“In both writing and sleeping,” Stephen King observed in his excellent meditation on the art of “creative sleep” and wakeful dreaming,“we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”
Over the years, in my endless fascination with daily routines, I found myself especially intrigued by successful writers’ sleep habits — after all, it’s been argued that “sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac” and science tells us that it impacts everything from our moods to our brain development to our every waking moment. I found myself wondering whether there might be a correlation between sleep habits and literary productivity. The challenge, of course, is that data on each of these variables is hard to find, hard to quantify, or both. So I turned to Italian information designer Giorgia Lupi and her team at Accurat — who make masterfulvisualizations of cultural phenomena seemingly impossible to quantify — and, together, we set out to explore whether it might be possible to visualize such a correlation.
We ended up with a roster of thirty-seven writers for whom wake-up times were available — this became the base data set, around which we set out to quantify, then visualize, the literary productivity of each author.
One important caveat is that there is an enormous degree of subjectivity in assessing a literary — or any creative — career, but since all information visualization is an exercise in subjective editorial judgment rather than a record of Objective Truth, we settled on a set of quantifiable criteria to measure “productivity”: number of published works and major awards received. Given that both the duration and the era of an author’s life affect literary output — longer lives offer more time to write, and some authors lived before the major awards were established — those variables were also indicated for context.
The end result — a labor of love months in the making — is this magnificent visualization of the correlation between writers’ wake-up times, displayed in clock-like fashion around each portrait, and their literary productivity, depicted as different-colored “auras” for each of the major awards and stack-bars for number of works published, color-coded for genre. The writers are ordered according to a “timeline” of earliest to latest wake-up times, beginning with Balzac’s insomniac 1 A.M. and ending with Bukowski’s bohemian noon.
The most important caveat of all, of course, is that there are countless factors that shape a writer’s creative output, of which sleep is only one — so this isn’t meant to indicate any direction of causation, only to highlight some interesting correlations: for instance, the fact that (with the exception of outliers who are both highly prolific and award-winning, such as like Bradbury and King) late risers seem to produce more works but win fewer awards than early birds.
The most important point, perhaps, is a meta one: A reminder that no specific routine guarantees success, and the only thing that matters is having a routine and the persistence implicit to one. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.
Pore over (click the image to zoom) and delight in drawing your own conclusions or merely in taking some voyeuristic enjoyment:
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.)
Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:
This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.
Woolf remained incredibly resourceful — an inventor of sorts, even. After she switched from standing to sitting, she created a contraption of which she was very proud: She used a piece of thin plywood as a writing board, to which she attached a tray for pens and ink so she wouldn’t have to get up and disrupt her flow of inspiration should she run out of materials. Driven by a similar fear of depletion of materials, John Steinbeck, who liked to write his drafts in pencil, always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. He used them so heavily that his editor had to send him round pencils to alleviate the calluses Steinbeck had developed on his hands from the traditional hexagonal ones.
Some habits, of course, were far less pragmatic, harking instead to creative superstition. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.
Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.
A minority, however, measured quantity as inversely proportional to quality. James Joyce proudly considered the completion of two perfect sentences a full day of work and Dorothy Parker, an obsessive reviser, even skewed to the negative, once lamented, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
Even more curious were the resourceful methods authors used to compel themselves to execute their daily quotas. In the fall of 1830, Victor Hugo set out to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame against the seemingly impossible deadline of February 1831. He bought an entire bottle of ink in preparation and practically put himself under house arrest for months, using a most peculiar anti-escape technique:
Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.
He finished the book weeks before deadline, using up the whole bottle of ink to write it. He even considered titling it What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually settled for the less abstract and insidery title.
We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:
Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.
But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:
[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.
Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”
(A semi-scientific hypothesis of an aside here: If left to rot long enough, decomposing biomass, such as apples, produces methane gas. Though methane is not toxic, it can displace oxygen in a closed space — like, say, an obsessive writer’s small den — and could eventually pose asphyxiation risk if the displacement runs rampant. In small doses, however, it can cause light-headedness — that pleasant near-tipsy feeling of slight dizziness one gets when in the grip of creative inspiration. It is possible, then, that the rotting apples were more than an odd olfactory stimulus for Schiller and actually had a biological effect on his mental state.)
Most authors, of course, didn’t let their food rot for inspiration, but they were no less particular about their preferred edibles for fueling the muse. Agatha Christie munched on apples in the bathtub while pondering murder plots, Flannery O’Connor crunched vanilla wafers, and Vladimir Nabokov fueled his “prefatory glow” with molasses.
Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.
Many authors were notorious multitaskers: Alexandre Dumas dedicated every spare moment to his craft, writing between errands and meals, and Gertrude Stein wrote during errands as her wife, Alice B. Toklas, drove the duo around in their famed Model T Ford, Aunt Pauline (named after Stein’s real aunt, because the car, like Pauline herself, “always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most of the time if she was properly flattered”). Johnson tells us:
In the privacy of an automobile, she could let her mind wander and jot down a few lines, no matter where she was. Stein was especially productive during errands. She’d sit in the car while her partner, Alice B. Toklas, dashed into a store. While she waited, Stein would pull out a pencil and a scrap of paper. She was particularly inspired by the traffic on busy Parisian streets. Automobiles stopped and started with a rhythm that thrummed right into her poetry and prose.
Stein, like Vladimir Nabokov, even liked to write in a parked car, which served as a perfectly contained bubble of stillness ideal for writing. But other authors’ relationships with transportation and the muse were decidedly less safe — Eudora Welty jotted down ideas during the long drives to her mother’s nursing home and Sir Walter Scott composed poetry on horseback.
Moving vehicles and motion, in fact, have a long history of stirring up inspiration. (I get the vast majority of my own ideas while riding my bike around the city or working out on the elliptical at the gym.) Joseph Heller arrived at some of his greatest ideas while riding the bus and even famously stated that the closing line of Catch-22 came to him on a bus. When he was sixteen, Woody Allen channeled his budding comedic genius on his daily crowded subway rides to the New York ad agency that had offered him an after-school job. Most impressive of all, however, was that he managed to write his ideas down without the luxury of a seat, standing and wobbling alongside irate commuters. Johnson cites Allen’s recollection:
Straphanging, I’d take out a pencil and by the time I’d gotten out I’d have written forty or fifty jokes … fifty jokes a day for years.
But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:
That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.
You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.
Odd Type Writers is both fascinating in its particular oddities and oddly assuring in its general testament to the grounding power of personal habit and the coexistence of creativity and quirk. Complement it with some more practical help from famous authors in their collected wisdom on writing.
The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.
New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).
I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.
In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:
In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.
I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.
In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.
Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.
In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:
New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.
Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.
There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.
She later adds:
There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.
Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:
New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.
Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:
I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.
A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.
The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.
Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.
Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:
New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.
The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.
New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:
Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.
After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:
The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)
John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.
By Maria Popova
Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far: