The two painfully-simple habits of highly-successful writers

“What’s the key to being a productive writer?” is the kind of question a struggling novelist will ask themselves before even worrying about the quality of their work. A good workflow is as elusive as inspiration itself, and has a ton of adversaries in these distracting times.

For the past few months, I’ve been trying to figure out what makes certain writers tick, and what makes others simply write, day in and day out, without bowing out due to mental or creative exhaustion.

A few common patterns emerged among the dozens of author interviews I’ve read in the past few months. While their artistic philosophy or their writing styles differ greatly from one another, most successful authors engage in two particular habits. One of them is expected. The other—Not so much.

1. Most successful writers do their work in the morning. For a practice that some have dubbed the midnight disease, it’s surprising to note that most famous authors aren’t the slaves of spontaneous inspiration, but instead, all write in the early hours of the morning.

Simone de Beauvoir was not a morning person, but still got much of her work done in the morning.

Simone de Beauvoir was not a morning person, but still got much of her work done in the morning.

Perhaps the most famous morning writer, Ernest Hemingway, mythologized the habit with his regimented and unwavering work:

“Nowhere is the dedication he gives his art more evident than in the yellow-tiled bedroom—where early in the morning Hemingway gets up to stand in absolute concentration in front of his reading board, moving only to shift weight from one foot to another, perspiring heavily when the work is going well, excited as a boy, fretful, miserable when the artistic touch momentarily vanishes…” (The Paris Review)

While it doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to pump out a novel every week or two, writing in the morning helps you get your work over with. Instead of ruminating on your work all day, writing in the morning helps you go in with a specific focus untainted by the world around you.

“I find it easier to get up early in the morning, and I like to get through by one or two o’clock,” said John Dos Passos, author of the USA trilogy and one of the most famous authors of the early 20th century.

It’s also beneficial because it helps frame your writing within a single time and a single place. You aren’t overstimulated by the day’s experiences, and it helps relieve a stress that for most of you comes with the baggage of being human. Getting your artistic impulses out of the way helps you consider what you need to write the following day, instead of merely worrying about when you’ll write your work.

Another important part of writing in the morning is setting a time limit for when you’ll stop. It’s easy to think that you can get ten pages out of the way if you have the whole day off, but setting lofty standards—and inconsistent ones, at that—will dampen productivity in the long run.

Graham Greene wrote 25 novels and several short story collections, but even he set a fairly modest cap on the amount he wrote every day. “Five hundred [words], stepped up to seven fifty as the book gets on. I re-read the same day, again the next morning and again and again until the passage has got too far behind to matter to the bit that I am writing.”

Even at the height of their careers, masters of their craft will scarcely write more than a page and a half.

Alberto Moravia, one of the seminal Italian novelists of the 20th century, was extremely strict about getting his work over with before noontime.“that’s between nine and twelve every morning, and I have never, incidentally, written a line in the afternoon or at night.”

In a study entitled “Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal”, the authors suggest that people who aren’t sharper in the morning may actually be more receptive to abstract problems and not logical ones.

According to the study, “results showed consistently greater insight problem solving performance during non-optimal times of day compared to optimal times of day but no consistent time of day effects on analytic problem solving.”

If you’re tired and groggy, start writing. You may surprise yourself.

For people who vow they aren’t morning people, you aren’t the only one. Feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir still stuck by a routine that gave her flexibility in the afternoon. “In general I dislike starting the day,” she noted. “I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one.”

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2. I’m sure you may be able to guess what the second habit is. The truth is, it isn’t much at all. Many successful novelists do almost nothing in the afternoon. Well, maybe not nothing. But rarely do they worry about their work.

Haruki Murakami doesn't brood in his spare time. He runs marathons. (Photo courtesy of: http://numerocinqmagazine.com/)

Haruki Murakami doesn’t brood in his spare time. He runs marathons. (Photo courtesy of: http://numerocinqmagazine.com/)

Irwin Shaw, highly-prolific playwright, screenwriter and novelist, was quite strict in his regimen. “In the mornings he won’t be disturbed,” stated his Paris Review Profile. “[H]is wife answers the phone for him. In the afternoons he abandons his typewriter for other activities.”

You’d think a writer would be too serious and brooding for activities, but the fact is, liberated mental activity helps the author as much as the written work itself.

Going back to Hemingway’s writing habits, it’s important to note that it’s not just what he does at his desk, but what he does when he’s not there. While some authors lead largely hermetic lives, many feel the need to get out into the world when they’re done with the page.

For example, Hemingway’s “self-imposed discipline”, which “lasts until about noon when he takes a knotted walking stick and leaves the house for the swimming pool where he takes his daily half-mile swim.”

Writers also love wandering. “My springboard has always been long walks,” said Thornton Wilder, playwright and author of Our Town. William Wordsworth mythologized walks through the English countryside, and recently, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami professed his love for jogging, and explained how it could improve the will of the writer. “Running taught me to have faith in my skills as a writer. I learned how much I can demand of myself, when I need a break, and when the break starts to get too long.”

Some even abandon their work and enjoy the morning and the night altogether. Honore de Balzac wandered around Paris, William Butler Yeats around Dublin, doing nothing but taking everything in.

I want to clarify that there’s a distinction between the author choosing to do nothing after work and the author doing nothing all day. In fact, walking around is a useful form of field work for the author. To take the world in without someone else representing it for them is key to basic sensory description. In his essay “An Apology for Idlers”, Robert Louis Stevenson argues that afternoon relaxation is not just useful, but essential to one’s education. “Suffice If a lad does not learn in the streets,” he argues, “it is because he has no faculty of learning,”

And in going on long walks, they may see the world with fresher eyes. “He may pitch on some tuft of lilacs over a burn, and smoke innumerable pipes to the tune of the water on the stones. A bird will sing in the thicket. And there he may fall into a vein of kindly thought, and see things in a new perspective.”

Writers often have lofty goals, and have a big manuscript or theatrical production in their sights. Authors who temper their own ambition and limit their work are often the most productive and focused ones. So long as they get their fresh air. So if you want to write for a living, set that alarm early, get those work boots on, write tirelessly for a few hours, then relax.

A Comprehensive Guide to Feminist Theory: 20 Essential Reads

By Elizabeth DiEmanuele

There is more to feminism than the, nowadays, simplistic “equal rights among the sexes,” or the inaccurate assumption that the feminist is a ‘man-hater’. While the latter is a product of the extremism that follows every significant civil rights movement, it is, unfortunately, the memorable argument that arises in the anti-feminist debate. However, contrary to much popular belief, feminist literature is much more complicated than the simple opposition of feminist (man-hater) or non-feminist (man-lover). Looking at society in all its complexity, the feminist theorist puts a magnifying glass to the economies of everyday action, voicing a need for awareness, and in some cases, a need for change.

Unfortunately, most feminist literature remains hidden from everyday society. Often tedious, feminist literary theory can be inaccessible and perhaps, elitist, in its complex use of language and analysis. As Gloria Steinem once said, “Nobody cares about feminist academic writing. That’s careerism. These poor women in academia have to talk this silly language that nobody can understand in order to be accepted.” With an absolute love and respect for the extremely accomplished and wonderful Gloria Steinem, it seems there is a need to repair the disconnect between the masses and academia. Feminist literary theory is important because, like any study of injustice, it exposes the illogical format of the arguments that support prejudice and discrimination. Furthermore, it provides a point of reason—and thus, understanding—for those who are unaffected. Here is a list of essential feminist theory reads, with some brief analysis for your awareness.

  1. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

“Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives.”

The key word in the above quotation is “taught”; women are taught by society to act, speak and think they way they do. In this way, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, one of the first works in feminist philosophy, takes a liberal stance on feminism. Challenging essentialism, the notion that women are inherently docile and weak, Wollstonecraft argues that it is patriarchal society’s limitation of women’s education that makes them inferior. While the man may be physically stronger, his soul and the woman’s soul are derived from the same Creator. Thus, his and her moral substance is equal.  It is the choice to deny women access to education that creates such a power imbalance. Using this argument, Wollstonecraft maintains the notion that men should view their wives as “companions” in their mutual equality. Although it is arguable that this work is not feminist, as the word never occurs, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication is the first step towards a feminist movement, voicing the injustices done to women in a logical and accessible way.

  1. Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851)

“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”

As an anti-slave speaker, Sojourner Truth’s speech garnered wide publicity in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War. Like Wollstonecraft, Truth stresses the need for equality among the sexes. She does so through valorizing the experience of the woman and asking questions that expose the flaws in the ‘man-superiority argument’. Truth’s strong use of rhetorical questions and sharp examples creates a compelling speech in favour of the innate equality of women.

  1. Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884)  

“The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.”

In his analysis of gender oppression, Friedrich Engels founds Marxist feminism. As he argues, a woman’s subordination is a sociological issue. Engels analyzes sexual morality, including the societal pressures on women to be pure and virginal in relation to the severe punishments they experience with adultery. He connects this pattern to the capitalist development of owning private property. In relation to the nuclear family, marriage to a pure, submissive woman is necessary for a man, as it ensures child legitimacy and later, inheritance. Engels further parallels this relationship to that of the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Considering this relation, a woman’s subordination is a struggle of class that is enforced because it secures capitalist desires.

  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.”

“A Room of One’s Own” is an extended essay that centers on the idea that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Using this argument, Woolf suggests that there are fewer works of literature by women because of their lack of property and finances. A woman requires financial independence in order to produce creatively. Reminiscent of Wollstonecraft, Woolf asserts the need for women to gain access to education to further their independence. Her famous fictional figure, Judith Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s sister), plays on the notion that a woman with Shakespeare’s talent could have existed, but her lack of education prevents society from ever knowing of it. In addition, Woolf also stresses the need for a gynocentric literature that embraces the woman’s perspective. She chronicles a list of accomplished women authors, such as Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and George Eliot. In doing so, Woolf creates a canon of women’s literature that embraces the woman’s voice in its truest form.