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Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers: Part 1

Courtney's Office

When it comes time to tackle a project, lucky—and it turns out, numerous—are the writers who just sit down and write. This writer isn’t one of them. In fact, I have so many pre-writing rituals, I had to label them in the order in which they occur:

A) I always drink Yorkshire tea in the exact same mug. God help you if you’re a guest in my home and you don’t know this and you try to drink something out of it.

B) I light a candle.

C) I stock pile old manuscripts to use as scrap paper on the right of my computer.

D) I keep a plastic rhinoceros at the top of my desk to ward off passive aggressive emails, because passive aggressive emails throw me off my game.

E) If I’m sitting down to a particularly unwieldy project, I watch YouTube videos of this old dude singing pop star Karaoke hits to remind myself that a passion should be fun.

When I set out to inquire whether the best writers I know also believe in supernatural causality, I flinched at the responses from the Charles Baxters and George Saunders of the world who responded (very kindly) that they had no time for such shenanigans because, you know, they had to write. Surely, I thought, with a little persistence, I could find great writers who indulge in a little hocus-pocus.

In this first part of a two-part series, we meet them and their “Super Sad True Habits.”

Matt Bell (Cataclysm Baby, Editor of The Collagist): I have a drafting font that I only use for the first draft or two of a new manuscript. By the time I’m printing it, I’m usually back to Times New Roman or Georgia, like everyone else—but those first few weeks or months or even a year? Then I’m looking at a version of the book only I know, and that almost no one else will see. If the font isn’t particularly professional, it does seem to speak deeply to some part of my imagination, and helps me make the kind of books I want to make. In the interests of full disclosure, I’d love to tell you the name of the font, but I’m afraid that doing so might cost me its power—and that, more than anything, makes me believe it’s an important and necessary superstition, worth protecting.

The Giraldi Bunker

William Giraldi (Busy Monsters, Fiction Editor Agni): My office/library is a bunker of books, maybe 2000 titles stuffed into the medium front room of our Boston condo. I’ve put a firm mattress on the floor, and I write cross-legged sitting against a bookshelf. But before I begin, I stack five-foot piles of books around the mattress, so I’m buffeted and bulletproofed by books (plus my toddler can’t see me in this mini bunker). If I’m writing criticism, I move the stacks of Wilde and Pater and Dr. Johnson near my head; for a short story, I’ll move the stacks of Hemingway and Conan Doyle and Flannery O’Connor; for a memoir, the 12-volume edition of Casanova, plus Grant and Graves; for a novel, stacks of Cervantes, Sterne, Nabokov, George Eliot, and Saul Bellow. By some medieval abracadabra I hope that the talent in those pages makes its way onto my own.

Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan): My darkest ritual: the lack of clothes I wear during the writing process. Especially at my country dacha upstate. Oh god, it’s frightening. Don’t look at me! I’m hideous.

Karen Shepard (Don’t I Know You?, The Bad Boy’s Wife):

1. Sit at my computer.
2. Decide that my closets can’t go another minute in the state they’re in.
3. Clean out my closets.
4. Sit at my computer.
5. Decide that the laundry needs to be done/the plants need to be watered/the lawn needs to be mowed/the dogs need to be bathed/my nails need to be trimmed.
6. Attack whatever task seems like something I might actually be able to accomplish rather than face the insurmountable obstacles of my blank screen and even blanker mind.
7. That evening, listen to my husband, writer Jim Shepard, rifle through all the pages he wrote that day.
8. That night, lie awake enraged at myself for having wasted so much time over the past day/month/year/decade.
9. Next morning, sit at my computer.
10. Decide that the time I’ve wasted doesn’t matter at all since I have nothing to offer to the world of letters.
11.  Get up from my desk.  Admire the state of my closets.
12.  Next morning, sit at my computer.  Write something.  Write anything.  Hope for the best, expect the worst.

Adam Wilson (Flatscreen): I put my screen resolution at 135%. And I eat a lot of nuts. I feel like nuts are good for writers.

Blake Butler (Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, Editor of HTML Giant): Almost every day I begin the exact same way: I wake, shower, get in my car, drive 20 minutes north to the house where I grew up, where for the past five years or so I have been helping care for my father with dementia, I come into the house, I pour one large cup of coffee, one large cup of water, go into the room where I went through puberty, close the door, sit in the dark and begin my work, often typing in bursts and spurts punctuated by getting up to go help with my dad or other business, until the sun goes down, then I go home.

Rejection Letter #323

Roxane Gay (Ayiti, co-editor Pank): I exhaustively run through my browser tabs no fewer than three times, refresh my e-mail incessantly, make new moves in my Scrabble games, and otherwise electronically exhaust myself before I can even think of committing words to a Word file. Writing and Internet fuckery, they are practically synonymous. My process is to waste time until I have nothing else to do. I LOVE writing so it’s not a lack of commitment. I just need to be sure that like, fancy magazine #323 hasn’t emailed me another rejection before I can focus.

Elissa Schappell (Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Co-founder and Editor-at-Large of Tin House): I always put in earplugs even if it’s silent. I do have a box of, um, things, that I carry with me and set up on the desk when I write away from home. Or, at home when I’m freaking out and need to be grounded. In the box, pertinent to this conversation: Two Zuni fetishes-—a beaver and a fox; a rock that belonged to my dad; Japanese temple incense. I light the incense, say the prayer. Which varies. Then there is the biting of the pinkie. A family ritual before any big occasion where one might need require strength, fortitude, courage: we bite the pinkie of the person in need.

Sarah Rose Etter (Tongue Party): I usually drink for about two weeks straight, and then right before I truly forget what it is to be a human being, I sober up, drink wheatgrass shots only for three days, and eventually the story comes to me as a sort of hallucination/miracle. That process has always worked for me. I believe it originated with the Mayans.

Seth Fried (The Great Frustration, Tin House “Das Kolumne” columnist): I have to get dressed up before I write. Not in like a costume or a tuxedo, but I can’t just sit there in my union suit either. I have to wear pants, shoes, socks, underwear, a shirt with buttons, the works.

Eileen Myles (Snowflake/Different Streets, Inferno: A Poets Novel): I go to the gym and I meditate. I like to be really quiet. But on the other hand I am increasingly a fan of wrongness. Writing in situations that shouldn’t work, that I’m not prepared for and have limited scope, like: I have fifteen minutes. I think of it actually as a kind of manifesto. Of impossibility and increasingly exactly the acknowledgement that this won’t work is what works.

The Zentner Frappuccino

Alexi Zenter (Touch, The Lobster Kings): I’m a big believer of simply getting your ass in the chair, but most mornings my ritual consists of getting my daughters off to school and then making a Starbucks run. I’m actually pretty embarrassed to admit the Starbucks run, not in the least because I order a Venti Decaf Mocha Frappuccino Light, otherwise know as a crappy milkshake. A lot of times I pretend I’m ordering it for my wife.

Benjamin Percy (The Wilding, Refresh, Refresh): I brew a pot of coffee. While it burbles and hisses, I often hammer out two sets of fifty push-ups. Then I fill a mug and get to work.

Steve Almond (God Bless America, My Life in Heavy Metal): I masturbate to Ben Percy porn. Duh.

Next week, we’ll serve up the deepest and darkest from Jim Shepard, Melissa Broder, Lynne Tillman, Nick Flynn, and more!

Courtney Maum is The “Celebrity Book Review” humor columnist for Electric Literature. Her work has recently appeared online in The Rumpus, Bomb Magazine, Thought Catalog, and others. A frequent reader at NY-based series and a Literary Death Match champion, she can be found on Twitter at @cmaum.

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Comments: 31

(444) Comments

  1. Marcus Speh says:

    I wear soft black Korean martial arts pants when I write at home and I practically only write at home. When I take my iPad with me, I only act as if I write to look cool, but I don’t get anything done. I write less and less on the computer, more and more with longhand using my Lamy Dialogue 3 which I bought when I won a contest to celebrate. I write sitting in a rocking chair or on a tiny Kauri wood desk looking out over a fairly busy inner city street (there are two large schools across from our apartment). I mostly write early in the morning. I spend too much time on the net as well, though I like to do “research” by browsing aimlessly coming up for air now and then and taking a long walk. I listen to modern classical music (Cage, Ligeti, Finnissy, Pärt, Glass, Riley, Adams, Henze, Xenakis and so on) when I write or to anything by Bach. I don’t have my own study: the desk and the chair stand in a bay window of our large living room. Defending my work space against intruders is a large part of my daily entertainment routine. I’m surrounded by many thousands of books in this room. The books speak to me almost continuously. I hardly ever print any of my work out anymore. I run two secret blogs where I post my work in different stages of production just for me to look at; I add a lot of pictures and photos which represent clues and possible paths.

  2. Adrian Stone says:

    I think most of us need an option to have, despite our protests and pleas, an outside company to regulate our Internet access. Some God/Gates-like figure who, as we load whichever word processor we favor, tells us to get to it or the Internet won’t be turned back on and our families will be hanged and beaten until we knock out 5,000 words.

    You know, something like an editor of yesteryear.

  3. Leah_M says:

    This was amazing. I actually sat and read every single word in this article, something I hardly can bring myself to do anymore online with so many other things to do and read. Brilliant. I was focused for the past 10 minutes and I enjoyed every second. Sincerely, thank you for this :)

  4. Pratima Roy says:

    I like to start ” The Happiness Project” as my starting writing project. Here is what I do to be happy—-
    I pray to God to make everyone happy.I meditate upon it.I see world as wonderful place to be yet there are hurdles.I want people to work on those hurdles yet I do not have a group to talk about it.

  5. Jill Jepson says:

    Oh, yes, I can relate. I just blogged about my so-called “process.” “Revision: The Dark Side” http://writingasasacredpath.blogspot.com/2012/04/revision-dark-side.html

  6. No rituals here. Extensive research helps me fend off blocks. As my work is mostly period-based, I need to learn as much as I can about my territory before doing much of anything. Therefore I read old facts and look at old photos until the time and place seem as natural to me as sitting down at the computer to check my e-mail. Then I just let it rip! In a Writer’s Digest interview, Sara Gruen claimed a similar process.

    I also find that research helps the story flesh itself out. For example, in doing research into 1930s New York for my newest novel — about a retired 1940s swing band singer whose disappearance off the family radar screen in the 1950s intrigues her awestruck niece into uncovering the seedy truth about her supposedly glamorous life — I found that excessive, sentimental poring over old photos of Times Square helped me write a scene that takes place there.


    Margo Christie,
    Nostalgia Maven, 1940s Pin-up at Heart, Writer of Literary Novels that feature Nostalgic Backdrops and Creative but Fallen Characters who Yearn for the Limelight.

  7. Amie Whittemore says:

    Of course that’s Benjamin Percy’s ritual. If you’ve ever seen this man read, you would have guessed it in no more than three guesses.

  8. Chris says:

    Write until you’re depressed.

  9. Melanie says:

    I brew a pot of Silver Tips from Darjeeling and obliterate all of the health benefits when I stuff three pieces of gum in my mouth and chew vigorously, write, then cram in three more…

  10. Sarah says:

    I suspect Steve Almond is the only one who told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  11. ValMalGal says:

    Long live Internet fuckery! Such as leaving comments on everyone else’s web pages before I do anything of my own. I totally dig the biting of the pinkie thing though. I’m all about anything even vaguely masochistic.

  12. TR Hummer says:

    Poets of course have no habits, therefore don’t contribute to threads of this kind. . . . ;-)

  13. “Writing and Internet fuckery, they are practically synonymous.” Lol. Quote of the year. :)

(17) Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  3. […] up on Courtney Maum’s Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers, of which I certainly am not (effective, that is), I tried to think about, regardless of their […]

  4. […] a similar vein, Tin House gives us “Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers” Part 1 and Part […]

  5. […] couple weeks ago, I saw a great post by Courtney Maum on Tin House’s blog called “Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers: Part 1″ (yes, there are two parts). Maum asked writers to reveal their weird writing habits and rituals, […]

  6. […] processes, which won’t show up in the above list. It’s amusing to read. Not so famous, these people share their experiences too. 0    Posted in Blog | Tagged lists o'links, pre-nanowrimo, tips […]

  7. […] “honor” and “duty”); sad true habits of highly effective writers (like the commitment of Roxane Gay and others); people creating all over the place (like my 11-year old daughter Taffimai’s […]

  8. […] pyjamas. Other writers might drink from a special tea cup, listen to a particular piece of music. Tin House published this list of ‘Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers’. It includes everything from […]

  9. […] I mentioned last week, I keep a plastic rhinoceros on my desk to ward off passive aggressive emails. Well, here he is up […]

  10. […] Kelli Russell Agodon, the Tin House blog has a post about the habits of highly effective writers (Kelli also did a similar post of her own). It’s pretty interesting to see how different […]

  11. […] Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers: Part 1 […]

  12. […] Sad True Writing Habits May 9, 2012Tin House is running a series on the Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers so, as a writer who has been accused of impressive productivity on more than one occasion, I […]

  13. […] The Tin House blog posted “Super Sad True Habits of Highly Effective Writers, Part One,” in which writers ‘fess up to their pre-work […]

  14. […] and Internet fuckery, they are practically synonymous”, how sadly true for me. Follow this link, http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/14981/super-sad-true-habits-of-highly-effective-writers-part-1.html, to read the article then tell us what your rituals before writing are. Share […]

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