February 21, 2018

The Surprising Routines of Famous Writers

Dickens and his characters via Wikimedia Commons

By: Ryan Kelly

Sleeping in a coffin. Keeping rotten apples in the cupboards. Walking aimlessly through a garden of snails. Playing with your genitals.

These are just a few of the odd habits documented in Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work.

Mason Currey’s book outlines the routines of 160+ successful writers, inventors, philosophers, and artists. If you’re looking for one specific formula for success, you won’t find it here. These world-renowned people’s rituals are just as variant as the work they produced.

Since we’re in the midst of our Savvy Pre-med writing challenge, I’ve selected a range of these creative habits to provide inspiration and tips that might be useful for pre-meds during the essay-writing process.  


“For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.” - Morton Feldman

Some people can write under any circumstances - on an airplane, in a dark movie theater, while hanging upside down. But for most people, it’s important for their writing space to be consistent and conducive.

For Charles Dickens, this meant having extra doors installed in his study to block out all noise. His study was precisely arranged so that he sat in front of a window, with the same ornaments permanently displayed on his desk--goose-quill pens, blue ink, vase of flowers, large paper knife, gilt leaf with a rabbit perched on it, and two bronze statues of puppies and dueling toads.

Due to his tall stature, Thomas Wolfe would use the top of his refrigerator as a writing surface instead of a standard desk.  

When painter N.C. Wyeth was struggling, he would tape a piece of cardboard to the side of his glasses, blocking his view of his studio’s large windows to improve his concentration.

The small details of your working space can be the difference between a productive session and hours of distracted writer’s block. Find the arrangement that works best for you, and stick with it.


There’s more to a conducive setting than the way you organize your desk.

There are MANY writers like Dickens who required complete silence and solitude. For example, Carl Jung removed himself from civilization by living in a primitive dwelling with no electricity, telephone, or indoor plumbing. This was a respite from his normal life as a workaholic; he claimed that all good creative work was done in the stripped-down simplicity of these retreats.

But other writers needed company and noise in order to thrive. Jane Austen is reported to have done most of her best work while sitting beside her mother and sister as they knitted. Her cottage in Chawton was constantly alive with the work of servants and the chatter of visitors, but this energy seemed to help her produce countless canonical masterpieces.

For Chuck Close, he preferred the company of the media’s white noise. While painting, he liked to have the TV or radio playing in the background, particularly amidst a juicy political scandal. “My finest hours were Watergate, Iran-Contra, the impeachment.” He claimed the distraction was healthy, since it alleviated anxiety and kept “things at a little bit more of an arm’s length.”  

For some pre-meds, the isolationist strategy might be best - the tucked-away corner of the library or the unoccupied TA office. But others might feel more comfortable working amidst the thrumming of a laundromat or the chatter of a coffee shop. Experiment until you find the right spot that puts you in the zone and helps you keep your rhythm.    


People can be pretty lazy when left to their own devices. If you’re anything like me, you need a little external motivation every now and then.

Famous pop artist Andy Warhol made it a daily habit to call his friend and writing collaborator Pat Hackett every morning for a 1-2 hour conversation about yesterday’s happenings and the current day’s plans.

Novelist Carson McCullers successfully wrote her first book due to a pact with her husband, in which one of them would work full-time and earn a living while the other wrote. Then they’d switch roles after a year.

If a friend or loved one isn’t enough motivation, you can be like James Boswell and write an “Inviolable Plan” containing pep talks, manifestos, adages, and personal declarations as a way to psych yourself up for the writing process. Or you can be like Ben Franklin and outline every hour of your day in advance to maximize your productivity:



If the idea of a to-do list, personal contract, or partner in crime appeals to you, then great. BUT be careful - these tactics can be a lot like New Year’s resolutions: good in theory, but unrealistic in practice. Start with small goals and manageable expectations; that way, you’ll help yourself be productive without biting off more than you can chew.


Existential writer Jean-Paul Sartre is known for his intense daily regimen of 20 amphetamine tablets, two packs of cigarettes, several pipes of black tobacco, a quart of alcohol, 15 grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, and rich meals.

His addled, frenetic strategy might work if you need 50 pages finished in a day, but most artists and writers are shooting for a more sustained, healthier output.    

To avoid distractions and relapse, painter Joan Miro was known for his daily physical activity--no matter the setting--including boxing in Paris, jumping rope at a Barcelona gym, and running on the beach and swimming at Mont-roig. He also practiced yoga and meditation in between creative sessions.

Besides morning calisthenics, composer Igor Stravinsky would often execute brief headstands to get himself through a creative block: “It rests the head and clears the brain.”

Pre-meds should be the first to recognize the mind-body connection and the importance of balance. Before or during a writing session, take some time to exercise - open the lungs, break a sweat, get your heart rate up. Or find methods for daily mindfulness, especially ones that let you clear your thoughts of stress and zero in on the task at hand. Ideally, you’ll reach a point where you can be entirely present and focused on cranking out your essays.  


When I work with pre-meds, the procrastinators often tell me that they’re “pre-writing things in their heads” - a slowly developing mental outline that will supposedly help them knock out the essays when the muse finally strikes.

The world of artists and writers is split about this issue.

David Foster Wallace had “absolutely no routine at all, because the times I’m trying to build a routine are the times that the writing just seems futile and flagellating.”

Composer Dmitry Shostakovich would conceptualize a new work entirely in his head (“mental composition”), and then write it down with extreme rapidity and virtually no corrections.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright wouldn’t sketch anything until he had an entire project worked out in his head. He also seemed to believe in the expression “pressure makes diamonds.” For example, he did not begin the drawings for Falling Water until the client called and said he’d be arriving for a meeting in two hours.

But many other writers viewed this attitude as a bunch of B.S., some kind of artistic excuse for idleness or a fear of “wasted time.” Joyce Carol Oates believes that you have to forcibly push yourself through the early stages of writing: “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Anthony Trollope used timed writing sessions as external motivation, forcing himself to produce 250 words every 15 minutes. Philosopher B.F. Skinner took it in a more Pavlovian direction by starting and stopping his work by the sound of a buzzer, as a kind of self-reinforcing behavior. Vladimir Nabokov kept all sections of his novel outlined and organized in a file box, so that he could avoid blocks by writing in any order he wanted that day.

For pre-meds, I’d recommend the second school of thought. You often don’t have the luxury to wait around for your muse, and excessive mental pre-writing usually makes the process MORE overwhelming and confusing. Most people need to actually start an essay to see where they want the writing to go. You won’t strike gold with each attempt, but the repeated practice will hone your skills and slowly make the process easier.

Reading Currey’s book will leave you inspired and confused at the same time - so many successful people with so many different methods for success. But I think there are two important takeaways for any pre-med trying to tackle the challenge of application writing:


For example, Nicholson Baker had a different routine for each book, just so that he could feel a novel sense of excitement: “It can almost be arbitrary. You could say to yourself, ‘From now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops, starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if that feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work.”


As Bernard Malamud puts it, “You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place--you suit yourself, your nature. Eventually everyone learns his or her own way. The real mystery to crack is you.”

I’ve spent at least 15 years working to find my voice and develop writing discipline. My habits and preferences have changed more times than I can count. For anyone, the key is to experiment until you find something that sticks, and then tap that source for all it’s worth. If that method gets stale, then change it up! Be mindful of how your environment, health, and attitude are affecting your writing, and then adjust accordingly. There’s more than one way to crack your writer’s block! Good luck!

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