Pencil and sharpener

I’d heard the story many times before, but I still couldn’t believe it:

Gay Talese pinned his manuscript pages to the wall of his office. He then walked across the room to his desk. On it rested a pair of binoculars. He picked them up and trained them on his pages to study them word by word.

Or so the story went.

Bizarre, perhaps. But it seems to have worked. Talese, a pioneer of New Journalism, is the author of books and magazine articles that set the standard for narrative nonfiction. One of them, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” famously demonstrated how you could write a profile without actually interviewing the subject.

Talese wouldn’t be the first writer to ritualistic behavior when pursuing his art. Other stories:

Rita Dove, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, wrote by hand, standing up at a lectern with a candlestick on it. She wrote at the end of the day. She lit the candle and as the burning tallow began to flicker on the page, she began to compose.

When John Steinbeck was writing his classic novel “East of Eden,” he started each day by writing a letter to his editor, Pascal “Pat” Covici. By his side sat 12 pencils he sent spinning twice a day through an electric sharpener, each sharpened tip enough to last a page.

Essayist and novelist Gail Godwin lights two different kinds of incense. Her other must-haves: fresh legal pads and new No. 2 pencils with erasers that don’t leave red smears.

Rituals, as these acclaimed writers demonstrate, matter. They are part of their process, almost religious-like gestures designed, it seems, to summon the Muse.

Allure of rituals

In her slim but rich and meticulously researched book “Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty: the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors,” Celia Blue Johnson does a remarkably thorough job documenting the rituals, working habits and environments of nearly 200 writers, from Diane Ackerman to W.B. Yeats.

James Joyce wrote in bed wearing a long white coat and used crayons to mark up his notebooks (in the picture below, he chose red and green ) for “Ulysses.” Truman Capote, author of the legendary “In Cold Blood,” insisted on leaving three — only three — cigarette butts in his ashtray. Honoré de Balzac, the 19th-century novelist, gulped dozens of cups of strong coffee every day — the exact amount is in question — to keep him going. The French writer Colette couldn’t pick up her pen before picking the fleas off her cat. Whatever works, I guess.

Some, like poet Robert Frost, could only write by night, Johnson recounts. As an aspiring fiction writer, teenaged J.D. Salinger huddled under his bedsheets at night, and “with the aid of a flashlight he began writing stories, his editor William Maxwell recalled. William Faulkner wrote “As I Lay Dying” in just six weeks, churning out his novel during the night shift at the power plant where he worked. Others, like Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf trekked for miles in the countryside finding energy and inspiration along the way. In the modern age, the airplane became the favorite place of composition for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Margaret Atwood.

Environment matters to many writers. Marcel Proust famously lined the bedroom where he wrote with cork board to keep out the noise, and heavy curtains to blank light that might distract him from composing the classic “Remembrance of Things Past.” (The Covid-19 Pandemic has altered the usual working spots for many writers, as author and teacher Matt Tullis found in this fascinating piece for Nieman Storyboard.)

Tools also matter. Prolific French writer Alexandre Dumas could only write poetry on yellow paper, articles on pink, novels on blue for novels. Eudora Welty revised with scissors and pins—“straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins and needles”—rather than paste. Langston Hughes wrote his letters in bright-green ink, Rudyard Kipling jet black.

How writing rituals help

To non-writers, these behaviors must smack of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But to those of us struggling at the keyboard (or legal pad) to create something worthwhile, they can make the difference between a productive day or one that ends in despair. If we mimic the routines of successful predecessors, perhaps we can do the same. (If you’d like to learn the rituals of some of your favorite writers, I recommend Johnson’s book. I got a used copy off Amazon for under $9. And Maria Popova over at the inestimable Brain Pickings blog has done a great service summarizing Johnson’s findings beyond the ones I’ve listed here.)

But there’s more here than hoping to learn the secret of someone else’s magic formula. Individual rituals may seem like idiosyncratic quirks, but all are actions in pursuit of rational goals:

  • Help writers get in the frame to write
  • Alleviate the anxiety that prompts writer’s block or procrastination
  • Take care of the necessary details as a way to minimize intrusions
  • Provide a routine to keep a writer on track

Of course, not everyone believes in rituals. Isaac Asimov, with over 500 published books to his name, dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.”

“My only ritual is to sit close enough to the typewriters so that the fingers touch the keys,” he said.

My rituals are pretty mundane, but I embrace them. A steaming cup of Black Irish tea sets the stage to open the laptop and start typing.

But I own a treasured paperback copy of Gay Talese’s first book, the 1961 collection “Fame and Obscurity: A Book about New York, a Bridge and Celebrities on the Edge.” To call it dog-eared is a vast understatement; the cover hangs by a few threads. I carried it with me to a writing conference years ago where I knew my idol was speaking. During a break, I managed to get not only Talese’s autograph but to confirm, from his own mouth, that he had indeed reviewed his manuscript pages with binoculars.

I was so awestruck that I neglected to ask an obvious question: Why?

But if I had to guess, I think he would have said, “Because it worked.”

Chip Scanlan is an award-winning newspaper reporter who taught writing at The Poynter Institute from 1994-2009. He now writes and coaches from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida. His credits include The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post Magazine and The American Scholar; two essays were listed as notables in Best American Essays.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  A version of this piece first appeared on Chip’s Writing Lessons. It is published here with permission.

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