Weird Ways to Wordsmith

Every writer has their own idiosyncrasies that somehow seem useful when they’re trying to crank out their…whatever their product happens to be.  Sometimes they’re not totally comprehensible to the normal folks, but hey…whatever works!  It took me a lot of fumbling around to come up with a system, but I read somewhere that Patricia Cornwell kept journals to discuss her plots and details with herself, and I figured that must be a worth a shot if that’s what helped her sell a hundred million books.  That’s what finally kept me focused — arguing with myself about why a plot point might work or not, keeping details of characters straight, trying out names of people and places and books — just about everything about the book.  The notes file for my first novel was about half the length of the finished novel itself.

Of course that won’t work for everybody, but we all have our ways.  I do have other rituals, but those are the ones that give me my super powers and the aliens have sworn me to secrecy. 

But, great news!  Other — and some quite startling — rituals that apparently lead to much greater super powers, since they’re part of the writing lives of a lot of very successful authors, are not so secret.  Several of the strange habits of famous writers have been collected in a book called “Odd Type Writers” by Celia Blue Johnson.  It was actually published back in 2013, so yes, I’m a little slow in discovering it but the information is timeless, so that makes me feel better.  Many of those habits have been excerpted from the book in an article I recently came across by Maria Popova on her Brain Pickings website.  The website always has some interesting info to peruse, and I usually get a little too distracted and spend too much time enjoying the side trips, but they’re always worth it. 

Take a look!  I posted a similar article a few months ago, but this one has different and more extensive tales to tell.  This article may not give you that one tip that will put you on your way to immediate best-seller-ness, but it does give a fascinating glimpse into the quirks behind some of the greatest wordsmiths of the ages, and maybe you’d like to chase down that book and find out even more.  Happy perusing!

The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers

Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic.

By Maria Popova

Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library) — the more dimensional and thoroughly researched counterpart to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals — Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

“One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.”

Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:

“To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.”

James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)

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