Top 10 Essentials to a Writer’s Life

Erik Larson Photo © Benjamin Benschneider

This week, I finished Erik Larson’s latest narrative nonfiction, In the Garden of Beasts, which is still dominating The New York Times bestseller list. Excellent read.

A few years back, I got in touch with Larson (who also wrote the spectacular Devil in the White City) to see if he would like to contribute a list on the writing life for a feature we were putting together. After finishing Beasts, I went on a hunt for the piece and realized it’s not online—so I’ve dug it up to share with anyone who might have missed it. I maintain that his tenth point is still one of my favorite things we’ve printed in the last few years.

Happy Friday.

Erik Larson: Top 10 Essentials to a Writer’s Life

1. Good Coffee: Every writer has a ritual that begins the day. It’s like turning a key to start your car. For me, the key that starts the day is a good cup of coffee, preferably Peet’s Coffee.

2. More Coffee: Alas, I drink as many as five cups a day. And then switch to tea. My teeth are the color of plum-tree leaves.

3. Oreo Cookies: I mean, look, if you have a cup of good coffee, you need an Oreo. Some mornings—the tough ones—I define as two-Oreo days. Double Stuf preferred.

4. A Sense of Pace: Many writers make the mistake of engaging in what I call “binge writing.” They write for 10 hours straight, riding the perfect wave of inspiration. The problem is, you still need to wake up the next day and do it again. Best is to pace yourself. Write for three hours straight, without interruption, then stop.

5. Knowing Where to Stop: My favorite “trick” is to stop writing at a point where I know that I can pick up easily the next day. I’ll stop in mid-paragraph, often in mid-sentence. It makes getting out of bed so much easier, because I know that all I’ll have to do to be productive is complete the sentence. And by then I’ll be seated at my desk, coffee and Oreo cookie at hand, the morning’s inertia overcome. There’s an added advantage: The human brain hates incomplete sentences. All night my mind will have secretly worked on the passage and likely mapped out the remainder of the page, even the chapter, while simultaneously sending me on a dinner date with Cate Blanchett.

6. Blocks of Undisturbed Time: I set aside a minimum of three hours every morning, seven days a week, during which no one is allowed to intrude except to report an approaching cruise missile.

7. Physical Diversion: When I stop writing, I need an escape—something that takes me out of the work and wholly into another realm. My main diversion is tennis, though I also find cooking to be very helpful. Something about chopping onions is very restorative. Dogs are helpful, too. They force you to go outside and confront the weather, although my dog did once eat a 19th-century edition of a British physicist’s autobiography.

8. A Good Library: For all writers, but especially those of us who write  nonfiction, a good library with open stacks is crucial.

9. A Trusted Reader: Every writer I know has at least one friend or partner who can be trusted to read early drafts of a book and provide an accurate, constructive critique. My secret weapon is my wife, who annotates the margins of my drafts with crying faces, smiles and long receding lines of zzzzzzzzzzzs.

10. A Fireplace: One of the most important things a writer must do is read, and there’s no greater pleasure than settling in front of a fire on a cold night with a good book (and maybe a glass of bourbon). Falling asleep in midpage is one of the delights of life.

Erik Larson is the author of The New York Times bestsellers In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, Isaac’s Storm and The Devil in the White City, which was a finalist for a National Book Award. He has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker and other publications.


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6 thoughts on “Top 10 Essentials to a Writer’s Life

  1. nreber

    I read a quote or two from Papa Hemingway in which he suggested something like Erik Larson’s 4 + 5: finish writing for the day when you still have something to say. Larson’s suggestion to go further and stop mid-sentence ricks my world. That’s one to try promptly.

    I do wonder though why writers like to single out their genre so much,. For instance, why would nonfiction writers “especially” need a stocked library more than poets or haiku writers?

    One final note: I’m still learning to hone the ability to drift into another realm of life. It’s good that my neighbor makes me crawl out of my cave every Sunday for an evening walk.

  2. writingitout

    I have trouble with knowing where to stop, but I love your suggestion of stopping mid-sentence or -paragraph! All of these points ring true. My dogs are probably the greatest escape; going running or walking with them really helps my mind to drift away from my work. They also double as my audience when I read aloud a piece that I want to make sure sounds right. 🙂

  3. Laura S.

    I am really in need of a trusted reader someone who wont sugar coat. I think that helps a writer build confidence also because it will help motivate either way. I can replace the tenth with red wine.


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