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What Would a Famous Writer Do?

typewriterThere is little doubt that large numbers of readers, who are often themselves also writers, are fascinated with the routines and rituals of famous writers and other artists. The Paris Review interviews are a long-running example of the Famous Writer Interview genre, which often include questions about a writer’s preferred work space, time of day, tools and methods, and other habits. The BBC has archived radio interviews covering similar territory and Maria Popova’s Brainpickings site often features the daily routines and advice on writing from well-known writers.

Three recent books both respond to and fuel our fascination with the creative process:

As these sources demonstrate, famous writers, like not-famous writers, have a wide range of habits: from the slapdash drafters to the meticulous revisers, from the early risers to the night owls, from the ascetics to the hedonists. So why are we so interested in such accounts?

We’re looking for a magic bullet. It’s tempting to think that if you just did headstands or drank more coffee you too could be a productive or famous writer. And maybe that is true, if by adopting a regular habit you would sit down to write more regularly.

We want confirmation that our own behavior isn’t so strange. Chances are, whatever your own work rituals might be, there’s some Beat poet or nineteenth-century eccentric who’s weirder than you are.

We want to be inspired by those who are the recipients of inspiration. The fascination with famous artists is part of a Romantic cult of genius that imagines the Muse sweeping in and favoring a few. But although some of the more interesting profiles feature elaborate attempts to encourage creative inspiration, most of these author profiles boil down to a few key recommendations that have more to do with regular routine than with anything extravagant.

There are a few key elements to consider in evaluating your current routine and how you might improve it:

  • Create a writing environment that works for you, whether that’s a desk in your house, a spot at your local coffee shop, in silence or with music. Figure out what you need to work at your best, in terms of physical location, comfort, and sound.
  • Prepare your body and mind in whatever way works best for you, by eating, drinking, exercising, dressing, or not doing any of those things.
  • Set a day and time for writing that will actually fit with your work and family commitments. Make it a sacred appointment. Enlist others to help you stick to your routine.
  • Show up and write. That’s the part that reading another author profile really won’t help you with.

To formalize your own routine and firm up your intentions, take a few minutes to answer the interviewer’s questions as though you’re the Famous Writer: Where do you write? When do you write? What advice would you give yourself about writing?

You already know what you need to do. Go do it!

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