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15 Authors On Their Writing Habits And Rituals

Books

A lot goes into getting words onto the page

Writing is, of course, a process and it's one that every writer approaches in a different way. Some are selective about their music choice, others about the time of day during which they write. Some require coffee to get going, while others need a walk to combat writer's block. There's no right or wrong way to write, there's only the way that works best for you. But a good way to determine that is through learning what works best for others.

So, ahead, we asked 15 authors to find out how they manage to get words onto the page (or rather into a Word document). Maybe their habits and rituals will spark inspiration or guidance for your own creative endeavors. Hopefully, it'll at least give you insight as to how to get started. Because sometimes that can be the hardest part.

Photo by Jason Berger

Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of the forthcoming Patsy
My writing rituals and habits vary. On good days, I wake up at 6am to write. My study becomes my own writing residency where I read, research, and write until around 3pm. I make my coffee, boiled eggs, shower, and get dressed with my wife, who has a regular nine-to-six. This ritual keeps me disciplined since I'm inclined to procrastinate whenever I get to challenging storylines. I've recently incorporated exercise into my daily routine. I realize that moving my body relaxes my mind, which helps me to write through difficult humps and spark great ideas.

I rarely write in public spaces unless I'm working on a revision or tinkering with ideas. If I do write in public spaces, I tend to do it in places where the book is set in order to immerse myself in the characters' world. For example, while writing my forthcoming novel, Patsy, I spent some time writing in restaurants and cafes along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, which has a huge Caribbean immigrant population. I also went back home to Jamaica a few times to capture Kingston—the sights, sounds, and smells.

There are days when I feel like writing nothing all. And that's okay. I've come to terms with the fact that each story has its rhythm and each character has their own time of speaking. I've learned to honor that. But still, I show up to work each day.

Photo by David Gracia

Bryan Washington, author of the forthcoming Lot: Stories
I'm someone who thinks in scene, for better or worse, so I use that to re-watch movies and television before I work. It's usually some five-minute thing ripped from YouTube, unless I've got an excess of free time. Which I don't. So, Girlhood, YiYi, Gueros, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, and Columbus are my go-tos. Some dialogue and atmospherics are all I need. That gets me thinking about what the director may have thought through to put it all together, like, each frame's components. Maybe it's helpful. Maybe it's not. I do it anyways.

Photo by Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Sarah McColl, author of Joy Enough
There is, apparently, a longstanding tradition of writers who work from bed. I started doing this in the last year or so, shortly after I moved to Los Angeles. I think I needed somewhere that felt safe and contained and private in a new, very bright, and unfamiliar place.

My most admirable and productive work habits happen when I'm at a writing residency, and I'm always trying to figure out how to recreate those habits at home. For one, there's getting up and out of the house with a destination and sense of purpose. No lazing about in my nightgown, no email, no endless horoscope reading. Just getting to work like it matters, as if it's important. What works so well for me at residencies is the positive peer pressure that a creative community brings. It's hard to procrastinate or fill up my Madewell cart when I'm convinced everyone around me is up to something really great. I'm genuinely inspired and more focused in that kind of hive environment.

Two things I've started doing when I get stuck or feel frustrated while writing: I'll take a walk, even just around the block. It helps to see a broken chair on the curb or a discarded Lime scooter splayed across the sidewalk or a blooming cactus or whatever—just to get some new visual information is helpful. Or I'll pull out a book and read, even just for a page or two. Someone else's voice and language and story can help clear out any irritation I may be feeling about my own so that I can keep going.

Photo by Niqui Carter

Lauren Wilkinson, author of the forthcoming American Spy
I like to start my writing day at around four in the morning, which is both my oddest habit and the biggest reason that it's irritating to date me. I have a set routine. The first thing I do is take my dog for a walk, which is crucial. The exercise and the fact that it's terrifyingly desolate in my neighborhood at that hour gets my heart pumping, and that makes it impossible for me to accidentally fall back asleep when I return home. After the walk, I'll pour myself some coffee and sit down to write at the desk in my bedroom. Occasionally, I'll get back in bed (I like to write lying down) but the danger there is obvious; sometimes a nap will sneak up on me.

I prefer to write every day and get grumpy and resentful if I don't have the time—it would be fair to say that writing is a productive addiction for me. I recognize that this isn't particularly healthy! But also that it was through force of habit that I finished my book, not inspiration.

Laila Lalami, author of the forthcoming The Other Americans
My writing day begins after the usual morning routine of coffee, school drop-off, and reading about the latest horror from the current administration. I turn on my internet-blocking software and put on instrumental music, which varies with each book project. For my latest novel, The Other Americans, I listened almost exclusively to jazz: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, the entire Miles Davis catalog. The music brings me pleasure, of course, but over the years I've also noticed that it's become a kind of audio cue—even when I'm not in the mood to work, it gets me started. I write for about six hours, taking breaks to eat or to read. Reading is probably my favorite time of day; it helps refill my reservoir of words. Then, at the end of the workday, I write down my word count in my notebook. It sounds a little OCD, I know, but it's basically a way to keep myself on track. Seeing that word count go up, even if it's by just a hundred words, keeps me motivated. People often ask me, "How did you write your book?" and my answer is always the same, "One word at a time."

Angie Kim, author of the forthcoming Miracle Creek
Before I start writing, I always play gonggi, Korean jacks. This is a game I was obsessed with as a girl in Korea. I was an only child, and when I got home, my mom and I would munch on snacks and tell each other about our day while throwing and catching the bright-colored stones in our set. After immigrating to the U.S. when I was a preteen, my parents worked 16-hour days in a grocery store in downtown Baltimore, and I rarely saw them. I stopped playing gonggi completely, didn't even think about it.

About eight years ago, I was writing the way I always do—in my writing nook, a tiny, windowless cupboard with a sloped ceiling so low, I have to sit on the floor—when I got stuck, having the worst writer's block on how to begin a new scene. I'd been working on an essay about our one-room house in Seoul, and as I stared at the blank screen, I had a vivid memory of being in that same sitting position across from my mom, throwing gonggi stones, and I desperately needed to play, right then. I went outside and got five small pebbles, brought it back to my writing nook, and played. I hadn't played in over 30 years, but muscle memory kicked in. As I threw and caught the pebbles, a familiar rhythm emerged, and after a few minutes, it came to me—exactly how I should begin the next scene. I put the pebbles aside and wrote. Whenever I got stuck, I picked up the pebbles and played again. The next day, I got on eBay and bought a colorful plastic set like the one I had in Korea and started playing at the beginning of every writing session and whenever I get stuck. I don't know what it is—the mindlessness that accompanies the repetitiveness of throwing and catching, the fine motor activity activating some part of my brain, or maybe the memories of Korea and my intense connection with my mom—but whatever it is, I now depend on it to write, and I carry a travel set with my laptop wherever I go. (I once tried to play on an airplane tray. It didn't end well.)

Photo by Julie R Keresztes

De'Shawn Charles Winslow, author of the forthcoming In West Mills
I once bought a desk for an already cramped studio apartment in Iowa City, and a Mr. Coffee that took up a third of my kitchen counter. I was determined to write at home, like the majority of my writer friends and mentors. Working in libraries and cafés worked really well for me, but I was spending money. Training myself to write at home would save me money and time, I thought. But about two weeks after buying the desk and coffee maker, I had to accept the fact that there's nothing like sipping on a cup of too-strong medium roast (with a splash of half-and-half) while in the company of people—strangers and familiars—while I hammered new words into my Word document.

The truth is, I'm a people watcher. And I watch people even more while I'm writing. For reasons I still don't understand, it helps me visualize scenes (none of which take place in libraries and cafés). Write sentence, watch, sip of coffee, watch, write sentence and repeat. All of this while listening to music on Spotify that complements whatever I'm writing about. I listened to a lot of old, old blues while I wrote In West Mills. So, if you see me in a library or café and I'm staring at you, just know that I'm working on my next novel!

Photo by Matthew Bradshaw

Daisy Johnson, author of Everything Under
I try to not allow myself writing superstitions. It is far too easy to throw away a day of writing because the temperature is not right or your favorite pen doesn't work or the coffee doesn't taste perfect. Mostly the only rule is: Get as many words on the page as possible. When I am writing—as opposed to editing—I try and do between 1,000 and 4,000 words, five days a week. Weekends are resting time, recuperating, composting; they are invaluable. I always write the best on Mondays after I've had a few days off. When I am writing I read a lot, sometimes midway through a sentence I am working on. I work at home in my study or at a nice pub in Oxford with other writers.

Of course, the busier you are, the less a routine like this is possible. These days I try and write wherever I am. Sometimes that means 30 words a day and sometimes 3,000. The important thing is to keep the idea fresh in your head. I write on trains or planes, in stray moments before meetings, in hotel rooms, at my parents', at my friend's houses. I carry a notebook, and when I'm working on a novel or short story, I am thinking about it almost constantly, on the back burner, turning over the problems in my head.

Photo by Sophia Shalmiyev

Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
I once heard the novelist Kate Bernheimer give a talk on writing rituals. She asked us to make a list of all the conditions we required in order to write—from atmosphere ("coffee shop with no music playing") to stimulants ("black tea with sugar") to mental health ("not be catastrophically depressed").

"Everything you just wrote down," Bernheimer said, "is potentially a barrier between you and your work. The more conditions that must be in place before you start writing, the less likely it is that you'll start." She invited us to cross as many items off the list as we could bear.

When I quit smoking, in 2003, I was terrified that I would stop writing—that I simply wouldn't be able to do it without cigarettes. I relied on them to wake up my brain, to zap away the fog and fear and uncertainty. I'd always had my ashtray to the left of my computer and a fresh Marlboro Red ready to light when I was stuck. As it turned out, I can manage without them (I wrote all three of my books after quitting), but I'm not out of the superstition woods yet. I'm still convinced I need caffeine.

Photo by Edward Carey

Elizabeth McCracken, author of the forthcoming Bowlaway
I used to have a million superstitions and rituals, but many have fallen away as I have aged. I used to, for instance, write only late at night, alternating beers and Diet Cokes, from about 8pm to 2am. Now I write any time I can, and I drink coffee, and, only occasionally, wine. But I still have my chairs. When I went away to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 1990, I bought what was, considering both the times and my pocketbook, a very expensive office chair. It was $229—I was so impressed with myself for ponying up the cash I've never forgotten. I put it in the back of a rented minivan, along with my grandfather McCracken's armchair. Ever since, these two chairs have been in my office, wherever that office is. (I didn't take them to Europe when I lived there, but only because I couldn't.) I've re-covered my grandfather's chair because it was eventually pretty disgusting, but I miss the two cigarette burns he left in the back cushion, one on each side. The office chair is gray and indestructible and unlovely and also pretty stained, and I've thought about replacing it, but I'm worried that it won't work. By which I mean I won't work, of course.

Sally Wen Mao, author of Oculus: Poems
No matter where I am, in the mornings when I'm getting ready for my day I usually listen to podcasts—history, pop culture, or literary podcasts help get me thinking about something by my designated writing or work time (usually the afternoons). Podcasts are wonderful because there are elements of oral storytelling in them useful to writing, yet they can also inform in profound ways. I would sometimes draw a tarot card to harness the energy of the day.

A fail-proof yet pretty basic writing ritual is always reading. I like reading poems and fiction, yes, but I also like reading science books about mollusks or manuals on obscure activities or field guides or academic books on topics like 17th-century Chinese folktales—I read very slowly and take down notes. Because I am a poet, I can usually discover amazing language in almost any kind of text. To supplement my reading, I also look for images, photographs, films, or drawings—sometimes I take a walk, or hit the museum or library. I take pictures of the placards describing the pieces or objects I find interesting. I also like discovering the artistic processes of other kinds of artists—sites like the Creative Independent, or BOMB Magazine, have entire treasure archives of artists and writers discussing their process and it's fascinating to know how their processes unfold.

Photo by Nina Subin

Erika Swyler, author of the forthcoming Light From Other Stars
I'm fairly tame as far as writing habits go. I always do a crossword before I start; the abstract clues and puns prime my brain for language and get me thinking differently about words. It's nice to start the day by grappling with a puzzle maker who's far cleverer than I am. Crosswords both put me in my place and free me up to play around. Then, I must have coffee. It's such a standard writer vice, but nothing gets done unless I have a cup near me. Fancy, plain, decaf, extra strong, it doesn't matter. Words don't start unless there's a cup in reach. I've read that drinking coffee releases oxytocin—that hug feeling hormone. It's safe to say I need a hug when I'm writing. I do a lot of writing at a treadmill desk, so it's a habit that gets comically messy.

My weirdest work idiosyncrasy is how often I change writing instruments. Some characters demand a specific pen, some a pencil. There are chapters that can only be written on a laptop, and chapters that need a typewriter. I used to switch rooms a lot when working, picking a new spot to sit in whenever I got stuck, but that's not doable on an airplane or in a hotel room. Over time, I've channeled that impulse into carrying around three notebooks and a million pens and pencils. I think all the switching helps me change gears without falling out of the work mindset. It's also a shameless excuse to buy office supplies.

Photo by Peg Skorpinski

Namwali Serpell, author of the forthcoming The Old Drift
I am too nomadic to limit myself to a particular desk in a specific nook with a certain slant of light. My frequent travels have perversely led to a sort of dreamy pre-writing habit, though. Many ideas for fiction come to me when I'm in planes and trains (not cars; I'm too busy trying not to die). I think it's because the body in motion tricks the mind into movement. I range around, collecting images and phrases. I tap them into my phone or draw diagrams in the back of a book or on a cocktail napkin. This woolgathering is too inconsistent to be a "ritual" but that's what pleases me about it.

Once it's time to write, I often just open my laptop and begin. I work in Word though I'm told there are better software programs. Word is janky, but in a comforting, predictable way. I fret endlessly over orphans [a single word at the bottom of a paragraph] and widows [a single line at the top of a page]. I prune and add until each paragraph forms a nice, clean brick of prose. I used to try to trick myself out of this inane habit by changing the font and font size at random. Now I just accept it as a concession to my obsessive bent and hope that it inadvertently weaves my wool a bit tighter.

Photo by Scott McClanahan

Juliet Escoria, author of the forthcoming Juliet The Maniac
I go to the basement with my laptop, glasses, headphones, water, caffeinated beverage, and nicotine gum. If it's winter, I turn on the space heater. If it's any other season, I open the back door so I can look at the backyard through the storm door. Depending on how shitty the writing is going, I might light some incense (Triloka frankincense), light a candle with various herbs stuck inside of it (mace, carnation, bay leaf, and others), or arrange some crystals around my desk (often carnelian, vanadinite, blue lace agate, citrine, or hawk's eye). I open Spotify and my current Word doc, and start working.

I initially write a very shitty draft where I don't care at all about how it sounds, if it's full of clichés, if it makes sense, etc. Sometimes, I print this very shitty draft out and start over in a new document. If it isn't too horrible, I work in the same document, cutting things, expanding things, changing the phrasing, etc. I go through it over and over again until it no longer sucks. Then I cut everything I can until it's as short as possible. When I am either driving myself crazy or can't find anything else to cut/fix, I change the spacing and font (usually from single-spaced Times New Roman to double-spaced Garamond), and go through it a few more times. I print it out and read it aloud, doing more copy edits. Finally, I print off a new draft and share it with my spouse. He makes some suggestions, and I either listen to him or don't. This is when I consider the piece of writing to be "finished," although most likely I will later receive edits from an editor.

I don't have a set schedule. I write when I can, and work on it until I run out of time or steam. This varies from half an hour to an entire day. The further along I am in the draft, the longer I can work in one sitting.

Tomi Adeyemi, author of forthcoming Children of Virtue and Vengeance
Right now, my writing ritual consists of timers, accents, and Thai food. I use timers to write for 20 minutes straight, and then use timers to take a five-to-10 minute break. This helps me to "reset" my mind and keep the words flowing onto the page. To get inside my characters' heads, I read their chapters aloud in horrible, horrible accents that no human being is ever allowed to hear. And last but certainly not least is Thai food, otherwise known as the great motivator. Rewarding myself with beef pad see ew and spring rolls after a good day's work has carried me through many late nights.

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