The Right Writing Routine
How to find the writing regimen that works for you.A writer who waits for the ideal conditions under which to write will die without putting a word on paper,” E.B. White said in a Paris Review interview. He chose to write in his living room, surrounded by “noise and fuss,” adding: “In consequence, the members of my family never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go.”
Ernest Hemingway famously wrote standing up at his desk. In an interview with George Plimpton for the Paris Review, he said he started “every morning as soon after first light as possible,” when “there is no one to disturb you.” He added, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.... It’s the wait until the next day that’s hard to get through.”
Then there’s Mark Twain, who often wrote lying down, and Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, who says he likes to hang upside down when he gets writer’s block.
Francesca Stanfill, author of Wakefield Hall, told me that “I feel unmoored without a routine, and am always happiest when I am disciplined. On my desk I have a framed quotation from Picasso: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ ” Stanfill leaves her seventh-floor apartment early in the morning for a nearby barre class and then heads to her tiny ground-floor office. “I call this sacrosanct space the ‘cave,’ ” she says. “It is lined with my research books, dictionaries, inspiring quotes, and maps pertinent to the novel I’m writing. On a good day I work five to six hours.” Sitting on her desk is her favorite coffee mug, inscribed with a quote from Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”
In contrast, Help for the Haunted author John Searles finds routine potentially deadening. He likes to keep it loose. “My writing rituals change all the time,” he says. “Sometimes I write early in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes longhand, sometimes clacking away on my laptop. I always get a lot done on airplanes. What works for me is to mix it up so I don’t get bored.”The poet Brendan Constantine, author of Dementia, My Darling, has a similar take. “I’ve never had a routine,” he says. “My career has been carved out in stolen hours. I write on phones, tablets, laptops, on notebooks balanced on the armrests of planes, trains, and cars. I write at large. When I was first discovering the poems for my third collection, Calamity Joe, I’d just bought a rabbit costume on sale from a theatrical wholesaler. It was beautifully made and on sale for $100. I figured you never know when you might need one. Coincidentally, the themes I was exploring, more and more, began to involve laboratory animals.”
Constantine adds: “One night, late, I put on the costume and started to write. Pages piled up until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Two days later, I did it again and wrote until my hands cramped and I’d sweated through an inch of Naugahyde. Something about that silly costume did the trick, and I wore it periodically until the poems became a book.”
The self-publishing guru and adventure travel writer Carla King also takes her inspiration from varied sources. “My books are created from dispatches sent to the Internet, columns I’ve written, or courses I’ve taught,” she says. “I organize the materials in a burst of energy over a single weekend, followed by four to six weeks of intense energy to fill in the gaps and create the narrative. This fruitful phase is followed by a ridiculously long and unproductive process of editing and nitpicking, during which time I tell myself repeatedly to just stop it and publish.”
Barbara Abercrombie, the author of A Year of Writing Dangerously, looks at it practically. “Writing is my job,” she says. “When I have a deadline for a book, I have a strict routine: get up early, exercise, and get to my desk, six days a week. Right now I’m finding my way into a new book and my routine is a little looser, but I write something, anything, every single day. My muse is my dog, Nelson, who thinks everything I write is perfect.”
Clearly, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to writers’ routines. But there is one thing that most writers agree on: get something down on paper every day. What seems horrible today may seem brilliant tomorrow. As the bestselling author Jodi Picoult told NPR in 2006, “You can’t edit a blank page.” Just sit down and write.
Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.