain and Marcel Proust wrote while reclining in bed. Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf stood while writing their masterpieces. Charles Dickens was also a write-while-standing kind of guy. He must have had a pair of strong hamstrings; his novels are not known for their brevity (see Bleak House). I know, Dickens didn’t write his books all in one standing, but still…

Alexandre Dumas wrote fiction on blue paper, composed poetry on yellow paper, and penned articles on pink paper. Dickens used blue ink for its speed in drying. Lewis Carroll wrote with purple ink. Blue pencil and crayons helped James Joyce, who suffered from eye problems, to better see his writing.

Writers often set a daily word count goal for their work. This can lead either to a sense of accomplishment or despair, depending on whether you exceeded the mark or fell far short. Stephen King writes 2,000 words every day when he is working on a book. Raymond Chandler could write over 5,000 words a day. Joyce counted it a great day if he wrote but two perfect sentences.

Many authors have rooms in their homes they retreat to every day to write. Some, like Maya Angelou and Truman Capote, turned rented hotel rooms into work space. Agatha Christie ate apples and created her ingenious plots while soaking in the bathtub. George Bernard Shaw and Roald Dahl wrote in backyard sheds. Gertrude Stein’s favorite workplace was the driver’s seat of a Model T Ford.

So many different writing habits, and no one better than any of the others. It’s what works for the writer (but don’t try a roll of paper like Kerouac; most manuscripts are submitted electronically these days and scrolls are notoriously hard to email). So pick up your pen, pencil, iPad and go sit in your bathtub, favorite café, treehouse and write!



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