Lessons From The Masters

If you want to learn the secret of successful writing, who better to look to than famous authors? The trouble is, their lives and methods suggest that the secret has more to do with the habit of working than with working habits. About the only thing that the great writers have in common is their talent. Their working methods, by contrast, are almost as varied as their subject matter and styles.

Some authors seem to need, as George Eliot did, a specially creative mood, or even inspiration, to write  effectively, and tend to dry up for days at a time between frenzied bouts of ‘inspired’ productivity.

Others are extremely unromantic about the ‘business of writing’ as they would call it. They work away regularly and unhurriedly in the study five days a week, as though creating works of art were no different from drafting legal contracts or assessing insurance claims.

Nicholas Monsarrat, author of The Cruel Sea, apparently used to work a regular nine-hour day in his study, starting at 6 a.m. The Italian novelist Alberto Moravia would spend a brief but regular three hours at his writing desk each day, between 7.30 and 10.30 a.m.

Businesslike through such writers may be, they are not always without their foibles or superstitions. Melvyn Bragg apparently insists on waiting for a Monday before writing the first word of a new novel. The 19th-century French novelist Honore de Balzac insisted on having an unripe apple on his desk, and his compatriot Alexandre Dumas the elder, creator of The Three Musketeers, would always wear bedsocks when writing. The British novelist and poet Muriel Spark writes exclusively on pale blue jotters, whereas Roald Dahl favours large yellow notepads.

Some authors need absolute  privacy and silence in order to concentrate properly. (The French novelist Marcel Proust had to seclude himself in a cork-lined room before he could settle into a creative working mood.) Others seem to need the hustle and bustle of daily life to release their creative juices, and might do their best writing at a table in a boulevard café.

Some authors write, partly at least, in order to cope with or drive away feelings of depression – Anthony Burgess and the late Georges Simenon, among them. Some writers actually seem to thrive on unhappiness – Franz Kafka remains the most famous example, perhaps.

But others write best when they are most at peace with themselves and the world: ‘You write better with your problems resolved’ is the view of one recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

You write better in good health. You write better without [unhappy] preoccupations. You write better when you have love in your life. There is a romantic idea that suffering and adversity are very useful to the writer. I don’t agree at all.

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez,

Some authors write extremely quickly and fluently. Dr Johnson completed his short novel  Rasselas in the space of a single week. Balzac could write 200 pages a week when the need arose; so too could the French novelist Stendhal. Others write with excruciating slowness: another great 19th-century novelist, Gustave Flaubert, often managed no more than two pages in a week – sometimes only a single page. His classic novel  Madame  Bovary took him five years of painful full-time writing.

Some authors, such as Anthony Burgess or the late A.J.P. Taylor, happily draft original material directly on a typewriter or word processor. Others, such as Roald Dahl and Fay Weldon, Iris Murdoch and Athol Fugard, seem to need the feel of a pencil or pen in the hand, as if there were some mystical connection between the moving hand and the creative mind.

Some authors disctate their work to a secretary rather than writing it up themselves – Sir Walter Scott, Anthony Trollope, and Joseph Conrad all started doing this towards the end of their careers. Ernest Hemingway did a great deal of his writing while standing up – resting the paper on top of a filing cabinet, for instance. The English author A.N. Wilson types away while sitting up in bed.

If the authors themselves differ so widely in their working methods, what guidance can the everyday writer derive from them?

Perhaps just this: to take writing very seriously , and to work intensely at getting it right – that is, at expressing your thoughts as accurately and clearly as possible.

And one more thing: in the great divide between businesslike ‘craftsman’ authors and moody ‘artistic’ authors, between perspiration and inspiration, the everyday writer should come down firmly on the side of the businesslike approach. The arty or romantic approach may produce greater poetry or deeper novels, but for everyday writing it falls flat.

Of all businesslike authors, Anthony Trollope’s daily routine remains the best-known and perhaps the most impressive. His Auto-biography records his amazing application and efficiency. For most of his writing life, he had a full-time job as a civil servant with the Post Office, so much of his enormous output (over 60 books, many of them three-volume novels) was the product of his leisure hours.

Hardly leisurely – alongside his Post Office duties and a busy social life, he still found 15 to 20 spare hours a week for his writing. Day after day, year after year, he would sit at his desk between 5.30 and 8.30 in the morning, writing 1000 words an hour. (He planned each novel thoroughly before writing it up – an outline layout on paper, a fully developed scenario in his head. And he kept detailed progress charts to ensure that he stayed on schedule.)

The Autobiography outraged many critics and authors of the day. Its no-nonsense view of novel-writing took all the glamour and mystique out of the art – or the craft, as Trollope preferred to call it. He argued that the writer’s life should follow much the same pattern as a shoemaker’s or upholsterer’s or undertaker’s, and should be ‘bound by rules of labour similar to those which an artisan or a mechanic is forced to obey’. No resting on laurels, no giving in to occasional moods or indolence. Just getting on with the job, and getting it right.

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That serves as a fine motto for anyone engaged in any writing task.

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