[Editor’s note: While your Flavorwire editors take a much-needed holiday break, we’ll spend the next two weekends revisiting some of our most popular features of the year. This post was originally published July 13, 2011.] It’s an old topic but it always manages to be interesting — what did the authors we love do in order to write what they did? Beyond the jobs they held, what habits did they have that made writing possible? We take a look at 10 modern authors who had unusual approaches to writing; some due to the limits they would impose on themselves, others due to what they would wear or how they would attempt to channel greatness. Regardless of their methods, they have all produced work of lasting value. We might learn a thing or two from them if we’re willing to get out of our comfort zone and see the craft as just that — a skill to be exercised, not a bolt of ideas that comes if you wait long enough. So read on, dear readers, and tell us in the comments section who we missed.
Capote would supposedly write supine, with a glass of sherry in one hand and a pencil in another. In a 1957 Paris Review interview with Pati Hill, Capote explains: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”
In a 1978 Newsweek essay, Cheever writes, “To publish a definitive collection of short stories in one’s late 60s seems to me, as an American writer, a traditional and a dignified occasion, eclipsed in no way by the fact that a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear.” Since the author of The Wapshot Chronicle had but one suit at the time, why rumple and wrinkle it when you can do the same thing in your skivvies? It’s sound reasoning from an impassioned man who was once known as the “Chekov of the suburbs.”
The author of Blue Angel and the president of PEN American Center confided to the Daily Beast that when she’s writing, she wears her husband’s “red and black checked flannel pajama pants and a T-shirt.” In a 1998 interview with Kate Bolick at The Atlantic, Prose says, “Fortunately, or unfortunately, we live in a strange apartment with one twenty-foot-high window facing a brick wall, about a foot and a half away. Not much of a view. So when I’m at my desk I feel like I can work undistracted. I might as well be in the country. Writing while facing a wall, incidentally, seems to me the perfect metaphor for being a writer.”
Hemingway famously said he wrote 500 words a day, mostly in the mornings, to avoid the heat. Though a prolific writer, he also knew when to stop. In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934, he wrote, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
Faulkner drank a lot of whiskey when he was writing. It all started when he met Sherwood Anderson when they were both living in New Orleans (Faulkner was working for a bootlegger). In a 1957 Q&A, Faulkner explains their relationship: “We’d meet in the evenings, and we’d go to a drinking place and we’d sit around till one or two o’clock drinking, and still me listening and him talking. Then in the morning he would be in seclusion working, and the next time I’d see him, the same thing, we would spend the afternoon and evening together, the next morning he’d be working. And I thought then, if that was the life it took to be a writer, that was the life for me.”
Lyndall Gordon writes in T.S. Eliot: A Modern Life that in the early 1920s, the author answered to “Captain Eliot” in his hideaway above Chatto & Windus, a publishing house on St Martin’s Lane; however, at another hideaway on Charing Cross Road, visitors were asked to inquire at the porter’s lodge for a man known only as “The Captain.” Upstairs, Eliot’s face was “tinted green with powder to look cadaverous.” What can we say? The man was an eccentric genius for good reason.
In The Habit of Being, St. Flannery explains, “I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.” Since she had lupus, any activity was incredibly taxing for her during the end of her life, so she sat facing the blank surface of her wood dresser, which provided no distractions.
Index cards — the man loved them. Most of his novels were written on handy 3 x 5 inch cards, which would be paper-clipped and stored in slim boxes. In a 1967 Paris Review interview with Herbert Gold, Nabokov says, “My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”
Back in 1953, Welty wrote to her friend William Maxwell that she straight-pins her stories together as she goes. “I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip, that could be seen as a whole and at a glance — helpful and realistic. When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table & pinned and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction . . . I like pins.” You can find more of their correspondence in the book What There Is to Say We Have Said.
Thomas Wolfe (courtesy of Tom Wolfe)
In his 1991 interview with Wolfe, George Plimpton says, “It wouldn’t be a Paris Review interview unless we asked you about your work habits.” Wolfe replies, “I use a typewriter. I set myself a quota — ten pages a day, triple-spaced, which means about eighteen hundred words. If I can finish that in three hours, then I’m through for the day. I just close up the lunch box and go home — that’s the way I think of it anyway. If it takes me twelve hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it.” He then mentions that Thomas Clayton Wolfe, the early 20th Century novelist, wrote while leaning over a refrigerator because he was so tall.