Authors at Home

Whether writing in bed, in the bathtub, standing up, or in the nude, some of the world’s most famous authors adopted strange habits in search of their muse.

Story by Chip R. Bell and Betty Liedtke

“I became insane,” wrote author Edgar Allen Poe, “with long intervals for horrible sanity.” Poe comically captures the sentiment of many authors under the creativity-inducing spell of their muse. Authors are artists and artists can be strange, odd, and sometimes downright weird. Their playground is a world of magic and imagination where anything is possible. Their struggle is to find and open the door behind which a miracle is hiding.

Annie Dillard poignantly described the treasure-hunting process this way: “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you.” The feeling of creation is so exhilarating and intoxicating, writers vow to do whatever it takes to make it happen again. And some writers go to great extents to find the door to the miracle.

Food and drink factored prominently in many famous writers’ rituals. Mystery writer Agatha Christie ate apples while in the bathtub as she examined photographs of murders and worked through the complex plots of her who-dun-its. Apples were also important to Friedrich Schiller, a German poet and historian. Schiller often put apples in his desk drawer and left them there to rot, claiming the smell of rotting apples inspired him.   Flannery O’Connor crunched vanilla wafers and drank coffee spiked with coke as she wrote.

Alcohol and caffeine fueled many writers in their work. Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist and playwright, is said to have consumed up to 50 cups of black coffee a day. We’ll leave it to you to decide whether the caffeine contributed more to his prolific output of more than 100 novels, plays, essays, and short stories, or to his premature death at age 51 due to gangrene related to congestive heart failure.

The names of famous writers who were alcoholics would take up more space than a magazine article. But the list would include many noteworthy names, such as William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway – four American authors who have each been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hemingway claimed that he drank “to make other people more interesting.” Brendan Behan, who is considered one of the greatest Irish writers of all time, described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem.”

J. D Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” wrote in the nude. George Orwell, Mark Twain, and Truman Capote were among the prolific authors who regularly wrote while lying in bed.

Writing while standing up was the preference of English writer and feminist Virginia Woolf, and French playwright and philosopher Albert Camus, as well as Hemingway. Woolf liked to write at a standing desk so she could stretch back to view her writing from a different angle. Hemingway’s routine was to wake up at dawn, write at a fast and furious pace for several hours while standing at his typewriter, and then move on to a night of drinking.

Those who prefer to “get away from it all” in order to concentrate on their writing in solitude might follow the example of American poet Maya Angelou. Angelou regularly left her home early in the morning to go to a sparsely furnished hotel room, taking only a few supplies, such as a legal pad, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and her Bible.

Many writers had specific tools of the trade they insisted on. Some were a matter of practicality, others leaned more to the superstitious. James Joyce, the author of “Ulysses,”wrote in crayon because his eyesight was extremely poor, and crayons made it easier for him to read his own writing. John Steinbeck wrote his first drafts in pencil, and always kept exactly two dozen perfectly sharpened pencils within reach. We don’t know how many pencils he went through on the way to writing classics such as “East of Eden,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “Of Mice and Men,”but his Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Fiction, attest to the fact that his writing was as sharp as his pencils.

These stories barely scratch the surface of the rituals and techniques writers use to create the masterpieces we all enjoy reading. But before you decide to follow in their footsteps by adopting their writing habits as your own, remember the words of advice from English novelist and short story writer Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

The bottom line is this: If writing is your dream or your passion, the best techniques and rituals to follow are the ones that will work for you. Happy writing.

  • For information on upcoming events and workshops at the Georgia Writers Museum in downtown Eatonton, visit georgiawritersmuseum.com.

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