The following piece by Celia Blue Johnson is currently in the October 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest. Check out the full issue here.
Many great writers have found creative comfort while sitting at a desk. (Charles Dickens was so attached to his that he had its contents shipped to his vacation home.) But a surprising number of literary luminaries have ventured beyond the traditional perch to create their ideal writing spots, whether that meant stepping into a bathtub or trekking into the wilderness. Here are 13 of the most memorable.
• Every weekday, Wallace Stevens walked 2.5 miles to the offices of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., where he served as vice president. Between his doorstep and the office door, Stevens composed poetry. He observed, “I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking.”
• A 90-minute commute is a painfully tedious necessity for many people, but for John le Carré it was an uninterrupted opportunity to write. As an MI5 officer, le Carré spent his long train rides from Buckinghamshire to London penning his debut novel, Call for the Dead. Le Carré quipped, “The line has since been electrified, which is a great loss to literature.”
• Sir Walter Scott crafted “Marmion,” his bestselling epic poem, on horseback, in the undulating hills near Edinburgh, Scotland. Though one might assume a leisurely pace is necessary for creative concentration atop a horse, Scott preferred to contemplate the lines of the poem at a faster clip. “I had many a grand gallop among these braes when I was thinking of ‘Marmion’,” he recalled.
• Gertrude Stein discovered that the driver’s seat of her Model T Ford was a perfect place to write. Shopping expeditions around Paris were particularly productive for the writer. While her partner, Alice B. Toklas, ran errands, Stein would stay in their parked car and write.
• D.H. Lawrence preferred to write outdoors, beneath the shade of a tree. He found a trunk to lean against wherever he went, from pine trees in New Mexico to great firs in Germany’s Black Forest. Discussing his predilection, Lawrence noted, “The trees are like living company.”
• In 1917, Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard, started a small publishing company in their basement. Despite the new venture, Woolf did not give up writing. Every morning she walked down to the basement, and strode past the printing press and into a storage room with a cozy old armchair. Her pen would fly while the press whirred in the next room.
• Agatha Christie had two important demands for the renovation of her mansion. She informed her architect, “I want a big bath, and I need a ledge because I like to eat apples.” Christie constructed her plots in a large Victorian tub, one bite at a time.
• Instead of hopping in an actual tub, every morning Benjamin Franklin took what he called “tonic baths” in the open air of his bedroom—he’d shed his clothes and work naked, for up to an hour.
• Edith Wharton spent her mornings in bed, but she wasn’t dozing. She’d sit up and work, still nestled beneath the covers, with an inkpot by one arm and a little dog snuggled near the other. Wharton let each page flutter to the ground, and the pile was later retrieved by a maid for the secretary to type.
• Marcel Proust spent his nights writing in bed. However, the busy Parisian street outside his apartment window began to take its toll on his nocturnal routine: Noise drifted up to his room while he was trying to sleep during the day. Proust’s solution was to line the walls with cork, and it worked.
• James Joyce, for several years, wrote in bed at night while lying on his stomach. He used a blue pencil and wore a white coat. According to Joyce’s sister, the coat “gave a kind of white light,” which helped the author, whose sight was failing, see the writing on the page.
• Maya Angelou writes in the isolation of a hotel room. To ensure there are no distractions, she requests that everything be removed from the walls. Her own essential tools, which she brings into the bare room, include yellow pads, a dictionary, a thesaurus and a Bible. She used to also bring sherry and an ashtray.
• Dame Edith Sitwell had a ritual of lying down before she set pen to paper. Rather than reclining on a bed or a couch, though, she chose to climb into an open coffin. In those morbidly tight quarters, the eccentric poet found inspiration for her work.
—Celia Blue Johnson is the creative director of Slice, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit literary magazine. She is the author of several books, most recently, Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors.
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