What does it take to become a writer? There’s skill for one, imagination for two and a whole host of strange routines, mantras and quirky habits. It’s not breaking news that writers are a peculiar bunch, but hey, if it takes running around a tree to keep the creative juices flowing, so be it.
For a little dose of creative solidarity, we rounded up some of the oddest habits from some of the world’s greatest writers.
Anthony Trollope, 1815-1882
A British chap, Mr. Trollope’s work is as alive today as it was 200 years ago. This classic story begins with a young boy lacking concentration in class, who would craft stories in his imagination to daydream the school day away. He joined the post office at 19, and later moved from London to Ireland at the age of 26, where he married and began writing. This he did in the utter darkness between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m. before his shift at the post office began. In a vehement scribbling frenzy, a borderline creative compulsion, Anthony would write 250 words every 15 minutes to the second. If he finished a novel before his time was up, he would start another, and by sticking to this meticulous schedule, he produced 49 novels in 35 years.
Gertrude Stein, 1874-1946
The American journalist, art collector, poet and author was best known for her modernist writings such as Tender Buttons and Three Lives. A nervous character, she was an inspiration to fellow legends Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and now to the community of bovine-loving creatives. See, she didn’t paint cows, nor did she write about them — she simply stared at them. During an interview in a 1934 New Yorker article, she explains that she preferred to work outdoors where she could look at rocks and cows during her breaks. If that wasn’t barmy enough, if the cow wasn’t fitting with her mood, she would up and move to another spot to settle her campstool. Writing furiously in 15-minute windows, dear old Gertrude would simply gaze at the cows for the rest of the time.
Kurt Vonnegut, 1992-2007
Best known for his novels Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, Kurt pumped out his genius work alongside hardcore workouts. Balancing short bursts of literary satire with walking, swimming and scrupulous eating habits, he believed a healthy body equaled a clear space to craft copy. However, in the evening he would “numb [his] twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water, cook supper, read and listen to jazz” — as quoted in his collection of Letters.
Maya Angelou, 1920-2014
A hero beyond the writing community, Maya Angelou was an award-winning American poet, civil rights activist and author of the 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was also a bit of an oddball like the rest of us. Despite having a house, she would rent an empty shell of a hotel room for months at a time in every town she ever lived in, and before taking up this temporary residency, she would request that all decorations, including wall hangings and flowers, be removed from the room. It went like this: Leave the house at 6 a.m., arrive at “work” at 6:30 a.m., and lie on the bed at such a specific angle that she would forever have calloused elbows. Oh, and don’t forget the glass of sherry. Undeterred by the persistent notes posted by the hotel maintenance staff under her door, Maya also refused to have her bed sheets changed because she never slept there.
Dan Brown, 1964-Present
A bestselling author, Dan Brown has birthed literary gold such as The Da Vinci code, Inferno and Angels & Demons, all of which have been turned into cinematic blockbusters. But billionaire brown has a few quirky writing habits under his sleeve, too — ever heard of “inversion therapy”? To defeat the pesky darkness of doom also known as writer’s block, the author hangs upside down to relax and concentrate on his ideas. He also (pre-digital era) had an hourglass that sat on his desk. Every hour on the hour, Brown would set aside his work to do a series of sit-ups, push-ups and stretches. Nowadays, his computer has an automatic freeze function to follow the same disciplined writing routine from 4 a.m. to noon.
AJ Jacobs, 1968-Present
He’s a New York Times bestselling author, Esquire editor and self-confessed human guinea pig. His bizarre writing topics include hiring a whole team in Bangalore, India to live his life for him — including answering his phone, singing to his baby and answering his emails — to spending a year reading the entire encyclopedia in a bid to become the smartest person in the world. His typical writing schedule begins with sheltering from the internet storm at home during school hours and outlining his writing, gradually going back and adding in more information, punctuation and the rest until he’s sitting in front of a fully fledged book. He also tends to write while walking on a treadmill — like, set up his laptop on the treadmill frame and walk while writing kind of thing, after being told that “sitting is the new smoking” by a doctor.
So what’s the perfect recipe to becoming one of the world’s greatest writers? Well, take into consideration physical activity, as common sense says that sitting on your gluteus maximus all day hardly counts as a squat. Rise early and get into a routine so your little head doesn’t have to worry about the mundane things life likes to throw at you. And the most important thing? Don’t stop writing — in the words of Jodi Picoult, “You can’t edit a blank page.”