Process: the writing lives of great authors



book cover


I love reading about the routines and working lives of artists and writers. It’s fascinating to discover what ignites their inspirations and equally what hinders their progress. As such this book promised to be the perfect read for me.

Combining author biography with entertaining details about their writing habits, Stodola introduces us to the working person behind the famous name. The person who has devoted thousands of hours or dozens of years to researching, creating, avoiding, thinking, procrastinating and eventually writing the works that readers like us hugely admire. Her portraits of these writers at work allow us to appreciate the huge effort and often bizarre practices that propel these great minds forward to write at all costs.

A writer’s setting

Stodola’s portraits of these great writers adapting to their circumstances and working with what they have are intriguing. Franz Kafka waited until all other members of the household were asleep before he attempted to write. As a single parent, Toni Morrison chose writing over a social life to enable her to get her work written, admitting; “I don’t do any of the so-called fun things in life.” Vladimir Nabokov had an unpredictable schedule whereby he had to fit his writing around his lecturing and tennis coaching jobs. Finances meant this was the case well into his late 60s. He wrote anywhere and everywhere (sometimes even in the bath!) and often wrote on index cards finding them perfect for reorganising his plot without extensive rewrites. George Orwell was not a writer prone to invention and instead used real life experiences and work in the field – even posing as a tramp so that he could write about poverty free from the expected clichés. Following the wealth and renown that came with Animal Farm, he retreated to a Scottish island so that there he could recreate the “stark, impoverished, melancholic” conditions that he needed to write 1984.

The process

On writing itself, George Orwell wrote unceasingly despite calling the process “a horrible exhausting struggle.” David Foster Wallace is described by Stodola with “perhaps no great writer has ever been so effusive about his writer’s block.” Something that Richard Price struggled with too; “the only thing worse than writing is not writing.” He started with no plot in mind and “just goes along with something he’s interested in” saying; “the actual story can be an after-thought.” Salman Rushdie famously wrote five books during his decade in hiding. “I’ve learned I need to give it the first energy of the day, so before I read the newspaper, before I open the mail, before I phone anyone, often before I shower, I sit in my pajamas at the desk.” He then writes for four hours after which time he finds that his output “becomes mush.” Edith Wharton was from a wealthy set and became a writer educated by her own will. She always started a story by setting a scene for the inevitable to occur. “Her afternoons were reserved for life’s pleasures as conceived by Edith Wharton: adventure, conversation and cultured living.” Virginia Woolf’s financial security allowed her to take her time to perfect the writing. Often she revised her work “5, 6, 7 miserable times.” She used her diaries to timetable and plot her novels and oddly she worked to an allotted schedule that husband Leonard afforded her. Stodola says “entire plots, characters and even the eventual titles would be in place before the first word of the first draft sprang from the pen.” For Ernest Hemingway “The best way is always to stop when you are going good. That way your subconscious will be working on it all the time, but if you worry about it, your brain will get tired before you start again.” On drafting: “you put down the words in hot blood, like an argument, and correct them when your temper has cooled.” Zadie Smith’s writing is incremental and cumulative. She homes in on each sentence, perfecting one after the other. There are no grand plans or plot outlines, just one sentence and then the next until it is done. She edits as she goes meaning no drafts and no rewrites. When working on new material, Margaret Atwood says; “a voice starts operating, someone starts talking and I want to know more about him, find out about it.” Joan Didion’s stories are always taken from scenes or events that she’s witnessed first-hand which is why keeping a notebook on her at all times has been crucial to her success. She says; “see enough and write it down.” Jack Kerouac wrote in sporadic bursts fuelled by Benzedrine, working day and night. His friendship with his fellow “Beats” – William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg –  a constant muse as they cross-pollinated each other’s writing. James Joyce had an incredibly slow output, constantly distracted with other activities. F Scott Fitzgerald’s evenings dictated his days. Although a compulsive planner, his social life meant he couldn’t keep to any semblance of order or routine. Stodola says the writing he did was “always completed seemingly between cocktails.” He struggled to stay sober enough to write and his time was further broken up by his financial need to keep writing popular short stories for which he was paid handsomely but which he felt had less merit than his novels.

The importance of being a reader

Lots of writers read to inspire their writing. Some read throughout the writing process, some stop altogether whilst others avoid anything close to their own literature.  Toni Morrison only read detective novels when she was writing as she felt they didn’t interfere with her style or voice. Virginia Woolf had a house full of books as did Ernest Hemingway who was said to have a whopping 4623 volumes – all bar one of which he claimed he had read. If Zadie Smith gets stuck she uses other writer’s novels to tease out a voice or a tone. When writing novels, Salman Rushdie reads poetry as a way of reminding himself to pay attention to language.

For any writers out there, inspiring writers or voracious readers, this book is incredibly interesting. It has also given me an “in” to the works of some great authors that I have never had a chance to read. Brilliant book. Highly recommended.


Notes on the author: Sarah Stodola:

  • Grew up in Kentucky, now lives in New York
  • Her writing has appeared in, amongst other publications, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal
  • She is currently Editorial Director for Strolby

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