Writer’s Crazy Working Habits

“When writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out ‘Is he as crazy as I am?’” – Joyce Carol Oates

I love that quote because it’s so true – it is what we want to know. It’s the answer to the one question that – if we were given the opportunity – we’d ask. We wouldn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas from?”, we wouldn’t ask for tips on how to write or cure writer’s block or anything like that, we’d ask (if we could ask the question without sounding crazy in the first place): do you, like I, ever feel sometimes that maybe you’re slightly insane?

When I read interviews with writers, I’m not interested in how they come up with their ideas or their theories on fiction as much as I am interested in what their working day is. There are technical questions, of course. Do they write with pen and paper or on a computer? Or old school on a typewriter? Or by opening a vein and scrawling in blood on the walls of their room? (Oh. Just me then.)

But there are other – less technical – questions also. Do they write at night or in the morning? How long do they write for? How many words a day? Are they crazy party animals or solitary hermits? I love reading the writer’s work, but oftentimes when I read about a writer I’m more interested in their personality than hearing them talk about their work. Because – while there are plenty of interviews about their new book or their thoughts on fiction – interviews with writers about their day-to-day lives or their own personalities are very scarce. It’s always why they do the work, rarely how they do the work.

In a very interesting article here http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/32/pendle.php, George Pendle tells us that

“Such disparate authors as Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, and Fernando Pessoa all wrote standing up, while Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, and Truman Capote [wrote] lying down.”

Indeed, there was even a literary spat about it. Flaubert claimed that, “One cannot think and write except when seated” to which Nietzsche responded, “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” I remember reading somewhere else that Benjamin Franklin wrote in the bath and that Edgar Allen Poe wrote with a cat sitting on his shoulder. And, most bizarrely, Robin Moore, author of The Green Berets, also wrote standing up. But naked. Which is a novel way of approaching it but probably not very feasible in the winter in Ireland.

Now all of this might seem rather trivial to some, but the fact is we’re writers. We’ve read all the writing advice and the theories on literature. But we also have to sit alone in a room and face a blank page or computer screen. And it’s at that point that you want to know if there are others like you out there and – if so – how do they do it? What is their writing day like? And, indeed, what is their writing room like?

I don’t know if Joyce Carol Oates has ever seen the regular feature “Writer’s Rooms” on the Guardian’s website (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/writersrooms) but if she has, it’s probably No. 1 in her “Favourites” folder. This has to be the ultimate in writing voyeurism: actually getting to SEE where your favourite writers do their work. There are too many writers to mention on the site but I’ll leave you with a sneak peek of one. This is Seamus Heaney’s writing room:

I’d love to hear about any crazy writing habits or routine you have in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the box on the left hand sidebar. Thanks!

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36 comments on “Writer’s Crazy Working Habits

  1. Junying Kirk says:

    Great blog, Derek.

    No, I’m not insane, too sensible and normal to be interesting :-)! I just sit in front of my computer and start typing – but my room is messy and I often need a bit of music on the background and I sometimes forgot to eat until my stomach complains too loudly to ignore :-)!

  2. Timely post, Derek. In between stints as a party animal I’m a hermit who writes. What a life, eh?

  3. philsrogers says:

    I’ve been thinking about writing naked but I do it in the morning on the train!

  4. AHA! You KNOW you want to try that standing up naked writing thing. Don’t be all whiny about the cold Irish weather, now! I am a sitter myself. I start off writing in a spiral notebook and post-it notes. My best writing time begins at 4am. How can one not be a bit insane with stories flying around your head when you are suppose to be taking care of regular life things? I wouldn’t trade it for anything :)

  5. Moi? Have crazy writer habits?

    No!

    Just because I write random notes in various notebooks and print off reams of paper to fill my study and annoy my wife with the mess doesn’t mean I have any strange writing habits at all!

  6. Great post Derek! And I think it gels with many creative processes. Those of us involved in them probably listened and read about all the ways artists (whatever form they’re working in) get their ideas ect. when we first thought of doing it ourselves but, as you say, as time passes we know the answer to that kind of question because we’re doing it ourselves. And it’s the almost mundane, practical stuff we want to know about later.

    btw did you mean ‘Butt naked’? ;-)

  7. alisonwells says:

    That is such a clean room. I write best in the morning with the sun coming through the window and it’s quiet which is why I haven’t had anything (long) published yet. I recently got a new baby – my purple netbook, now I write where the fancy takes me. I spent many years with paper, pencil and notebooks lying on my bed and tactile is nice. I think its easy to find reasons why the conditions aren’t quite right. Sometimes a story takes you by surprise and that’s when you need those shower tablet things.

  8. Valerie says:

    I write firstly at the laptop and try very hard to ignore the mounting pile of ironing that faces me at the end of the table. I dont have a room yet so i write in my living room at the table whenever i can but i like it to be completely quiet, no TV, no music.. just me and my thoughts. I do find that i walk around alot. I will type something, reread it and then walk around the room or into the kitchen around the island in there and back again, thinking about the next sentence or sentences. I will type this and im up again. Im wearing out alot of shoes and slippers but this way works for me. If I am writing something scary, I try to do that with as little light as possible but then I run into problems with the walking around the room.. So walking is my thing Derek…

  9. I write best when I’m sitting in my jacuzzi in the garden, completely naked, with rain pelting down on the shelter above my head. If there’s thunder, even better, and lightening is a rare bonus.

    I love writing in the dead of night when the world is asleep and there isn’t a sound. I need to eat my body weight in chocolate and drink buckets of tea through the night to keep me awake and inspired. Clothes are very important too – only the comfiest of granny pyjamas will do!

    My best writing is done while standing on one foot in a darkened room. It’s really important to have a shelf to put the laptop at eye-level. It helps if I’m wearing a snorkel, but not always necessary. It’s very important that only words are written when I exhale – writing while inhaling never works.

    Only one of the above is true. That is all.

  10. Louise says:

    Sometimes if I’m starting a new project, I move location, not to another house or country, just to another room. It as if I want to trick my mind that I have changed character – nutty of course – but true!

  11. Very entertaining read. I mostly write on my lunch break at work, hunched over my netbook and typing at key-melting speed until my hour is up.

    Otherwise I write sitting on the couch, going through mug after mug of camomile and spiced apple tea :)

    Nothing very interesting but it works for me!

  12. Maggie says:

    Great post Derek., Laughed a lot especially about Robin Moore. Recognised my own thoughts about curiosity of how other people prepare themselves to get into the zone. I get ideas at work, scribble a précis in a note pad. Type it up on the laptop when I get home, then decide it still isn’t good enough :)

  13. Hmm. Heaney’s room looks like heaven. I drive past his house most days and I reckon this room is in the converted attic and there’s a window overlooking Sandymount strand.

    On the other side of the railway tracks, I write in a half-converted garage early in the morning or late at night. In between times, I write on the move – in the car, in the office, here, there and everywhere. The best writing I ever do is in my head. The pity of it is I can never get to a page / computer in time to get it down before I forget.

    C.x

  14. Aw man! Seamus Heaney has a kick a** room!

    We all have our habits and best ways to work. Best not to try and dwell on how others work because it may make you feel worse about yourself. I tried to stop comparing after reading several writers say they wake up EARLY to write. EARLY!

    Baby steps…

  15. Interesting post! I write standing up, sitting, lying down, in the pool… Sometimes I use a notebook and other times the computer. I love to hear about others’ writing habits/habitats. I could never sit in public and write unless it was quiet, although I might get ideas while out and about (and often do).

  16. I’m all over the place on my habits. Sometimes I write at my desk in my office, sometimes my bed with the dog on my legs – right now I’m on the couch with the dog right next to me. I do get my best ideas, however, while walking or listening to music in the car. I, also, am someone who figures things out while I’m actually writing. There are many times when I don’t know what the heck I’m going to blog about and just make myself sit down and write whatever and usually I figure it out after a few minutes. Also, while blogging I listen to music. While working on my novels, I need complete silence. So there- I am definitely crazy.

  17. How fascinating and fun. I feel so ordinary — writing at conventional times, on my laptop or a notepad by my bed, fully clothed.

    Great to discover your blog. I’m tweeting this.

  18. Hi Derek, fascinating blog, loved it. Although I do write short stories, essays, bit of poetry I really don’t consider myself a writer, to me it’s just a hobby that I do when the mood takes me. If I was to get serious about it, I suppose I might put a bit more effort into it, but for now I’m happy to potter ( not Harry Potter, alas LOL) Best wishes, keep up the good work, Margaret xx

  19. Yep. Crazy is what it’s all about. The best reward is finding an incredibly successful writer whose routine is similar to your own. That’s vindication with a capital V and if you share the info with your family and friends, they’ll leave you alone for a while.

    That’s the goal. Crazy and left alone.

    I piss my day away, pretending to write, but can only do real work at night after everyone else is asleep, when the electricity in the air is all mine. The ghosts have no one else to talk to and must give their attention only to me.

    TMI?
    Lesli Muir Lytle

  20. Well… Let’s see. I write while seated. In the morning, in the evening, even sometimes at night. I write at work, I write at home, I write on my phone and my ipad, but preferably, my laptop.

    My cats take naps while I write and they stay far away from me.

    Here you go.

  21. Yes, you’re quite right, I did enjoy that post. And you’re also quite right in that I am insatiably hungry to read about other writers’ days – where/how/when they write. It’s fascinating, and inspiring. It’s probably why my favourite writing book is Alison Baverstock’s ‘Is there a book in you?’!

  22. Catie Rhodes says:

    I have to have a keyboard and a screen. I can’t write fiction longhand. I can make outlines in longhand, but I can’t make them on a keyboard. I often listen to opera while I write. I listen to work-in-progress appropriate rock-n-roll as I edit. Coffee stimulates creativity for me. I think cigarettes would help even more, but I haven’t had one in years. :D

  23. I freely admit I am insane. I had a sign that said ‘I don’t suffer from insanity I enjoy every minute of it’. Of course, I know I am a strange personality type, I have the personality tests to prove it. Scarily, I am even left of centre for that personality type. Waaaay left of centre.

    I do most of my writing on the train, wrestling a netbook to stay on my lap as we jounce over the tracks. It’s a one hour trip each way, and it’s the best two hours a day I have to write. It’s either early in the morning, so I’m bright-eyed and bushy tailed, or I have just left work, so I’m high on that end of the working day buzz.

    Until I bought my netbook and started writing on the train, I’d written nothing for years. I didn’t have the time. I had a toddler who thinks keyboards are great fun and that mummy should be paying attention to her and nothing but her.

    My netbook changed my writing life. I love my netbook. Nice netbook…. *stroke stroke*

  24. Craig Hart says:

    Yep. Twain wrote in bed…while smoking his 20-30 cigars per day. Personally, I like writing out on the patio (when weather permits) with a drink on one side of the laptop and a fine cigar on the other. Otherwise, I prefer dictating to my trained monkey.

  25. Ashley Nixon says:

    It doesn’t matter as long as I have music! Or a boring class. :/ *cough* art history *cough* :/

  26. @EvangelinaJo says:

    I agree. I’ve always been interested in how others write. Especially, are they as crazy as me? Lol. Think you left out entire topic of our invisible friends that talk to us! Lol. (the characters of our books) can u get them out of your head? Or, like me, do they show up whenever they feel like it…even if you don’t!!! Thx for a great blog. : )

  27. isitthattime says:

    Well, after pacing talking to myself in random statements, I sometimes put the odd sentence in the notes part of my phone. Then I look for photos that will fit in or add to the post…this can take ages as I’m a fussy mare.
    Then, I sit in bed, drink on one side, dog on the other & laptop in lap. I have a weird habit of every so often gesturing like I’m conducting an orchestra because the words come as I would say them. I realise this is mental. I conduct through the whole thing, check it a million times, then shut my eyes and press ‘publish’.
    This is the same every morning…..if I have to write at night…it can’t be at a sociable time…it has to hurt with the strain of the early hours attacking my eyes. I still conduct though.
    I enjoyed this post…thank you.

  28. […] keep your writing engine running. All writers are crazy in our own way, so Derek Flynn delves into writers’ crazy working habits, and Dina Santorelli reminds us that the important thing is to own your writing […]

  29. Liza says:

    I can only write things that travel straight from my head to my fingertips. In other words, I cannot speak into a microphone to capture my thoughts. If I try, it’s like trying to remember a dream.

  30. Orla says:

    Great post, Derek. I write in a room that is half children’s play room, half home office. When I open the door in the mornings, there are sometimes bits of mutilated Barbies on my keyboard and the paper from the printer has often been used for multicoloured scribblings. I guess that is inspiration of a sort?!

    Heaney’s room is suspiciously orderly. I bet he tidied it up just before the photo. :-)

  31. Mari says:

    I write in absolute silence in my office and only after I have mapped the whole book out. I go through several stages to get the story down: one pager, four page synopsis, twelve to fifteen page treatment and some character bios. I learned to do this writing screenplays. My ideas come from everywhere, conversations, newspaper articles, experiences I’ve had (I will never EVER confirm or deny which ones) but mostly just from my sick and twisted imagination. I cannot write in my PJs, so I get ready as if going out: yes, hair, makeup, the lot. You notice I didn’t mention clothes! I don’t need any … bus fare because my office is just upstairs – which is great because I’m skint most if the time. If I get stuck, I walk. I think best when I’m walking. I have a dictaphone so it’s not unusual for villagers where I live to see me talking to my sleeve. I have tried telling them I’m not weird but they don’t always believe me. So far, I’ve only been sectioned twice. That is all. Whatever you do, don’t publish this. :-)

  32. […] “Writers’ Crazy Work Habits,” Derek Flynn, Rant with Occasional Music: On writers and their obsession with the work habits of other writers. (Related: 4 Steps to Breaking Out Your Creativity) […]

  33. Amy Eyrie says:

    Derek, How did you know that I open up a vein to fill my fountain pen? How???

  34. Not too long ago, I did a blog carnival on my blog entitled, “Where I Write.” (I think it was inspired by the Guardian feature!).

    http://grosvenorsquare.blogspot.com/2010/10/blog-carnival-where-i-write.html

    It was fun to see where people write…of course, most of the time, I end up on my couch, my feet up, instead of that nice office I FINALLY have upstairs. Weird.

  35. rsguthrie says:

    I am boring. I write in the office, on a computer. Years ago, of course, I had a typewriter. Spell-checking in Word and in browsers has made me much too dependent on technology to ever consider going back. The office, however, is not where I do my best thinking. Walking, yes, like Nietzsche, but it’s difficult to type on a trail. My other “thinking place”, well, let’s just say it’s best for fairly quick thoughts and not much actually writing.

  36. […] all have their own special tics and tricks to get them going. What I’ve discovered recently is that I no longer want to hear about them. […]

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