Writers’ Daily Routines

Shakespeare In Love

One of my favourite things to do is to look at the daily routines of famous writers and I know I’m not the only one who enjoys this. Just look at the popularity of Mason Currey’s inspirational book Daily Rituals. But what I also find intriguing, perhaps even more so, are the daily routines of famous writers before they became famous. Were they holding down a day job, how did they fit writing in around their jobs, family, social commitments and all the other minutiae of life, what did they do when they got discouraged, how did they finally break through to the big time?

Looking at these writers’ daily routines, it’s clear there’s no one size fits all. Everyone writes differently and what might work for someone won’t work for another person. Still, there are a few ways in which us struggling writers might be able to apply helpful tips from these writers’ routines and their own observations about those early times during which they too honed their craft and followed their dreams.

Write whenever you can.  E.B. White once said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Sure, it’s nice to have the perfect writing spot to curl up in and generate heaps of ideas and words but sometimes we just don’t have the luxury of waiting to get into that perfect headspace. The perfect place to write is just about anywhere that you can write! So don’t bother wasting time thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t write till I’ve checked all my emails, got my favourite throw around my feet, I’ve brewed a hot drink, chosen the perfect song list to write to, the perfect paint shade on the walls, that perfect time of the day when the sun hits the desk just so, etc, etc.’ That’s just more chances to procrastinate. Instead – just write.

After graduating from a course in English literature at Dalhousie College, L.M. Montgomery taught school for a couple of years and in between spent most of her time writing. She wrote in her journal at about this time, recalling one winter when she boarded in a very cold farmhouse:

In the evenings, after a day of strenuous school work, I would be too tired to write. So I religiously arose an hour earlier in the mornings for that purpose. For five months, I got up at six o’clock and dressed by lamplight. The fires would not yet be on, of course, and the house would be very cold. But I would put on a heavy coat, sit on my feet to keep them from freezing and with fingers so cramped that I could scarcely hold the pen, I would write my ‘stunt’ for the day… then I would thaw out my hands, eat breakfast and go to school.

“When people say to me, as they occasionally do, “Oh, how I envy you your gift, how I wish I could write as you do,” I am inclined to wonder, with some inward amusement, how much they would have envied me on those dark, cold, winter mornings of my apprenticeship.”

Structure your routine to suit you. Everyone’s different. Everyone derives inspiration in a different way or they’re most productive at different times. Some people are morning owls. According to Mason Currey, Antony Trollop wrote for three hours every morning before heading off for his job at the post office. He did this for 33 years and wrote more than 24 books with this routine! Nicholas Sparks, on the other hand, said, “When I had a job, I wrote in the evenings three to four times a week for two to three hours and usually devoted at least part of a weekend day to write. At that pace, it took me six months to write [debut novel] The Notebook.

Surround yourself with supportive folk. It makes a big difference having someone who understands your struggle to be a writer and who isn’t going to constantly ask, ‘So when are you ever going to publish something?’ or ‘Why don’t you watch TV with  me instead of wasting your time writing?’

Stephen King is one of those lucky writers, noting in his book On Writing

My wife made a crucial difference during those two years I spent teaching at Hampden (and washing sheets at New Franklin Laundry during the summer vacation). If she had suggested that the time I spent writing stories on the front porch of our rented house in Pond Street or in the laundry room of our rented trailer on Klatt Road in Hermon was wasted time, I think a lot of the heart would have gone out of me. Tabby never voiced a single doubt, however.”

Stay your course. Writing is hard and often thankless work and it can often be tempting to give it all up to concentrate on a more lucrative day job. However, whenever you think of this, remember Salman Rushdie. When he began writing Midnight’s Children, he had just returned to England from a long trip through India and was broke. He got a job working part time at an ad agency as a copywriter and spent the rest of his time writing. It took five years, however, to write Midnight’s Children and in the preface of the book, Rushdie recalled, “As I look back, I feel a touch of pride at my younger self’s dedication to literature, which gave him the strength of mind to resist the blandishments of the enemies of promise. The sirens of ad-land sang sweetly and seductively, but I thought of Odysseus lashing himself to the mast of his ship, and somehow stayed on course.”

Had Rushdie given up writing and turned his attention instead to being an adman and copywriter, the world would never have seen the likes of Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, Shalimar the Clown, the Moore’s Last Sigh and The Enchantress of Florence.

In his keynote address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, Neil Gaiman also spoke about this issue facing artists and writers, the issue of balancing the pursuit of their dreams and the more ordinary need to pay bills and get food on the table:

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”

Finally, be patient. It takes time to create a piece of work and there will be many failures along the way. Every writer has a few failures in their top drawer and has binned a gazillion pages of bad writing.

“I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away,” Barbara Kingsolver said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It’s just part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”

In Rushdie’s third-person memoir, Joseph Anton, he wrote of the time it took him to write Midnight’s Children: ‘He had left university in June 1968. Midnight’s Children was published in April 1981. It took him almost thirteen years just to begin. During that time he wrote unbearable amounts of garbage.’ Rushdie has also spoken of the five years it took him to actually write Midnight’s Children while working part-time at Ogilvy’s ad agency, noting, ‘It took five years and a lot of heartache to get right.’

And finally, as Jodi Picoult observed, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”


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