Famous Writers And Their Oddball Routines

The Write Life

The glare of a blinding blank page and (now) a flashing cursor can provoke anxiety in any writer, aspiring or established. 

How do famous writers do it? Well, we’ve culled a list of famous writers from past and present and their habits, routines, and quirky superstitions that keep the inspiration and words flowing. Some have habits worth trying . . . other’s are definitely ones you should stay away from.

If all else fails to ignite the flames of inspiration, get naked! No matter the weather, Benjamin Franklin spent his mornings in his birthday suit, taking what he called “air baths.” For Ben, it was an important disease-prevention measure to let air from an open window circulate around his buck-nekkid body.

Victor Hugo used nudification as an unusual cure to dissolving writer’s block: if the author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was unable to find the right words, he stripped down to his skinnies, gave his valet his clothes, and locked himself in a room until the right words came to him. It can be said that for Hugo, Franklin, and all the other famous writers on this list, writing is a truly a bare necessity of life!

The renowned American humorist and author of such gems as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer claimed to be able to write anywhere, but a favored spot was his own bed. Mark Twain even had a favorite bed with a beautiful carved oak headboard. 

Several other famous writers have found inspiration in the prone position, including Edith Sitwell who took lying down to a superstitious extreme. According to the New York Times, “she used to lie in an open coffin for a while before she began her day’s writing.”

Maya Angelou rents a local hotel room for a month at a time. She has management remove any artwork or decoration that would distract her too. According to the biography Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit, the only items in the room are “the Bible, a poem collection, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a deck of playing cards (sometimes solitaire starts the flow of language), a bottle of sherry, cigarettes, [and] an ashtray.” Old school! 

Author of the American classics Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, Truman Capote proclaimed himself “a completely horizontal author,” as well. Maybe lying in bed is the way to go when writing the next great novel? 

However, Capote had several other peculiar superstitions: He refused to begin or end a piece of writing on a Friday, he wouldn’t stay in a hotel room if the phone number included the number 13, and although he smoked more than three cigarettes, he would only leave three butts in the ashtray, scrunching the rest in his coat pocket.

The French writer Alexandre Dumas, whose works include The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, believed the aesthetics of his writing were almost as important as the content. He color-coded his work, writing all fiction on a special shade of blue paper, poetry on yellow, and non-fiction on pink.

Dumas was very much affected by this colorful habit; when he ran out of that mystic blue paper while traveling, he was forced to write on boring white paper, which he thought made his writing worse.

Virginia Woolf was a sister-notetaker in that respect. She wrote in different-colored pens, especially purple, which was her favorite.

Noted author of Ulysses and The Dubliners, James Joyce wrote on his stomach, using cardboard and blue crayons. But, this wasn’t necessarily because he wanted to. The author was nearly blind, having suffered from childhood myopia that continued to plague him into adulthood. Writing in blue crayon was easier to see.

Joyce also always wore a white coat while working because the white best reflected the light, especially at night.

Famous for creating a scandalous female protagonist in Madame Bovary, Flaubert kept a fairly unscandalous, though odd, schedule. He usually woke up at 10 in morning. Upon waking, he would pound the ceiling to beckon his dear mama to his room for a gab (she’d sit on his bed). He was apparently a smokestack, conversing with his mother in clouds of tobacco smoke, even though the noxious fumes made his painful migraines worse.

Bathing was really important to the novelist. Every morning, he soaked in a scalding hot tub and then religiously applied a tonic to his balding head. If the ritual application of hair-loss tonic helped in some way to bring him literary gains, then pass the Rogaine!

Oftentimes, to pay the bills, authors have to burn the candle at both ends, selling insurance by day and writing by night. Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis and creator of the most famous cockroach in history, could be called another creature altogether: a workhorse. After the toil of a standard 9–5 schedule in an insurance office, Kafka squeezed his writing in at around 10:30 at night and worked through the early hours. Then, back to the insurance grind. That certainly is a trial.

William Faulkner, too, balanced economic realism and literary passion. He’d spend his afternoons working on As I Lay Dying before heading off to his night shift at a power plant.

Usually, writers subscribed to the the standard pantheon of alcohol, weed, cocaine, uppers, etc., although other odd drugs abounded: the German poet Friedrich Schiller couldn’t write without constantly inhaling the overwhelming stench of rotten apples.

The New Yorker described the English-American poet W.H. Auden as “the finest writer ever to use speed systematically…He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted sleep.” If the Seconal didn’t do its job, Auden had a glass of vodka on his bedside table to step in. To Auden, amphetamines were “a labor-saving device” for the “mental kitchen” but he warned that they were “liable to injure the cook.” 

Notorious for his breakfasts of cocaine, Chivas Regal, and Dunhills, Hunter S. Thompson once said “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Well, they ‘worked’ until they didn’t anymore.  Virtually no words can describe the insane quantities and layers of stimulants that were needed to stimulate this man:

3:00 p.m. rise, 3:05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhills, 3:45 cocaine, 3:50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill, 4:05 first cup of coffee, Dunhill, 4:15 cocaine, 4:16 orange juice, Dunhill, 4:30 cocaine, 4:45 cocaine, 4:54 cocaine, 5:05 cocaine, 5:11 coffee, Dunhills, 5:30 more ice in the Chivas, 5:45 cocaine, etc., etc., 6:00 grass to take the edge off the day, 7:05 Woody Creek Tavern for lunch-Heineken, two margaritas, coleslaw, a taco salad, a double order of fried onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, a bean fritter, Dunhills, another Heineken, cocaine, and for the ride home, a snow cone (a glass of shredded ice over which is poured three or four jiggers of Chivas).

9:00 starts snorting cocaine seriously, 10:00 drops acid, 11:00 Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, 11:30 cocaine, etc., etc., 12:00 midnight, Hunter S. Thompson is ready to write , 12:05-6:00 a.m. Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit Dunhills, orange juice, gin, continuous pornographic movies.

6:00 the hot tub, champagne, Dove Bars, fettuccine Alfredo, 8:00 Halcyon, 8:20 sleep.

Caffeine is also a stimulant—and is, thankfully, legal and plentiful (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to write this slideshow so early in the morning). A few cups of coffee usually does the trick, but not for Honoré de Balzac.

The 19th-century French Realist (who wrote The Human Comedy, among other works) allegedly drank FIFTY (5-0) cups of coffee a day! It must have taken every ounce of mental and physical willpower to keep his heart—pounding a thousand beats per minute—from launching at warp speed up his chest and out his mouth. And, he recommended drinking the cups of coffee on an empty stomach . . . .

While the previous authors got high on various drugs, others found exercise to be the best mental stimulant.

Charles Dickens loved to take daily walks. He was a morning writer and would begin working in his study at 9. At exactly 2pm, he embarked on a three-hour walk through the countryside or the London streets. During his walks, he continued to meditate on his latest narrative, “searching,” in his words, “for some pictures I wanted to build upon.” According to his brother-in-law, Dickens would return from his walks a changed man.

A.J. Jacobs continues Dickens’s walking ritual, but on the treadmill. The contemporary author was inspired to keep active while writing Drop Dead Healthy in 2012. After a doctor told Jacobs that “sitting is the new smoking,” the author bought a treadmill, which is both his exercise machine and desk. 

Jane Austen, one of the most popular English romantic novelists at the turn of the 19th century, was able to work around activity, penning her novels in the family sitting room. Her mother often sewed beside her.

She wrote in homemade notebooks called quires, made up of scraps of paper that could easily be hidden if someone interrupted her (Austen was really quiet about her work and wanted people to think she was writing letters, not novels). Well, the cat got out of the bag, that’s for sure. 

Edgar Allan Poe created his final drafts by affixing the pages end-to-end with sealing wax, creating a unfolding scroll, rather than a hinged book. Poe pieced together scroll-manuscripts of “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fetner,” “The Bells,” and the poem “Ulalume.” Apparently, he also had beautiful handwriting. Paired with his other handiwork, the scrolls must have been true artistic masterpieces to behold.

In the 1950s, inspired by Poe’s scrolls, Jack Kerouac presented his editors with one long scroll of taped-together pages of On the Road. Kind of cool when you think about it, the long scroll mimicking the unfolding road ahead. Sadly, his editor didn’t know what to do with it because of the “unusual packaging.” It took years to finally publish.

Isabel Allende, the Chilean-American author of The House of Spirits, begins each new novel on the same day, January 8th. This date is personally significant to Allende because it was the day she started her debut novel, The House of Spirits.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Allende explains: “At the beginning it was superstition, because the first book had been so lucky. Now it’s just discipline. My life is so busy, so I need to save some months of the year to be in a retreat. I need time and silence, or I will never be able to write. Having a start date is good for me and everybody around me. They know that on January 8, I’m not available anymore.” Not a bad idea—pick a day and stick to it. You got this.

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