Spaces and Habits of Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers

I started working on something, and it was really bad. It was crummy. But I was really so happy just to be working on a little crummy thing. I would get home, and I would think, “It’s waiting for me. My crummy thing.”

Louise Glück (American poet and winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature), “The Poet’s View” (2014).

Writers’ lives have always fascinated me. Their writing spaces and their writing habits have fascinated me perhaps even more.

Some writers’ spaces make me feel right at home. I’m thinking of Albert Camus, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Jack London, Ray Bradbury, Wallace Stegner, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Carl Sandburg. Their writing spaces are filled with stacks of papers and books just like one part of my office. They seem to thrive on chaos as much as I do.

In stark contrast are the well-organized and sparsely furnished writing spaces of E. B. White, Edith Wharton, Edward Albee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Bernard Shaw, H. L. Mencken, and Hunter S. Thompson. Their writing spaces are aesthetically beautiful, with everything positioned perfectly, but those spaces would be far too still–far too quiet–for me.

Interestingly enough, Maya Angelou doesn’t have her own writing space. She rents a hotel room in the towns where she lives. She goes there to write every day.

Angelou’s method would not work for me either. I couldn’t afford that kind of luxury.

Aside from writing spaces, writers have preferences about how they’re poised when they write. It might surprise you to know that not all writers write while sitting down.

Some stand. Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Philip Roth are a few examples.

Some lie down on their beds, notably Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, and Edith Wharton.

At least one writer dons his gravity boots and hangs from an exercise frame to think things out: Dan Brown.

What time of day do famous writers work?

Some are early birds. Toni Morrison (4am), Benjamin Franklin (5am), and Ernest Hemingway (6am).

Others, night owls: Franz Kafka and Charles Bukowski.

And what about daily writing quotas?

James Joyce prided himself on a well-written sentence. A good writing day for him? Three sentences.

Ernest Hemingway, 500 words. John Steinbeck, 1 page. Stephen King, 6-10 pages.

Ray Bradbury, a lot. One short story a week.

Henry Miller worked on one thing at a time until it was finished.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman worked on three stories at a time, on three different typewriters.

You’ve guessed it already. Famous writers are downright quirky.

But what about writers who are not famous? Are they quirky?

I can only answer for myself. I’m definitely not famous, but I definitely have one or four quirks.

Let me share a few of mine. I am doing so only because I casually shared one of my quirks in an email to a friend. Here’s what she wrote in response:

“I was interested in your note the other night about how you are now writing in bed! I have lots of questions! None of my business!  But I’m still interested!  

“On a laptop? Cup of tea by your side? Wine? Cocktail?  Pencil and paper? Do you rewrite as you go along or wait until the end?

“How do you label your docs?”

Before tossing my reply out into the world for all to read, let me put things into context.

My home is on a mountain top. My office is downstairs where I have sweeping views of the valley below and the mountain range beyond. Nearest the expansive window looking out onto my stone patio and my gardens below is my sparse desk with an HP All-in-One Computer and a lamp. This is where I do my professorial academic work.

To the back of my office is an old Shenandoah Valley farm table (bookcases on the side walls) with an HP EliteBook and a lamp. That’s the research end of my office where I’m currently working on a two-volume book tentatively titled Dolly: Life and Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. That part of my office is cluttered chaos, but I know what’s where.

Obviously, I need one dedicated space for my academics and another one for my research.

What I had not realized, however, until my friend asked about my blog-writing habits, is that I need a third area for working on my blog!

Here’s where and how I work on my blog. It’s what I shared first with my friend and now with you, my readers.

“What I am about to share will shatter your image!

“I am literally in bed, usually around 7:45pm, and I try to write until 9:30pm or so. This new routine–started just before Christmas–seems to give me a better night’s sleep, though I am now sleeping in until 5:30am.

“Yes, I have a cocktail: a Bunnahabhain Scotch, neat, waiting for me on the night table. No laptop. I’m doing the thinking, writing, revising, and editing right on my smartphone, while lying all comfy in bed. 

“No docs. I’m doing it all as drafts in WordPress.

“I find that having four or five different posts going at once lets me focus on what my mood requires.

“I’ve never written in this manner before, but I like it a lot. Actually, I love it. It makes me feel very much like a writer must feel. When I write now, I am done with the busyness of the day.  It’s quiet, and my mind just settles in peacefully on ideas and fooling around with words!

“So there! You heard it first right here! And what you’re reading here might well find its way into a future post. I just had an idea!”

Indeed, “the idea that I just had” is exactly what you’re reading now: a blog post sharing glimpses of the spaces and habits of famous writers and one not-so-famous writer: me.

What I didn’t share with my friend is this. The multiple posts that I work on–each in various draft stages–start out as little more than ideas, sometimes bad ones. To paraphrase Louise Glück, I say to myself as each day winds down and I get ready for bed: “They’re there. My crummy draft posts are waiting for me.”

Who on earth would have dreamt that writing could become such a comforting, lay-me-down-to-sleep bedfellow?

My Imaginary Guests

I have a funny mental framework when I do physics. I create an imaginary audience in my head to explain things to – it is part of the way I think. For me, teaching and explaining, even to my imaginary audience, is part of the process.

Leonard Susskind

It seems to me that if a noted physicist like Leonard Susskind can admit to having a funny mental framework and imaginary audiences, a simple English professor like me can, too.

My funny mental framework is an occupational requirement when I do literature. I spend a lot of time exploring literary white spaces, I spend even more time reading between the literary lines, and I spend the most time helping my students develop their own funny mental frameworks.

My imaginary audiences are simply a carryover from childhood. Truth be told, my imagination is probably the only part of me that’s still in tact and in shape after all these years. I guess it’s a prime example of “use it or lose it.” Believe me: I’ve used it.

Indeed I’ve had to use it more than ever since Covid’s arrival a little more than two years ago, especially when it comes to house cleaning.

I had just as well tell you up front. I love a clean home, but I hate house cleaning.

It’s tedious. It’s odious. It’s repetitive. And worst of all, it’s never done. Just when I think that I have finished, I discover that I have to start all over again. Where on earth does all that dust come from? And who put all those streaks on my windows right after I cleaned them with streak free window cleaner?

It’s a good thing that my late partner, Allen, felt the same way about house cleaning. We both preferred cooking. (The heady perfume of Thai spices always out fragranced lemony Pledge.) Or gardening. (The wishful anticipation of spring flowers always out did our untidy offices.)  Or hiking.  (The quiet time with nature always out maneuvered the roar of the vacuum cleaner.) Or cycling (The revving up of heart and lungs always out powered mopping the kitchen floor.)

Yet we knew fully well that house cleaning was a necessary evil. So we faced it head on. Occasionally. But no more often than necessary.

We developed a foolproof strategy for keeping our home clean. Invite guests!

If the house didn’t need much cleaning, we’d have dinner guests.

If the house needed a little more attention, we would have overnight guests.

And if the house needed lots of cleaning because we had simply frittered away our spare time with silly things like cooking, gardening, hiking, and cycling, we would have weekend guests.

Never, absolutely never, did we ever let the house get to the point of needing so much cleaning that we had to invite guests to stay longer than a weekend. We took Benjamin Franklin at his word: “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Whether our guests were with us for the weekend, for an overnight, or just for dinner, we knew that we would have a truly joyful time.

Equally important, or maybe even more, we selfishly knew that we would enjoy the spic-and-span home that preparing for company always brings, almost as magically as a self-cleaning oven–well, at least in my wired imagination.

But all of that was before COVID.

Since COVID, we’ve all had to change the way we live. But I’ll tell you one thing: COVID has not changed the way that I see house cleaning. It’s still tedious, odious, repetitive, and never-ending.

Actually, it’s even more so because since COVID I don’t entertain a lot, especially since winter has kicked in and since Omicron has kicked our butts even harder.

These are the times when I find myself summoning up my imaginary guests.

They’re helping me keep my home clean, the way that I like it to be.

I have lots of real cleaning strategies that I really do use when I conjure up my imaginary guests.

Sometimes my strategy focuses on who my imaginary guests are. If they’re family or friends or neighbors, I rationalize that they’ve seen my home clean at least once before so their memory of that memorable degree of cleanliness will no doubt equal my imaginative degree of imagination. In that situation, the cleaning doesn’t make me break out into a sweat.

But if my imaginary guests are my colleagues, I shift my strategy. They may or may not have seen my home before. And it really doesn’t matter because I know that they are as skilled in exploring white space and reading between the lines as I am. They’ll be exploring everywhere and looking under everything. In that situation, the cleaning makes me break out into a big time sweat.

Either way, just imagine the cleaning that I get done for guests who never come. That’s fine by me.  My home still gets cleaned.

Another strategy focuses on what parts of my home my imaginary guests might visit.

Dinner guests: Kitchen. Dining room. Living room. Guest bathroom. I can get those rooms readied up right fast. Done in an hour.

Overnight guests: Same as for dinner guests plus guest bedroom. No big deal since the guest bedroom is not used that often. Done. Add an extra thirty minutes.

Weekend guests: Same as overnight guests plus the entire rest of the house because they want to see it all. These imagined guests require me to roll up my sleeves and do some deep cleaning. Done, in just one day, but begrudgingly so.

Another strategy that I use to house clean for imaginary guests who never show up is perhaps my favorite though most feared

How soon will they arrive?

Tomorrow? Today? This afternoon? In an hour? They’re in the driveway? No way! OMG! The nerve!

Trust me. Panic can clean a house faster than any other strategy!

I can’t begin to tell you how much I treasure all of my imaginary guests–whoever they are, wherever they are, and whenever it is that they will never arrive. I bless each and every one of them for all that they’re doing to help me with my tedious, odious, repetitive, and never-ending house cleaning.

One day, though, they really might arrive. Oh, how I long for that day to come. Real guests in my clean home. For dinner. For overnight. For a weekend. (For longer? Never.)

When that time comes, I’ll be so proud to show off my spic-and-span home that my imaginary guests and I have maintained, waiting for my real, honored guests to arrive.

I’m a Spring Teaser

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Charles Dudley Warner
(The witticism is often attributed erroneously to Mark Twain.)

I have been forecasting the weather forever.

One of my favorite “meteorological barometers” is the sky! I stare at it. I swear by it.

I especially swear by “Red sails at night, sailors delight. Red sails at morning, sailors take warning.”

Who would have thought that variations of that weather adage go all the way back to Shakespeare (“Venus and Adonis” [lines 453-46]) and to the Bible (Matthew XVI: 2-3)?

Be that as it may, it gives me lots of traction, especially when it comes to forecasting fierce thunderstorms and fierce snowstorms.

And that’s exactly how I like like my storms and my forecasts. Fierce.  “Fierce” may not be a crowd pleaser, but it’s a sure-fire attention getter.

Without doubt, forecasting the weather predates my modest efforts. It also predates Biblical weather forecasting by Lord knows how long.

Well, we do know that it goes at least as far back as 650 B.C., when the Babylonians predicted weather based on clouds and haloes.

Then around 340 B.C., Aristotle wrote his Meteorologica, a treatise about rain, clouds, hail, wind, thunder, lightning, and hurricanes. It remained the weather standard until the 17th century.

Fast forward from then until now. The advances are far too many for me to mention even briefly. Lucky me. Luckier you.

But there is one fancy scientific gadget for forecasting weather that stands heads and shoulders above the rest.

I mention it only because I own one. It’s a Fitzroy Storm Glass. A group of my creative writing students gave it to me years ago.

I wish that you could see it. I keep it in my kitchen on top of a fabulous antique corn sheller. About all that I can say for it–the Fitzroy, not the corn sheller–is that it’s a wonderful objet d’art, and it always draws attention to the corn sheller. (Other folks, it seems, are no more interested in a scientific approach to weather forecasting than I am.)

Nonetheless, I have a pretty good track record when it comes to predicting storms, particularly snowstorms.

If you want proof, ask around. Neighbors. Students. Colleagues.

Better still, ask my former and present college presidents. I always give a heads up when a snowstorm is headed our way. I want to make sure that the “college-closed announcements” go out early–preferably the night before–so that I can sleep in the next day. Ah! The exquisite luxury of getting up at five instead of four!

And if those folks won’t give me credit for my SnowCasting accuracy, let me just say this in self-defense. What I lack in accuracy I make up for in hype. I’m a snow-hype maximizer. Local grocery store chains love it when I get folks all cooked up over a storm headed our way. I’m the one who spurs on all the frenzied shopping that leaves all the shelves empty.

That’s what I’ve been told at any rate.  I hope that’s true, because then I won’t feel too bad when my forecasts are from time to time hundreds of miles or so off track or a few weeks behind or a few weeks ahead of schedule. They’re still good for the local economy.

If you’re wondering how I established my track record for weather forecasting and my reputation for weather hype, let me explain.

It’s as simple as I am. I use one of the oldest methods ever: patterning. I observe what’s happening in the natural world around me. Trust me: I’ve been around long enough to put two and two together and come up with lots of observations and patterns. Sometimes they’re about the weather.

Patterns are helpful–really helpful–in predicting the arrival of spring (Vernal Equinox) as I am about to do right here for 2022, soon and very soon.

However, before sharing those patterns and my prediction for spring’s arrival, there’s something that I simply must get off my chest.

I know that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on February 2, ran back inside, warning us all of six more weeks of winter, thereby putting his official arrival of spring pretty close to what it would be officially this year anyway: March 20.

But based on what I’m seeing in my local mountain patterns, I’m convinced that the famed Pennsylvania groundhog (Marmota monax) is wrong.

Actually, I’m so convinced that I have every intention of getting my own groundhog. Her full name will be one that regular folks can pronounce from one year to the next without having to consult HowtoPronounce. Hmmm. Edinburg Eve might be perfect.

Then I’ll set up my own groundhog club right here on my mountain, right in my own backyard! It would be locally significant, and it would draw world-wide media attention. (Note to myself: This is, without doubt, a perfect GoFundMe dream opportunity. Be careful not to share this idea with others. Someone will steal it for sure. This is hot. Really hot.)

Here’s how I know that Phil is wrong, based on six patterns showing up around here.

No. 1. When my witch hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) blooms. I can always count on a bouquet by the end of February. This year, though, I gifted a neighbor with some blooming branches in early January. That’s a healthy month earlier than usual. It probably, perhaps, doesn’t mean a thing.

No. 2. When local striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) mate. Around these parts, they mate in mid-February, no doubt because of Valentine’s Day. This year, they’ve been at it since late December. They get so carried away by their amorous pursuits that I see them all the time, all on and all along the highways. Dead. That’s even more than a month early. It probably, perhaps, doesn’t mean a thing either, other than stinky dead skunks.

No. 3. When my mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) start courting.  Charlie and Alabaster took up here years ago, and they normally start their courting rituals in late February. But as I live and breathe, when I looked out onto my deck last week, there they were, feathers puffed and ruffled, cooing and wooing and strutting all around with no shame whatsoever. That’s the third early spring harbinger that I am witnessing.  It has to mean something.

No. 4. When robins (Turdus migratorius) return to the area. Although I have not seen a single, solitary robin yet, I have heard from my faithful weather correspondent in Strasburg (Virginia, not Austria) that robins appeared in her yard last week, a full month earlier than usual.

No. 5. When my tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) start budding. They never bud until late March, sometimes early April. Guess what? They have swollen buds right now. One more piece of evidence. One more pattern.

No. 6. I saved the best for last. When the faerie ring (Crocus fatum) blooms. The same well-informed and faithful Strasburg informant just a few days ago informed me that her faerie ring is blooming. As proof that it was blooming on time, she shared a copy of the email that she sent me last year on February 9 announcing her blooming faerie. Oh, dear. Now that I’m re-reading her emails more carefully, it seems that her point was nothing more than the fact that her faerie ring is blooming right on time. Still, this piece of evidence could have been so strong and so convincing that I don’t have the heart to take it out.

Taken singly, the evidence probably, perhaps, might not mean anything. Yet I am mindful of the power of one.

Taken collectively, the evidence probably, perhaps, might mean everything. I am mindful of the power of many.

Before I make my declaration about spring’s arrival (which I am about to do), let me say succinctly, as is my custom to which you can attest, that my declaration is based on the full reckoning of all the scientific evidence, weather lore, and mountain patterns at my disposal, offset and adjusted as necessary to advance my own whims based on how the winds blow.

We are, as I have shown clearly and convincingly, one full month ahead of schedule in terms of the arrival of spring weather.

Yes: more snows will probably, perhaps, fall.

Yes: the innumerable meteorologists who are probably, perhaps, reading this post right now, hoping to strengthen their own forecasts and give themselves greater credibility (albeit stolen), are scratching their proverbial heads trying to make sense of it all. I wish them well.

But pay neither the snow nor the meteorologists no mind whatsoever.

What Mother Nature knows, she knows.

And has she not brought forth into full and plain view, for everyone to see and now to understand, evidence from a wide assortment of her best witnesses? She has.

Witch hazel. Skunks. Robins. Tree peonies. Faerie rings.

As you share this spring teaser with social media far and wide–and I hope that you will–remember not only to consider but also to credit the source.

You heard it first, right here. An early spring awaits us. I tease you not.

Running Reference

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Attributed to Mark Twain

We’re all probably familiar with Mark Twain’s observation that the older he got the smarter his father became. 

Ironically, no evidence exists that Twain actually authored the words credited to him far and wide, over and over.

Doubtful authorship, however, does not diminish the truth: we grow wiser with age. In our twenties, we see our parents differently than we did in our teens. Life experiences and hindsight heighten our perspectives.

Looking back on my teens, I never considered either my father or my mother to be ignorant.

But in my mid-twenties, as a graduate student, I had an epiphany not too unlike Twain’s.

Mine, however, was not about my father. It was about my mother. Let me share what I learned.

As a Pilgrim Holiness minister, my mother was well versed in the Bible, forwards and backwards. She loved discussing the Bible and the nuances of Scripture with anyone and everyone.

Sometimes, as a child, I was a silent listener as she talked with members of her own congregation, but sometimes with people from other denominations and faiths. Either way, everyone went their separate ways with a clear and deeper understanding through my mother’s insights.

Sometimes the Scriptural explorations would intensify, and the circle of friends would expect my mother to provide an interpretation of Scripture, right then and there on the spot. She was, after all, the minister.

But my mother would not be beguiled into answering what she did not know.

Her response in such situations lingers still, as I hear her saying in her characteristic, soft-spoken voice, “Let me go home and run reference.”

“Let me go home and run reference.”

And that’s exactly what she did, though, at the time–as a youngster–I had no idea what she was doing, exactly.

I never saw her do it. I suppose she did it privately in the few quiet moments that she would have claimed as her own throughout the day and night as a minister, wife, and mother of six.

After running reference, she always continued the Scriptural inquiry with her parishioners and neighbors the next day, and, sometimes, for days thereafter. That which had been confusing became coherent and intelligible.

What she had been doing became abundantly clear to me when I started graduate school.

My mother had been doing scholarly research. When she ran reference, she was consulting multiple Biblical commentaries, especially her treasured Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, originally written in 1706. Her research brought informed clarity to her interpretations.

When she ran reference, she was–in her unpretentious way–conducting Biblical research right there in our Southern West Virginia coal camp. It was every bit as sophisticated as the doctoral research in American Literature that I would later chase up and down and all around the ivory halls of academe, at a major four-year university.

When I had that epiphany in my twenties, I can’t begin to tell you how proud I was of my mother for the scholarship that she had been doing all down through the years. I am grateful that I told her so.

I chalk up my love of research to my mother’s influence. Whenever I’m working on my own scholarly projects, I am always mindful of my mother.

And, to this day, I can still hear my mother saying, “I have to go home now and run reference.”