Med thumb writers lying down collage

Some authors are known as much for their quirks as for their work itself. Gertrude Stein, for instance, liked to write in a parked car. Sir Walter Scott wrote on horseback. Flannery O’Connor wrote in the company of her beloved poultry — pheasants, ducks, turkeys, quail and peacocks.

These are hardly unusual cases. Nor, really, are the handful of history’s authors who worked lying down, whether out of pure pragmatism or for the psychological benefits. Hypnagogia, that weird state between sleep and wakefulness, has long been recognized as a fertile space for creativity. But it’s not exactly accessible on demand.  

For writers who prefer beds to desks, lying down can be a way of sinking back however slightly into that dreamlike state where anything is possible. Or maybe it’s just comfortable. Here are seven authors who, for their own idiosyncratic reasons, wrote their best work lying down. 

Truman Capote

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In a 1957 interview with the Paris Review, the “In Cold Blood” author declared himself “a completely horizontal author.” “I can’t think unless I’m lying down,” Capote said, “either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.” As afternoon blended into evening, that cup of coffee became a cup of mint tea, then sherry, then a martini. Perhaps reluctant to dent his mattress by lugging a typewriter into bed with him, Capote wrote entirely in longhand.

Mark Twain

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The father of American literature bragged that he could write anywhere, and “anywhere” often referred to his bed. “Just try it in bed sometime,” he told the New York Times in 1902. “I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away. Thinking is easy work, and there isn’t much labor in moving your fingers sufficiently to get the words down.” How’s that for a crash-course in writing? All you have to do is move your fingers! 

Though he lived in many houses, Twain reportedly was smitten with one bed that he bought in Italy in 1878 and kept until his death — which transpired on top of it — in 1910. According to one biography, the oaken bed had “a headboard carved into a bas-relief of cupids, nymphs and seraphs, the six-wing angels who guard God’s throne.” Twain claimed to find the image so powerful that he slept with his head opposite them, “so that this heavenly vision of worldly success would be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.”

Vladimir Nabokov

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More than one source reports that the mind behind “Lolita” and “Pale Fire” worked at a standing desk, writing on index cards that allowed him to rearrange scenes as the subject demanded. Yet we can report with certainty that Nabokov wrote in bed on at least one occasion, captured in this photo that appears to be from LIFE Magazine. How to reconcile the incongruity? Perhaps we’re witnessing him mid-revision: In 1964 Nabokov told Playboy that he began his day lying in bed, “mentally revising and planning things.” Or perhaps he was simply a fabulist, ashamed to admit he did his best work recumbent. The truth, as usual, is lost to the hallowed halls of history. 

James Joyce

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James Joyce was weird. Not only did he write while lying down on his stomach, he also wrote while wearing a white coat, and penned “Finnegans Wake” in crayon — a different color for each draft. This was due largely to an eye condition that, complicated by rheumatic fever, left him mostly blind. The crayons made his work easier to see; the white coat reflected light onto his pages. His affinity for working prone, presumably, was also a matter of convenience and comfort. 

Edith Wharton 

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When she finished writing a page — longhand, always longhand — Edith Wharton tossed it on the floor, where her secretary would pick it up and type it out. She worked, according to her biographers, in the morning, with her Pekinese in bed beside her. According to one biographer, Wharton was so attached to her routine that she threw “a fit of minor hysterics” when, after arriving in a Berlin hotel, she found her bed in the wrong place:

…not until it had been moved to face the window did she settle down and begin to find Berlin “incomparable.” [Art historian Bernard] Berenson thought this an absurd performance; but because Edith never harped upon the physical requirements of her literary life, he did not quite realize that she worked in bed every morning and therefore needed a bed which faced the light. It had been her practice for more than twenty years; and for a woman... who clung seriously to her daily stint, the need was a serious one.

Marcel Proust

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The chronically ill author of “In Search of Lost Time” didn’t just write in bed — he practically lived there. Plagued by disease as well his own reclusive tendencies, Proust kept to a soundproofed Paris apartment, where his bedroom walls were lined with cork and his window was perpetually shut. He often wrote at night — on one occasion, for three days straight — and slept during the day, occasionally (and appropriately) losing any sense of time. According to Time Magazine, Proust once “walked to the Louvre to refresh his memory of a painting, only to realize once he got there that it was midnight.” As for his tendency to write in bed, we can turn to Proust’s first book of poems and sketches, published in 1896: “It is pleasant, when one is distraught, to lie in the warmth of one’s bed, and there, with all effort and struggle at an end, even perhaps with one’s head under the blankets, surrender completely to howling, like branches in the autumn wind.” 

Richard Powers

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Sci-fi novelist Richard Powers has written at least three books lying down, dictating them to his laptop. He wrote yet another on a wireless keyboard, his words projected on a wall across from his bed. “My dream has always been to suspend myself in space when I write, and lying horizontal in bed is the closest to doing that,” he told the Paris Review. “You’re at the still point of the turning world. The only thing that I am touching is a cordless, one-pound keyboard. The sense of umbilical connection to the world is minimal. I’m free to make myself a recipient of all this remembered agitation—to ‘recollect in tranquility,’ to use Wordsworth’s phrase.” Fair enough.