Writing Hacks: Strange Habits of English and American Authors

mark twain writing hacks

Mark Twain once said: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” But is it always so? Tireless perfectionists like James Joyce and Dorothy Parker, who used to write only a few sentences a day, would maybe approve this attitude, but creative process isn’t exactly a piece of cake for every writer – using various strange methods, rituals and habits to fling themselves into writing shows that sometimes this could be a real struggle. Without further ado, here are some examples on how to pun pen to paper when in lack of inspiration, according to famous English and American authors.

Up, down or upside down!

Sitting still while writing seems so overrated. Why not try standing or walking? Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll were known to use this method and it obviously worked for them. So, upsy daisy like this clique! Of course, if it doesn’t pay off, you can always lie down and write. Though it might sound slightly uncomfortable it turned out to be very effective for many – from Mark Twain to George Orwell and Joyce. Truman Capote even stated he considered himself a strictly ‘horizontal writer’, for he couldn’t think or write unless he was lying down. Tried these two and no results yet? Maybe Dan Brown’s so-called ‘inversion therapy’ might help you and that is, believe it or not, hanging upside down from a bed! He says it helps him relax and concentrate, but another trick he also finds helpful is doing some push-ups, sit-ups and stretches every hour. Working out for inspiration was actually quite common – Philip Roth even used to say he “walks have a mile for every page”, so try it out! If nothing else – you will definitely lose weight!

Mix Maths and Literature!

Conan_Doyle writing hacksThis one requires persistence, caution and discipline. Although it sounds contradictory, numbers and words can go together, especially if you have a deadline to meet or you, for some reason, like to respect your quota for the number of words you will write per day. It depends only on you how many words it well be.

For example, Jack London used to write 1000 words every single day of his career, Arthur Conan Doyle 3000 and Raymond Chandler up to 5000. Anthony Trollope was a real master of discipline, writing 250 words every fifteen minutes, starting at 5.30 AM and finishing by evening. Stephen King is also an interesting example – his daily-set quota isn’t that big (“only” 2000 words), but what makes it more difficult is writing in an adverb-free style, for he believes that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” and that adverbs disturb writers in expressing themselves freely. Psychologically, sticking to quota sounds pretty logical – there is just something in our brains that presses the inspiration button whenever we are facing a deadline. So, get your clocks and calculators and start writing!

Let’s see your true colors!

Have you ever thought about how maybe the root of your poor writing could be the usage of wrong tools, actually tools of wrong color? Sometimes a plain blue ink can do the work (like it did for Charles Dickens), but sometimes it is simply impossible to channel your thoughts through paper by using a device of such regular tint. Virginia Woolf understood this and used green, yellow and purple ink. Purple was her favorite, but for letters, diaries and similar intimate forms of writing, while Lewis Carroll used this color for more pragmatic reasons – back when he was an Oxford teacher, he was expected to use purple ink for correction, so by the time this turned into a steady habit.

No writing on an empty stomach!

Alright, truth be told, this is a typical excuse for everything – it is almost as if we cannot make a single move without previously being well fed. However, when you run out of inspiration, the easiest way to avoid being completely devastated is turning to the source of all life’s pleasures – food.

When facing a terrible loss of inspiration, Flannery O’Connor would drown his sorrow into vanilla waffles and they’d make everything better (as you know, just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down). On the other hand, Agatha Christie like to be both inspired and fit, so she used to eat great amounts of apples that would cause the stroke of inspiration. You see, no need to feel guilty if you are using food as a creative fuel – just choose something that animates you, whether it’s Brussels sprouts or mac&cheese and write on!

No good spot – no good plot!

Agatha_Christie writing hacksImagine this: you are doing your usual grocery shopping when all of a sudden – BAM! a perfect sentence elegantly dropped into your brain, and what do you do? Of course, take out a pen and paper and write it down or pray it won’t vanish into thin air by the time you get home. But have you ever thought about turning the supermarket, subway, kitchen or any other place where you’d come up with your ideas into your permanent writing havens? In fact, many authors used to do this.

For instance, Gertrude Stein and Vladimir Nabokov would write in a car, Agatha Christie in a bath, D. H. Lawrence under a tree and Ray Bradbury in the library basement. Sheds were also quite popular, especially when in search of complete isolation from people and any distractions – Roald Dahl, Dylan Thomas and George Bernard Shaw were all owners of abandoned sheds. Thomas called his a ‘world-splashed hut’ and Shaw used to escape to his flowery shelter to “hide from people, who bother me”. Also, Joseph Heller once explained how he preferred writing in a bus, ever since the famous closing line of Catch 22 came to him right when he was on the ride home. It is a long list but, as you can see, not many writers stuck to the boring bedroom – they explored and found what suits them the best. Some writers even went across the ocean in search of inspiration, believing that the key of productivity lies in traveling. Dear aspiring writers, pack your bags and hit the road or create your own peaceful escape room and feel free to make it as weird as you want, as long as it helps you express yourselves!

Weird – but for a good cause!

Jane-Austen-portrait-victorian-engravingWriters can be very eccentric sometimes, but when in terrible need of inspiration, some of them were prepared to push the limits and do anything they could to continue the creative process. We all know how nerve-wracking it can be to have your arms tied, but the medicines some famous writers used in this case will either send shivers down your spine or make you laugh.

Jane Austin is somebody we can probably best connect to in this sense – before she would start writing each chapter of her beautiful novels, she had a little ritual to help her settle down. For more than half an hour she would simply write down whatever popped into her mind, no matter how nonsensical. Psychologists nowadays would explain this as a perfect example of stream of consciousness. However, the very act of writing down a bunch of discontinuous things wasn’t as peculiar as what she was writing down. That one sentence she used to write over and over again in order to set her thoughts in motion was (get ready): “Momma needs a sammich, a big honkin’ sammich!” Anyhow, this turned out to be much more helpful than it seems.

Legend has it that Faulkner found watching people get swallowed by quicksand highly inspirational and while writing “The Sound and The Fury” had to watch over 600 men die this way. Virginia Woolf had a very strange ritual, too – it is thought that she could only be productive after watching a man trapped in a cage shout “Release me! Release me now!” Maybe this was for her an indication to release her own thoughts, but that doesn’t make it less masochistic.

Finally, James Joyce might be given an award for the weirdest writing exhibitionism – he truly believed he could only write freely only if he was on a sinking ship. He was so incorrigibly convinced in this that he would even pay the captains large amounts of money to make their boat sink on purpose, just so he could expose his talent in the best possible way and surrounding.

There is a wide specter of possibilities for you, so don’t be disappointed if writing at school or your bedroom doesn’t fulfill your needs. Try harder – find a nice little shed, do some push-ups, buy a packet of brand new colorful pens, go to a new Chinese restaurant or be an odd bird if it helps. And remember Hawthorne’s words: “Easy reading is damn hard writing!”

Share Button
Katarina Lazić

Katarina Lazić

Katarina goes to Philological High School in Belgrade and loves reading, writing and creative arts.
Katarina Lazić