We’ve been talking a good bit recently about reading and books. I thought you might be interested in the habits of a few famous reader-writer-thinkers. (In no particular order.)
John Updike (1932-2009), Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004
Since I’ve gone to some trouble not to teach, and not to have any other employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch. So I work three or four hours in the morning, and it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases. You begin by answering a letter or two. There’s a lot of junk in your life. There’s a letter. And most people have junk in their lives but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it along steadily that you’re going to forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it I figure. So once embarked, yes, I do try to stick to a schedule. I’ve been maintaining this schedule off and on — well, really since I moved up to Ipswich in ’57. It’s a long time to be doing one thing. I don’t know how to retire. I don’t know how to get off the horse, though. I still like to do it. I still love books coming out. I love the smell of glue and the shiny look of the jacket and the type, and to see your own scribbles turned into more or less impeccable type. It’s still a great thrill for me, so I will probably persevere a little longer, but I do think maybe the time has come for me to be a little less compulsive, and maybe the book-a-year technique which has been basically the way I’ve operated.
Truman Capote (1924-1984), from The Paris Review, 1957, issue #16
INTERVIEWER: What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?
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.
According to his son, Francis, here is Charles Darwin‘s (1809 – 1892) routine:
7 am ~ Rose and took a short walk.
7:45 am ~ Breakfast alone.
8-9:30 am ~ Worked in his study; he considered this his best working time.
9:30 – 10:30 am ~ Went to drawing-room and read his letters, followed by reading aloud of family letters.
10:30 am – 12 or 12:15pm ~ Returned to study, which period he considered the end of his working day.
12 noon ~ Walk, starting with visit to greenhouse, then round the sand-walk, a number of times depending on his health, usually alone or with a dog.
12:45 pm ~ Lunch with the whole family, which was his main meal of the day. After lunch read The Times, and answered his letters.
3 pm ~ Rested in his bedroom on the sofa and smoked a cigarette, listened to a novel or other light literature read by ED [Emma, his wife].
4 pm ~ Walked, usually round the sand-walk, sometimes farther afield and sometimes in company.
4:30 – 5:30 pm ~ Worked in study and cleaned up matters of the day.
6 pm ~ Rested again in bedroom, with ED reading aloud.
7:30 pm ~ Light high tea while the family dined. In late years never stayed in the dining room with the men, but retired to the drawing-room with the ladies. If no guests were present, he played two games of backgammon with ED, usually followed by reading to himself, then ED played the piano, followed by reading aloud.
10:00 pm ~ Left the drawing-room and usually in bed by 10:30, but slept badly.
Emily Dickerson (1830-1886), from the letters of
I will tell you my order of time for the day, as you were so kind as to give me your’s. At 6. oclock, we all rise. We breakfast at 7. Our study hours begin at 8. At 9. we all meet in Seminary Hall, for devotions. At 10¼. I recite a review of Ancient History, in connection with which we read Goldsmith & Grimshaw. At .11. I recite a lesson in “Pope’s Essay on Man” which is merely transposition. At .12. I practice Calisthenics & at 12¼ read until dinner, which is at 12½ & after dinner, from 1½ until 2 I sing in Seminary Hall. From 2¾ until 3¾. I practise upon the Piano. At 3¾ I go to Sections, where we give in all our accounts of the day, including, Absence – Tardiness – Communications – Breaking Silent Study hours – Receiving Company in our rooms & ten thousand other things, which I will not take time or place to mention. At 4½, we go into Seminary Hall, & receive advice from Miss. Lyon in the form of lecture. We have Supper at 6. & silent-study hours from then until retiring bell, which rings at 8¾, but the tardy bell does not ring untl 9¾, so that we dont often obey the first warning to retire.
Toni Morrison (b. 1931), Nobel Prize, Literature, 1993, from The Paris Review, 1993, issue #128
INTERVIEWER: What about your writing routine?
MORRISON: I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space–a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out–life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in. I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that–mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) from the biography by (the great) Sir Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx, His Life and Environment
His mode of living consisted of daily visits to the British Museum reading-room, where he normally remained from nine in the morning until it closed at seven; this was followed by long hours of work at night, accompanied by ceaseless smoking, which from a luxury had become an indispensable anodyne; this affected his health permanently and he became liable to frequent attacks of a disease of the liver sometimes accompanied by boils and an inflammation of the eyes, which interfered with his work, exhausted and irritated him, and interrupted his never certain means of livelihood. “I am plagued like Job, though not so God-fearing,” he wrote in 1858.
Gunter Grass, (b. 1927), Nobel Prize, Literature, 1999, from The Paris Review, summer, 1991, #124
INTERVIEWER: What is your daily schedule when you work?
GRASS: When I’m working on the first version, I write between five and seven pages a day. For the third version, three pages a day. It’s very slow.
You do this in the morning or in the afternoon or at night?
Never, never at night. I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good. I need daylight to begin. Between nine and ten o’clock I have a long breakfast with reading and music. After breakfast I work, and then take a break for coffee in the afternoon. I start again and finish at seven o’clock in the evening.