On a typical day, Hunter S. Thompson rose at 3 p.m. Throughout the day, he would consume at least four glasses of Chivas Regal, numerous cigarettes, two or three coffees, seven hits of cocaine, enough grass to “take the edge off,” two beers, two margaritas, two cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, tomatoes, coleslaw, taco salad, onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, a bean fritter, a snow cone, and some acid. By the time Thompson was ready to write, it would be midnight.
Honoré de Balzac’s writing routine went more like this: bed after eight in the evening, get up at two in the morning, work until eight, sleep from eight until nine thirty, work until four, occasionally go out for dinner. In comparison to Thompson, this seems almost normal – apart from the 50 cups of coffee Balzac drank to fuel his creativity.
To be fair, famous female writers have also subscribed to some questionable writing routines. The French novelist Marguerite Duras drank “every hour a glass of wine and in the morning Cognac after coffee,” and afterwards she wrote. “What is astonishing when I look back is how I managed to write.” Quite.
When we look at the routines of famous writers, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the formula to success is excess. If you’re lucky, like Thompson, you’ll live to the ripe old age of 68 and have some psychedelic stories to tell (if you can remember them all). If you’re unlucky, like Welsh alcoholic Dylan Thomas, you’ll keel over before your 40th birthday.
But of course, it doesn’t need to be like this. There are plenty of poets, playwrights, and novelists who prove that writing routines needn’t be a hazard to your health. Indeed, we can look to them for inspiration in creating a routine we can stick to.
Create a space
Do you dream of a shed like Roald Dahl’s to call your own? A large oak desk like Henry Miller’s? A library full of books like Rudyard Kipling’s? Here’s a secret – you don’t need it. In fact, you can train yourself to write anywhere. JK Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book in cafes around Edinburgh. “I can write anywhere,” boasts Ray Bradbury.
If you want to create a space of your own, all you need is something to write on. Make yourself comfortable, but not too comfortable. (Did writing lying down do anything for Proust’s posture?) Try to make your environment cheerful, unless, like Edith Sitwell, you find writing in an open coffin inspires you. And get outside if the mood strikes; write on a horse like Sir Walter Scott, if you must.
Start a ritual
Writer’s block doesn’t have to be part of the course. In fact, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, Seth Godin, and countless others don’t believe it even exists. “Cellists don’t have cellist block. Gardeners don’t have gardener’s block. TV hosts do not have TV host block. But writers have claimed all the blocks, and we think it’s a real thing,” says Gaiman.
Creating a ritual and repeating it each time you sit down to write will condition your brain to be creative on demand. Give yourself the permission to be wildly imaginative here. Watch the sun come into the day, like Toni Morrison. Feel free to take off all your clothes, like Victor Hugo. The most important thing about writing is that you do the writing.
Create a self-care routine
Self-medication does not equal self-care. Unlike Elizabeth Bishop, you don’t need to drink eau de cologne when you’ve exhausted your liquor cabinet. Nor, on occasion do you, like Ian Fleming need to polish off a bottle of gin a day. “Everything in moderation”, as Oscar Wilde might remind you.
Does long distance running inspire your writing, like it does Haruki Murakami? Then go for a run. Does a reward like eating a crisp apple in a warm bath inspire you to reach your word count, like it did Agatha Christie? Then do that too.
Do you set a daily word count? Have you given yourself a writing deadline? Or are you like Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, writing with no end in sight? (Perhaps it’s that terrible smoking habit, you should cut that out, too).
Stephen King writes ten pages without fail, even on holidays. Hemingway managed to fit in 500 words a day in between fishing and womanizing. If they can do it, you can write for at least an hour a day.
Focus, focus, focus
Every published author has overcome a maddening distraction. Whether it be the bustling city, or your agent repeatedly chasing your deadline. As Winston Churchill put it, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”
In the age of the internet, how can you shut out all those lovely diversions? Perhaps, like Maya Angelou, you could write in the isolation of a hotel room with all the pictures removed from the walls. Maybe, like Nathan Englander, you could turn off your cell phone, or maybe you could simply turn off the WiFi, like Zadie Smith.
Debrief, improve, repeat
No writer perfected their routine on the first day. As E. B. White reminds us, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Treating writing more like work and less like a hobby can be beneficial. So give yourself a review. What’s working, what’s not working, what can you improve?
Do you find that getting up an hour earlier is killing you? Then stop it. Are your habits looking ever so slightly like Hunter S. Thompson, Balzac, or Duras’s? Then perhaps it’s time to review your choices.
Beg, borrow, & steal
So there we have it. You might be writing your first novel, looking to improve your style, or simply just curious to see how famous authors work their magic. Sadly, there’s no silver bullet – but if you’re looking to create a routine, then taking tips from the greats is an excellent place to start.
But do so with your health in mind. Living fast and dying young seems quite poetic, but it’s somewhat limiting to your literary career.
Emma Bullen is a writer and content strategist with 15 years of experience in print, web, and mobile publishing. British by birth and Canadian by residence, she is passionate about learning, storytelling—and em dashes.
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