Friday, May 4, 2012


Writers are perceived to be a superstitious bunch. Much like actors or athletes, we are thought to obsess over the tools of our craft or the process of our art for fear any change in the way we do things might offend the Muses.

 I suppose some writers might indeed have “lucky pens” or rules that cannot be broken lest writers’ block descend and the page remain blank, but a dedicated search of Google to unearth the superstitions of famous writers today came up with only a list of weird habits those writers followed as they toiled at their craft.

Truman Capote, for example, could only write while lying down, with some kind of drink in his other hand (nonalcoholic early in the day, a martini later). William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald skipped the lying down and the nonalcoholic drinks and went straight to the whiskey to prepare for their time before the page. Some writers work only in longhand (J.K. Rowling), some with not one, but two typewriters (Isaac Asimov—in case the first one broke down). Though presumably most authors use paper (or a computer screen), some insisted on index cards (Nabokov) or bits of paper held together with pins (Eudora Welty).

 Surroundings are important, too. Many writers cannot abide distractions, so close themselves up in the equivalent of the poet’s unheated garret (Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, modern writer Francine Prose). Others adapt their equipment to their unique needs: Thomas Clayton Wolfe, an early 20th Century novelist, was so tall he wrote draped over a refrigerator. I hear the latest thing is to write standing up, or with your desk somehow affixed over a treadmill, to avoid becoming sedentary.

Of course, many writers insist on word counts—you know, the old Apply-Butt-to-Chair rule. Hemingway’s was a mere 500 words (but, of course, he didn’t use many, did he). Or pages—Stephen King says he manages about ten pages a day, which amounts to 2000 words, or a 180,000-word novel in three months. This he does working just in the mornings (every morning, when he’s working on something, which is almost always). Imagine the feverish pitch required for that!

On the other hand, King himself tells the story of James Joyce, who was found prostrate over his desk at the end of a long day of writing. His friend asked him what was wrong. Joyce replied that he’d only written seven words that day. His friend exclaimed, “Seven? But, James . . . that’s good, at least for you!”

 “Yes,” Joyce answered, “I supposed it is . . . but I don’t know what order they go in!”*

All of this is to say that although each of these famous writers approached their work in ways that were individual enough to be classified as eccentric, in no way could what they did (or do) be seen as superstitious in the same way as a major league pitcher’s lucky socks or an actor’s refusal to wish a colleague good luck. These are work habits, having to do with the way people order their worlds to free up their brains to create, not the results of magical thinking.

When we start out on the journey to becoming writers we all engage in a certain amount of magical thinking. We wish, we hope, we dream. And there is nothing wrong with that. Nor should we ever give that up. But the idea that my dream agent is going to find me without my sending out a query is, um, not realistic. No one is going to swoop down and pick me up out of the mud and make me queen. Life is not a fairy tale. Work must be done to make dreams come true.

So we come up with some crazy work habits that allow us to do the work required to write the stories. We gloss over our inadequacies (okay, lie to ourselves) to build up the courage to send out the queries and submit the stories. Then we hope for a little magic to give us that extra oomph to put it over the top.

And every once in a while, magic happens. Pippa Jay’s Keir publishes May 7. Sharon Lynn Fisher’s Ghost Planet publishes October 30. These authors worked hard for their magic. And now dreams are coming true.

 What is wonderful is that I get hang out in the vicinity in hopes some of that magic rubs off on me. I knew something special was happening the day I met Laurie and Sharon in the lobby of the Marriott hotel in Washington, D.C. at our first RWA National conference. We’ve all come a long way since then. Due to hard work—and a little magic.

 Cheers, Donna

*From Stephen King’s On Writing (Pocket Books, 2000)

 Additional information for this article from “Weird Writing Habits of Famous Authors”, by Kathleen Massara, posted July 13, 2011 on


  1. Thanks, Donna. Here's to hard work and magic. :)

  2. Great article. Very entertaining - and cathartic to boot!

  3. Oh, interesting stuff. Hmm, I wonder how you would write while draped over a refrigerator...or even laying down...

    *tries to act out these scenarios and fails*

    My writing habits probably aren't weird, but I do have to have quiet and solitude to write--no music, television, pesky pets, distractions (including husbands peaking it to check on progress...poor David, he's learned!), no cows lowing outside the window, or coyotes howling, and no rumbling earthquakes (yes, those things have all happened!)

    Come to think of it, it's kind of amazing I manage to write at all, because life does go on.

    Congrats again on your debut novel launch, Pippa! May 7th came a few days early this year!!! :)


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