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Count to Seven and Get Naked: Rituals and Routines of History's Greatest Writers

MR-writers-block-guyThe novelist and one-time filmmaker Norman Mailer once remarked that writing is a “spooky art,” and every writer can attest to the fact that when they are in “the zone,” the pages seem to write themselves, characters come to life and surprise you with their actions, and unexpected plot twists occur that fit perfectly. Yes, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. Of course, its opposite, writer’s block, is a sort of hell-ish limbo (yes, I’m aware they’re two different things) and even has its own brain state. I previously wrote about ways for writers to combat Resistance, the pernicious force that tries to keep the writer/artist/floral arranger from their work, and now you can read about the daily routines and odd rituals of some of the most famous writers. See what worked for the masters after the jump!

Writing is a “mystical” process, in that most writers couldn’t explain where their best work comes from, and is, at its best, a sort of dance between the subconscious and fingers. But, some see the screenplay as just a blueprint, the literary equivalent of a technical manual. This prejudice is a hold over from the silent-era, when “scenario writers” came up with the plots (frequently cribbed from works of literature) and others toiled on the “title cards” that described the action. The image was the primary thing (after all, these were motion pictures), and Jack Warner famously referred to his army of underpaid scribes as “schmucks with Underwoods,” (the Underwood being a choice typewriter of the time). Directors were heroes in pith helmets; screenwriters were (and still are, to some degree) neurotic intellectuals like Barton Fink.

These neurotic and intellectual artists are also usually superstitious by nature, having their own rituals that can verge on OCD. They’re secretly haunted by the fear that the muse will desert them at any time. If something works once, it might work again, even though science has proved that what we perceive as “hot streaks” are illusory, a product of math and patterns we can’t see (e.g. a basketball player on a run.)

A single successful shot suffices to increase a player’s likelihood of taking the next team shot, increase the average distance from which this next shot is taken, decrease the probability that this next shot is successful, and decrease the probability that the coach will replace the player.

Even fighter pilots’ performance has been shown to be a case of “regression to the mean,” a fancy science term meaning in this case that no matter how good or bad you perform on a certain day, you’ll eventually return to the general area where you started (which doesn’t mean practice won’t make you better, unless we’re talking about roulette.)

None of this, however, has ever stopped an anyone from sticking to their own superstitious rituals, and over at Brain Pickings, they have a great post on the daily habits of famous writers. Another great resource (and one that many of the Brain Pickings quotes are from) are the Writers At Work interviews from The Paris Review, all of which are available online. While there aren’t many screenwriters on either list, a rose is a rose, and reading other writer’s habits can be instructive as well as reassuring, if only because you realize that you’re not the only one out there who has to sharpen exactly five pencils and flip a light switch three times (the line between OCD and inspiration can become fuzzy) before the muse will arrive.

E.B. White said famously, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” He also said:

I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all.

Probably as a consequence of the digital age, most writers I know write to some sort of music (I wrote the first draft of a novel to a very specific playlist, timed out to produce the word-count needed for the day.) However, some writers can’t take the added sensory distraction — or any other distraction for that matter. Not even clothes. Several famous writers, including Hemingway and Victor Hugo, worked sans garments. Rumor has it that Hugo would ask his servant to take his clothes away for an entire day if he was having writer’s block, so he would be forced to sit down and write (since — what else are you going to do when you’re naked?)

Other writers have other particularities and obsessions. Jack Kerouac was haunted by numbers:

I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced –

And also noted the time and place he worked:

– Midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace.

Redoubtable American intellect Susan Sontag noted that:

I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that — I write when I have to because the pressure builds up — once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little.

This is a common theme; it’s almost as though writing is a courtship process. One approaches the muse sideways, coolly, not wanting to seem overeager. But once it has been won over, it’s a sprint to the altar. The poor writer worried that the fickle spirit of inspiration will lose interest and make him a cuckold, taking up with some other (no doubt less talented) writer. And, last but not least, some advice from Ernest Hemingway: hemingway_B

I write every morning as soon after first light as possible — You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. 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 — Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Perhaps he used alcohol (Hemingway wrote standing up at a lectern, while extremely hungover) to kill time between writing. I know for myself that when I am in the middle of a project, very little else matters. I’ve also never written anything substantive while in a relationship, probably because most writers are insufferable to be around.

How do you write? Do you use a computer, typewriter, longhand or quill? Do you have any rituals or superstitions that make facing the page any easier? What time of day do you work? How much do you outline? Is there any ‘guru’ whose advice you follow? What issues do you think a screenwriter might have to deal with that, say, a novelist wouldn’t? Do you think all writers are crazy, or just the good ones?



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  • nice article, justin. i find personally my best work occurs very late into the night, alas my lifestyle to has become somewhat nocturnal.

  • I will often walk on my balcony mumbling various dialog bit and the overall story structure to myself. Insofar as the volume goes, it helps to just sit down and pound the keys. Much like with the Blues Brothers’s 340 page writer’s draft example, one could just type a lot of ideas and then cull more coherent scenes from them.

  • Norman Mailer’s Maidstone (1970) was recently added to Hulu as part of the Criterion Collection.

  • I write with a manual typewriter. as it helps me to focus. Usually I will wait until I have a line or two of dialogue in my head and build a scene around that (yes, plotting has always been a struggle for me), and on the good days, the hook will appear and propel me through the next 4 pages or so. I have a large family so writing late at night works best, usually garbed in my favorite bathrobe and slippers. My outlines tend to consist of snippets of dialogue scribbled down on everything from napkins to post it notes that get stuffed into my wallet.

    As far as guru’s go, I think Stephen King’s “On Writing” is an excellent resource for any writer.

    Great article Justin, thanks for posting!

    • Justin Morrow on 06.21.13 @ 2:17PM

      Thanks! Wow, I have a manual (Olivetti Lettera 32, beautiful little creature) but I can’t write much on it. Right now I’m editing a huge piece of fiction and I’m finding that the track changes feature in Pages for Mac is kind of a life saver. I wish I had the patience for a typewriter. Cormac McCarthy has written every novel on the same model as mine, which to me is insane. And yes, Stephen King’s book is great, definitely on my shelf. Very no nonsense, sound advice. Use the active voice, cut out your adjectives and adverbs, etc. Glad you enjoyed.

      • Yeah Justin, I totally follow you with using a computer for the editing process. I use my manual for the first draft and then will do the second draft on the computer so I can take advantage of the great software tools out there.

  • I’ve always wanted to write on a typewriter! I imagine that this would be very relaxing and therapeutic.

  • I’m always nervous I will lose interest in a project, in favor of another.

  • Early morning is my go time. Pages do write themselves, but I can really crank it up listening to classical music, or any music for that matter. My wife always ask me “how do you come up with this stuff?” I always say “its like a movie that plays in my head, with costumes down to the beads on a necklace in detail, locations, characters, you name it, I just see it. It just happens” I certainly have never needed any odd preparations like getting naked to do my writing. To each his own I guess!

  • Great Article! I’m currently in the middle of my first feature length web series project. I’m dicovering so much about the process and myself. I was feeling a little down today, but reading this article helped understand, that us creatives are a breed of our own, and that our processes are what make us and our work unique. Thanks for the post.


  • Sweet article.

    At least 750 words a day. That’s my minimum. The first 200 are a pain in the ass, but usually by word 201, I find my flow, and the story takes over.

    I write to music, but complete silence is sometimes heavenly.

    I usually get myself up around six to write. I like to wrap myself up in my dressing gown, grab a coffee, turn the heater on and point it at my feet, then I turn Freedom on, and get to it.

    Murakami talks about routine being the key, and I have to agree. If I go a couple of days without writing, it’s hard to get back into the rhythm.

  • I just read the Brain Picking’s article, and it occurs to me that for novelists, it’s all about living a life without distractions. Living around their writing.

    Whereas for screenwriters, it feels like the writing has to fit around the networking, the meetings, and the admin. It seems like a shame.

  • Think about and research an idea for three to six months, reading and watching and imagining, then finally write the whole thing down on a legal pad (or two) starting at 4pm one night and ending at 4am the next morning. Then sleep. Then type it up on a Smith Corona all the while trying not to change too much during the process. Takes about five days. Then, go through it with a red pen. The most painful part. Normally by then I hate myself.

  • Since it’s an article about writers I feel slightly more justified in pointing out those two particularly egregious typos in the links at the end (“rutine”, “writer’s”). Also, that basketball pull quote is never attributed — sounds like maybe a Nate Silver piece? Fun read. Thanks!

  • Here in Germany like in many other places, McDonalds is one place where none of the ‘arty’ types that i know ever go to, but there is perticular place there in this fast food place which i visit almost every day to write my scenario, “The Animated Gandhi”. I do not why but my most concentrated work is produced there : )