How to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers

July 25, 2014 | 4 books mentioned 9 3 min read

Eudora Welty edited her writing with scissors in hand to cut out and re-pin sections of text. Truman Capote fancied himself a horizontal writer: he would only work lying down, with a glass of sherry close at hand. Anthony Trollope maintained a rather more industrial regimen, beginning his day promptly at 5:30 a.m. and pacing himself with a watch to write 250 words every 15 minutes. Then there’s Friedrich Schiller, who occupies an idiosyncratic camp all his own. Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his desk. When Goethe found them, Charlotte Schiller explained that her husband couldn’t write without the putrid aroma wafting through his study.

coverIn Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, Celia Blue Johnson details the secret formulas and sources of creative inspiration. These bizarre minutiae of the writing process are an attempt at answering the age-old questions about artistic creation: where does inspiration come from? What conditions make masterpieces possible? How do great minds work? The ancients explained poetry and art in terms of the muses, which was not an explanation so much as an affirmation of the sacred mystery. In the age of how-to guides and do-it-yourself manuals, we’re eager to shed light on the intricacies of practice and method, to find the patterns in the big data. The irony of these juicy anecdotes is that in their attempt to get behind the mystery, they end up re-mythologizing the creative process all over again.

To be sure, there are some useful lessons to extract. For instance, a surprising number of writers took vigorous daily walks long before science had connected exercise to productivity and creative output. Some walked to get away from work, to clear the mind of words and embrace direct experience; others, to ruminate on their scribbled pages and return to the pen with renewed vigor. Wallace Stevens actually wrote while walking, composing poetry on slips of paper. Daily word quotas are also popular (1,000 for Jack London; 3,000 for Norman Mailer; and 1,800 for Thomas Wolfe), as are pets. Edgar Allan Poe granted his tabby, Catterina, the status of literary guardian, while Flannery O’Connor kept the company of domestic poultry and Colette studied the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, until she felt ready to write.

coverDaily Rituals: How Artists Work charts the schedules of visionaries from Mozart to Milton and Thomas Mann in order to figure how they found time to “do it all.” (The underlying promise is that by studying their schedules, maybe you can figure out how to do it all too.) Many worked for brief but intense blocks of time, either in the morning or late evening. Coffee seems to have been a popular creative stimulant, but so was alcohol and tobacco. In other words, our creative heroes did many of the same things that non-geniuses do. Artistic production is marked in equal parts by idiosyncrasy and mundane routine, but neither perspective gets much closer than the Greeks did to answering the question. If anything, the attempt to unveil THE PROCESS shows how fascinatingly—almost theologically—opaque the origins of art really are.

covercoverThe close cousin of the great minds exposé is the artist’s self-help book—books like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. They, too, are interested in process and how to cultivate the habits that make inspiration possible.

Tharp, a world-famous choreographer, tries to bust the myth of genius by insisting on practice and hard work, while Cameron, writer and ex-wife of Martin Scorsese, offers a comprehensive twelve-week program to recover your creativity. The books mean well, no doubt, but they’re made profane by their resemblance to, say, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And they’re fraught with tension—the tension between discipline and creativity, between outlining a formula for artistic success and highlighting the many eccentricities of the successful.

Why try to engineer masterpieces anyway? The idea smacks of our tendency to make a science out of every imaginable pursuit—to break down creation into actionable insights, to imitate—with the help of models and charts—what is, by definition, inimitable.  The Greeks got something right when they neglected to explain inspiration. They let art be art—the divine in man, not the data-crunching.

is a writer based in Washington, DC. She has contributed articles to The Economist, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Read her work at or follow her @Zwinkler89.


  1. I’ve often thought, on the related subject of it taking 10,000 hours to reach mastery in a field, that you could only bear to spend 10,000 hours working intensely at something if it gave enough back, all along the way. All the stuff about writers’ working habits is a bit like describing their clothes. It doesn’t get to what it is, really, that makes them the writers they are.That said, a good long walk followed by Hemingway’s recipe of “Bum glue” is a pretty useful start.

  2. Why Joyce in title of your article .. and then no mention of him AT ALL in the text of the article. … False Advertising!!

  3. I’m also interested in what writers and great men and women of history were reading when they were young — their formative literary influences.

  4. Creativity is a such a multi-faceted process.
    I enjoy reading about idiosyncrosies, likes,
    dislikes and how masters practiced their craft.

  5. Daniel Alvarado,

    Yes, that is an especially irritating misattribution, considering Hemingway would have vehemently scorned anyone who wrote drunk. It is actually terrible advice, beloved of writers who like the trappings of being a writer–the stylish dissolution and tortured artistry–but who don’t actually write.

    The correct formulation there, in my opinion, would be: write sober, get drunk, edit sober.

  6. I am inspired by learning what works for other writers. It’s a reminder that it’s a craft, not magic. I think tons of people walk around inspired, but only a small percentage put that inspiration on paper/piano/dance floor, etc. I rarely have adopted another writer’s method, but in learning of such method/madness, I’ve been inspired to create my own.

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