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?