The Secret Schedules of Great Authors

As I writer, I’m always curious about how other writers write. And much of what I’ve read on this subject is daunting: write every day, write even when you don’t feel like it, write first thing in the morning when your energies are at their peak, etc. Hemingway was a great proponent of early morning writing, starting at six, and even Stephen King’s excellent thoughts in On Writing are a bit daunting:

“Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule–in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk–exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.”

Being a stay-at-home, teach-my-children-their-school mom doesn’t always permit this sort of schedule (especially during things like the A-Z challenge). There are days I don’t write. There are times I just edit. There are weeks when I don’t even touch my works-in-progress, and I’ve always wondered whether that made me a “bad writer.”

And then I read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. He looks at 161 different kinds of artists–musicians, choreographers, writers, painters–and examines how they created their work. What their daily schedule looked like, and what was remarkably freeing was the variety.

Anthony Trollope (one of my many favorite writers) was an early writer, since he had a full-time job with the post office. He wrote at 5:30 in the morning and wrote for three hours, but he admits the whole time wasn’t devoted to writing. “I always began my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which would take me half an hour, and which consisted chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases.” His goal was 1,000 words an hour, though, which makes him worse than King in terms of expectations.

Jane Austen didn’t tackle her writing until after breakfast. “Austen rose early, before the other women were up, and played the piano. At 9:00 she organized the family breakfast, her one major piece of household work. Then she settled down to write in the sitting room, often with her mother and sister sewing quietly nearby. If visitors showed up, she would hide her papers and join in the sewing.” Apparently, there was a swing door that visitors had to go through to reach the sitting room, and Jane preferred to keep that door in a creaky state, so she’d have notice when anyone was coming.

Contrary to Trollope and all the “early riser” crowd, Gustave Flaubert was a night owl. He “established a strict routine that allowed him to write for several hours each night–he was easily distracted by noises in the daytime.” His schedule began at 10 in the morning, but he didn’t touch his work until 9 or 10 at night, spending the rest of the day eating, walking, giving a lesson to his niece, and having family interactions (talking to his mother, reading, etc.). And his progress was slow. At one point, he complained that [Madame] Bovary is not exactly racing along: two pages in a week! Sometimes I’m so discouraged I could jump out a window.” (And I’m sure the content of the novel didn’t help, as the protagonist spends a good deal of time being discouraged and unhappy herself.)

Gertrude Stein‘s ritual was rather amusing. Her companion, Alice B. Toklas, handled the household work so Stein could write. After leaving Paris during the outbreak of WWII, they lived in a country home, and Stein preferred to write outside. A New Yorker article described how this played out: “Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow.” Her autobiography confirmed that she never really wrote much more than half an hour a day, but stated “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day.”

I also enjoyed Francine Prose‘s thoughts on writing: “I write whenever I’m able, for a few days or a week or a month if I can get the time. i sneak way to the country and work on a computer that’s not connected to the Internet and count on the world to go away long enough for me to get a few words down on paper, whenever and however I can. When the writing is going well, I can work all day. When it’s not, I spend a lot of time gardening and standing in front of the refrigerator.”

Overall, the book is a gem and I’d highly recommend it to anyone. Most writing books talk about how to write rather than examining what writers did and how they lived on a day-to-day basis, and this book fills in the gap, letting us in on their secrets. There were artists I’d never heard of, but it was a fun read all the same, and a great encouragement on the creative process. It reveals just how diverse people are, reminding us that even though they wrote at different times and in different ways, they still produced excellent works, admired and read by many.

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by Alvimann, Creative Commons

12 thoughts on “The Secret Schedules of Great Authors

  1. I always find writers’ schedules so interesting. I can’t write in the morning; the editor in me is up and ready, but the muse is still asleep. Some of my best writing gets done between 11 pm and 2 am.
    This is also why my grades are going down.


  2. That’s an interesting post, and now I want to read the book! It has always bothered me when writers insist that other writers conform to a set schedule every day. With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I just can’t do that. I tend to work best in the late afternoon and late at night. Since I have trouble sleeping on a regular schedule, the rest of my life can’t follow a schedule either. I’m easily distracted, so I like writing late at night when I’m less likely to be disturbed by the phone or other noises. I’m not going to beat myself up any more because I don’t write early in the morning and I don’t write every day.


    1. So you’re like Gustave Flaubert then! I felt it was great to be able to find authors who wrote every bit as sporadic as we do, on very different schedules than the “write every day” mantra.


  3. Thanks so much for this post, really helpful in a practical way – and very amusing too there are so many creative ideas in there LOL! I do some of my writing in a cafe while my daughter is busy with her little cup of milk and cookie then making cards for her friends out of stickers, that usually helps me get about forty minutes in 😉 Of course this is the luxurious part of the writing, the bulk of it is still snuck in during ‘waiting’ moments like on the train which doesn’t often produce anything brilliant, but sometimes there is a sentence or two worth keeping.


  4. Hi Andrea! Fantastic post on writer schedules here. As one of the “extra posts,” I scheduled this article as a guest post to be featured tonight on (per your earlier permission). As usual, it has your credit/bio/link. Thanks!

    And excellent tips, but I don’t think I’ll be taking pictures of cows anytime soon. : P


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