“Let’s face it, writing is hell,” William Styron told The Paris Review in 1954.
In his wonderful book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, author and editor Mason Currey, brings together some of the world’s most noted writers and artists to observe their routines that aided them in their creative work. These writers include Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, William Styron, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and hundreds of others.
Largely in their own words, the writers tell of how they found a path to create some of the great masterworks found in culture.
My good friend and writer, Rusty Lemorande, recommended Daily Rituals. I was feeling isolated, cranky and frustrated as I told Rusty that as hard as I tried I could only get five hours of writing in a day.
“You should be thankful for that ,” he replied.
I took my good friend’s advice and read the book.
This is the commonality I found in Daily Rituals:
Rise early, work early
The majority of the writers used their mornings as their writing sanctuary. Many rose before first light, had coffee and went straight to work.
“The hour between five and six is my best. It is dark. A few birds sing. I feel contented and loving. My discontents begin at seven, when light fills the room”. – John Cheever
“He (Victor Hugo) rose at dawn, swallowed two raw eggs, enclosed himself in his lookout, and wrote until 11:00 A.M”. ~ Mason Currey
“Somerset Maugham published seventy-eight books. He wrote for three or four hours every morning, setting himself a daily requirement of one thousand to one thousand five hundred words. He would get a start on the day’s work before he even sat down at his desk, thinking of the first two sentences he wanted to write while soaking in the bath.” ~ Mason Currey
Make it a daily routine
Almost everyone kept the same hours every day.
If they worked at four in the afternoon until 8 pm, as was the case with William Styron, they kept those “regular hours day after day” and year after year.
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.” ~ W. H. Auden
“I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” ~ Leo Tolstoy
“B. F. Skinner followed this routine seven days a week, holidays included, until only a few days before his death in 1990. ~ Mason Currey
You have, four or five hours, tops
In his insightful interview with George Plimpton on writing for the Paris Review (which is extracted in part in Daily Routines), Ernest Hemingway describes the limited window of writing: “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. 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. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until that next day that is hard to get through. “
“Patricia Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day.” ~ Mason Currey
“When I’m writing a book I pack a lunchbox every morning, retire to my shack down by the wash and hide for four or five hours.” ~ Edward Abbey
“Because you won’t get those four hours if you’re spending most of the day worried about getting to an appointment and back. What you have to do is clear all distraction. That’s the bottom line.” ~ Anne Rice
Mathematics of word count
My friend, Rusty Lemorande , told me years ago that you needed to look at the writing work mathematically. Most every writer judges the work not on the quality but their daily word count. Ernest Hemingway would count the words after each writing session and feel good if he got over 500-word count. Most writers look for 1500 or 2000 for their session which is generally an uninterrupted stretch of several hours. And this is unedited text; as many writers read their stuff and save little of it.
“Do they know I get up at five o’clock every morning to write a thousand words before breakfast? “ ~ Margaret Meade
“I write with my watch before me, to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.” ~ Anthony Trollope
In the case of Steven King, he “ writes every day of the year, including his birthday and holidays, and he almost never lets himself quit before he reaches his daily quota of two thousand words. He works in the mornings, starting around 8:00 or 8:30. Some days he finishes up as early as 11:30, but more often it takes him until about 1:30 to meet his goal. Then he has the afternoons and evenings free for naps, letters, reading, family, and Red Sox games on TV.” ~ Masson Currey
The bottom line for writers whose work is remembered: Rise Early, Work Early, and Finish In One Stretch
For myself, I have found the process of writing exhilarating but that it must be met with a regulated regime. Reading Daily Rituals was a confirming experience and it helped me understand that while measuring myself against the greats, at least my process would meet their regimented expectations.
To the outsider, however, the writer’s life looks to be a pretty dull life. When I was a studio executive, I could regale my friends and family with stories of movie stars and the rigors of production. Now I tell them I ordered a portable hard drive on Newegg. It’s just not the same. I started to see a shrink again just to be able to have someone who I could talk to about the isolated process. Some writers, like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, eased the isolation by reading works in progress to friends of family in the evening to obtain reactions.
As I opened this blog with him , I will close it with a quote from William Styron quoting Gustave Flaubert.
“I could not have lived in Bohemia or lived the life of a renegade or a pariah,” said William Styron, “ but I think my works have been nonetheless revolutionary in their own way and certainly anti-establishment. I have had in my little study in Connecticut all these years that famous line from Flaubert tacked to my wall: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a Bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I believe it.”