Some writers’ beds are still warm when they start working. For others, late nights provide the best conditions – when the noise of the day gives way to silence, and they can peck a keyboard in peace. Each writer is different. The important thing isn’t the time of day, but showing up every day.
To reinforce the point, we take a look at five successful writers and their habits: renowned journalists, bestselling authors, polemicists. Every writer on our list takes a different approach to writing. Some are conventional, some unconventional, but they are unanimous on one thing: Consistency.
Hunter S Thompson
Hunter S Thompson falls into the unconventional category. He rose to prominence with the 1967 book Hell’s Angels – a chronological account of his time spent with a Californian chapter of the notorious biker gang.
From there, Thompson founded a new school of journalism called ‘Gonzo’, wherein he closed the distance of objective reporting until he was playing the starring role in his stories. The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved marked the first appearance of this new journalism, an article ripped from notebooks and pieced bit by bit to editors in a bid to beat the deadline.
He is most famous for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; A quasi-autobiographical, drug-fuelled misadventure with possibly the best opening line in all of literature. The 1998 screen adaptation features a manic Johnny Depp playing the whole crazy affair out as Thompson. Hunter courted controversy throughout his life, most notably for his love affair with narcotics and his liberal approach to deadlines. Still, his work zings with the poetic disgust of its day, at everything from Richard Nixon right through to America itself.
Hunter recounts a ‘day in the life of’ to biographer E. Jean Carroll during their 1994 meeting at his home in Woody Creek. After a long day spent bingeing on whiskey and cocaine, Hunter drops acid at 10 pm and starts typing at midnight. He shares the six hours of writing with top-ups of cocaine and ends proceedings at 6 am with a glass of Champagne and a soak in the hot tub.
How much of this is true is unknown. Hunter’s powers of recall are remarkable for a man running on a tank of booze and drugs, but apocryphal or not, it isn’t outside the bounds of possibility. At the very least, Hunter makes time to write. A drug-addled routine is still a routine.
Christopher Hitchens was also a bon viveur, although not quite to the extent of Hunter Thompson. English-born and Oxford-educated, Hitchens adopted the US as his home in 1981. He flourished in his new surroundings at first as a journalist and later as an author, columnist, essayist, and public speaker until his death from cancer in 2011.
He was a renowned polemicist. He aimed broadsides at Presidents Nixon and Reagan for US foreign policy decisions and targeted President Clinton in the 2000 book No One Left to Lie To. Hitchens reserved his most scornful broadsides for God, though. He relished debates with theists of all stripes, and his 2007 bestseller God is Not Great is full of trademark invective.
Hitchens credits alcohol for stirring creative juices and readying his finger: “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that — or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me,” he told Charlie Rose a year before his death, adding that it was “impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.” Whether alcohol improves writing is debatable. But it didn’t harm Hitchens, who “has no equal in contemporary Anglo-American letters,” according to the financial times.
“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense.” So says Kurt Vonnegut in his eight rules for writers. Vonnegut’s career spanned 50 years, in which time he produced 14 novels, five plays, three short story collections, and a selection of non-fiction writings. Many of Vonnegut’s novels are dressed as science-fiction: Whimsical characters playing out time-travelling dramas in extra-terrestrial settings. At their heart, however, are examinations of human behaviour and how we can be better to each other.
A prodigious novelist such as Vonnegut requires a strict routine. Kurt wrote from 5.30am every day, where he would “work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon.” In a 1965 letter to his wife outlining his routine, he also says “I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.” It seems the ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ mantra wasn’t lost on Kurt Vonnegut.
Japanese author Haruki Murakami operates along similar lines. The award-winning author of Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood – a deft blend of the surreal and the ordinary – divides his day between work and exercise: “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m,” he says, in a 2004 interview with the Paris Review.
“I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” His routine doesn’t come easy, though: “[T]o hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”
Still, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it: Murakami’s approach to writing might seem extreme, but it obviously works for him: He sells millions of books, in dozens of languages, and has a cabinet full of awards. Maybe we should all start swimming.
Stephen King is synonymous with the horror genre. His breakout novel Carrie came in 1974, but nearly didn’t happen as his wife had to fish discarded pages from a bin and persuade him to finish it. Since then, dozens of novels followed, including The Shining, Misery, and The Green Mile – all of which were turned into feature films.
But perhaps King’s most significant work – at least to writers – is his 1999 how-to manual On Writing. In it, King offers advice on everything including pace, characterisation, and dialogue: “Well-crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb, honest or dishonest, amusing or an old sobersides,” he says.
King’s writing routine starts “from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning.” His goal is to write “six pages every day“, which usually takes him four hours. Over the course of a career, this daily output translates to 50 novels, and sales of 350 million copies. Although he claims there are novels he forgets writing, during a long and well-documented battle with drug addiction. Scary indeed.
And there you have it: Five writers, five personalities, and five ways to skin the writing cat. You don’t have to drop acid before sitting down to work, or run a half-marathon after every chapter of a book, but you do have to write. Jodi Picoult captures that sentiment best when speaking about writer’s block.
“If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”