Ask any fan of literature to describe the quintessential writer’s lifestyle, and the answer usually includes the following adjectives: neurotic, alcoholic, impulsive.
Neurotic, at least, is most certainly accurate — any profession that requires complete solitude tends to pry loose otherwise placated neuroses. From here, though, the reality of the writing life largely diverges from its mythos. Entire books have been written about the connection between writers and alcoholism, yet the vast majority of successful writers don’t have a drinking problem. It’s more romantic than practical.
Even fewer successful writers could be called impulsive. On the contrary, writers, perhaps more so than any other professional group, superstitiously cling to carefully curated routines, creating rules normally imposed by more traditional employment. Almost invariably, these rules and routines include specific sleep habits.
I studied the lives of 18 of the 19th and 20th centuries’ greatest writers in major detail for my book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. Along the way, I gathered a sizable set of information about sleep routines and the writing life. To make sense of these different habits, I’ve broken them into seven categories.
By far, more writers fall into this category than any other. There’s Toni Morrison, for one, who had two children and a day job when she began her writing career. As such, she established the habit of rising at 4 a.m., then writing until it was time to get the kids up and off to school. When the kids were grown and she became a full-time writer, the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winner found that the schedule still worked; she has described herself as “clear-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning.”
Likewise, famously hard-edged Ernest Hemingway rose with the sun every morning — he said that his eyelids were too remarkably thin to keep out the light. (Hemingway had a knack for embellishment.) He then wrote straight through until noon, when the day gave way to the drinking, hunting and fighting for which he is known.
Virginia Woolf, too, got up around the same time every morning. After having breakfast with her husband, the English modernist headed into her writing room at 9:30. Salman Rushdie isn’t necessarily a very early riser, but he does get straight down to writing — still in his PJs — when wakes between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.
“I’ve learned that I need to give [writing] the first energy of the day,” the Booker Prize winner says.
Joan Didion gets up and, over breakfast, deals with that perpetual dread of writing. She heads into her office by mid-morning anyway, every day of the year, and gets down to the business of producing some of the finest literary journalism of recent decades. Junot Diaz, author of Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, gets up at 7 a.m. every day, allows himself on the internet briefly, then gets down to writing.
Finally, with what I call “terrifying consistency” in my book, Philip Roth was settled into his writing studio every morning by 9:30 a.m. How else to explain Roth’s longevity as one of America’s foremost fiction writers?
Another Pulitzer Prize winner, American novelist Edith Wharton, famously wrote from bed every morning, surrounded by her little dogs and aided by servants who picked up and organized sheets of paper as she dropped them to the floor. Wharton revealed how truly attached to this routine she was when, traveling to Berlin, she threw a fit over the placement of her bed in the Hotel Esplanade. To be able to work, she needed it to face the window; it was facing the wall.
Around the same time, Ireland’s most famous writer, James Joyce, often wrote lying across the bed. Junot Diaz often writes lying down due to a bad back. Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov, famous for penning the scandalous Lolita in 1955, sometimes spent all day on Sundays writing in bed.
They have little in common as writers, but Margaret Atwood (known for her fantastic literary fiction) and Richard Price (gritty urban drama) are in the habit of rising fairly early, and even make their ways to their respective writing spaces soon after breakfast. From there, they share a similar tendency to procrastinate, often well into the afternoon when, as Atwood puts it, she’ll “plunge into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety.”
Almost uniformly, the late risers struggle to keep their writing schedules under control. Famously, Jack Kerouac — On the Road’s hard-drinking, hard-drugging author — didn’t stir until the afternoon. This, combined with his almost immediate need for a drink, left many days unproductive. Instead, his writing got done in Benzedrine-fueled bursts that could last days or weeks.
Also known for his love of the bottle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby and central figure of the so-called Lost Generation, often slept until 11 a.m., and then spent the afternoon trying to gear up for a writing session. Only if he and Zelda were in serious need of some income could he buckle down earlier.
James Joyce had a habit of sleeping until 10 or so, then lounging around in bed for another hour, thinking things through. His was one of the more inconsistent writing schedules I’ve come across — but then, Joyce also took a full 15 years to write Finnegans Wake.
Franz Kafka may have dedicated countless pages to skewering modern bureaucracies, but he was nonetheless exacting in his own daily routine. He rose a little before 7 a.m. and always reached work at 8:15 on the dot. He came home from his desk job every afternoon and settled straight into a nap that could last as long as four hours. The reason, he claimed, was the need for complete quiet in the house in order to write — a state achieved only in the late night hours.
Toni Morrison is also known to take a nap after lunch.
There aren’t many of these. Franz Kafka, of course was one; he would occasionally write straight through to morning. Vladimir Nabokov, who suffered from insomnia throughout his adult life, often wrote all night and slept in the morning. And if George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, was on a roll with a book, could be heard typing late into the night.
Very few writers fall into this category, but George Orwell would have to be considered one of them. He often wrote at night, but he wrote at all other times of day, as well. Vladimir Nabokov, too, could write seemingly anywhere and anytime, perhaps owing to the many emigrations he made throughout his life. If we could all be so lucky.