Writers Habits: Procrastination or Routine?



In her book Odd Type Writers, Celia Blue Johnson writes about the delaying tactics some famous writers have used e.g.

  • Colette would only begin writing after she had groomed and cuddled her French bulldog, Souci. Work after fleas. 
  • Graham Greene needed to see a special set of numbers by accident before starting to write. A random car license plate was a favourite source. 
  • Charles Dickens carried with him nine small objects which he could place on any writing desk to make it familiar.
  • Victor Hugo locked himself at home, and wore nothing but a shawl, to meet the deadline for The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
  • Friedrich Schiller, claimed he “could not live or work” without stench of rotting apples (which he kept in a drawer). 

Here are some other habits which are not necessarily strategies of procrastination, but if the routines were disrupted, the books may not have been produced.

  • Herman Melville, they say, had to be chained to his desk to complete Moby Dick. But given the length of it, I am not sure that was meant in the literal sense.
  • Franz Kafka could find no time to write until about eleven at night. Then he’d write through the night.
  • Roald Dahl, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf all have needed to go to a shed to write at some point in their writing lives. You can see some of the sheds on-line, and in the case of Dylan Thomas visit a replica which travels around the UK.
  • Ernest Hemingway had a phase when he wrote standing at a lectern, usually naked, unencumbered except by … a pencil.
  • James Joyce liked to put his feet up to write.
  • Truman Capote went further and said, in  an interview with The Paris Review, Truman Capote ‘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. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.’ 

  • William Wordsworth composed while walking, but also wrote in bed in darkness.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge often didn’t get beyond a brilliant start. Much of his writing is unfinished, and many promised pieces never made it to publication. Opium, to which he was addicted may have upset the timing of things.
  • Marcel Proust wrote in a brass bed in a cork-lined room.
  • Edith Wharton also wrote while in bed.
  • George Orwell wrote quite a lot of 1984 sitting up, but in bed, suffering from TB.
  • Eudora Welty used scissors and pins to cut and paste, as it were.
  • Vladimir Nabokov had to have pencils tipped with erasers and filing cards.
  • Samuel Johnson sometimes finished his piece at the last minute possible, while the messenger who would take it to the printers was waiting by the door.