I love reading about the writing habits of great writers. Maybe it’s because I’m looking for that one secret element that made them great.
I guess there is one secret that’s consistent with all of them: they worked hard. So much harder than we do today. I’ll explain in a bit.
But first, let’s look at what C.S. Lewis had to say about an ideal writing day in his book, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life.
“[I] settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype, so that what I still mean when I speak of a “normal” day (and lament that normal days are so rare) is a day of the Bookham pattern. For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table…”
This “Bookham pattern” he speaks of developed after his father withdrew him from public school and brought him home to be tutored. It was then that a daily routine he grew to love developed.
And what writer wouldn’t love to have someone bring them coffee or tea, and have a lunch ready for us at 1:00 PM? It sounds heavenly to me, if not to you.
But I suppose that there are things about my writing life that would appeal to Lewis as well–a microwave or Keurig for making tea for example. We may not have housekeepers but we have gadgets that serve us well. Or we serve them. Either way, I think Lewis would have enjoyed them. (PS I don’t have a Keurig but I’m accepting donations…)
After his lunch, Lewis enjoyed a walk. This is something that I have yet to work into my day consistently. But I know I do feel better and have much more energy when I exercise. And scientists claim that it makes us smarter:
“Walking 40 minutes four times a week changed the size and organization of participants’ brains in one year, resulting in the formation of new neurons and larger memory centers, according to a study from the University of Illinois.” (Source: Want to boost your brain power?)
People knew that walking was good for them long before studies proved it. C. S. Lewis enjoyed walking every afternoon. And unbeknownst to him, it’s probably what got him through the afternoon blahs some full-time writers experience:
“By two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one … who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared.”
Oh how I love this quote! I tire too easily at ceaseless chatter. There are times when a soul needs time to contemplate, and writers and artists tend to crave silence more than most. I’ve been accused of being anti-social because of my lack of need to share every one of my thoughts. Perhaps it’s because I write them that I feel no need to express them verbally. But I also find it a wearying task to explain them to others. I simply don’t desire to.
Besides walking alone, Lewis also preferred to take his tea alone soon after his walk:
“The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude…”
The man loved his solitude! Proof positive that there are those of us who simply must have it.
It’s tempting to accuse Lewis of being persnickety, but before we make that mistake, we must remember that he is describing an ideal day. And how often does one have those?
Like us, Lewis had distractions, one of them being mail. He had a love-hate relationship with mail because he was compelled to answer every letter he received. I can imagine he’d have the same attitude towards email that we do today!
“But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock.”
Writers today complain about time being eaten up with social networking, but I would guess that Lewis spent just as much time writing letters. He was a prolific letter writer and was extremely generous with advice. Also keep in mind, he wrote his letters and manuscripts by hand. How much easier we have it today than writers did even twenty years ago. I’m old enough to have written many a story on a typewriter with gallons of white-out at my side.
One of the letters he wrote to a young fan, Joan Lancaster, is good advice for writers still today. Notice how he doesn’t patronize or talk down to her:
“1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
After his tea on a “normal” day, Lewis went back to work:
“At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven.”
It sounds like a lovely ideal day. But Lewis didn’t have children to care for, chores to do (I’ve read he was an abysmal housekeeper as was his wife whom he married late in life but she was also ill), and focused mostly on the work at hand. Still, he probably had interruptions as we do.
My ideal day would include hours alone, too. But alas, I work mostly in my home office where my family ignores the “Writer at Work Do Not Disturb” signs. To them it’s not a writer at work, but a Mom at home, ready to answer questions, rescue the cat from the dog, and break up an argument between twins.
However, I have technology the likes of which Lewis couldn’t have imagined. I have word processors that correct my spelling, and search engines for my research. I have over a thousand books in my ereaders and can type 95 or more WPM. I don’t have to invest in paper to send a letter or even a stamp. Perhaps this makes up for the solitude Lewis had.
Just imagine what things he could have created had he lived in our time. Or would he have been too distracted?
What do you think? Let me know what your ideal day would look like. I’d love to discuss this with you!