Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Coming out of the Closet

Before any of you start scratching your head, wondering if you really know me after all, I’m talking about a literal closet, not a figurative one. It all goes back to one of my personal rules: if I hear something mentioned three times on three separate occasions then I need to pay attention because Someone is trying to tell me something. In this case, I read or heard that a writer needs his or her own spot to write. I surveyed my house and quickly determined that cleaning out the front room or the new upstairs bonus room before writing would result in a twenty year delay between sentences. I was forced to admit that the only room I could call my own was my closet.

Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf be proud?

I would feel weird about writing in my closet, but I used to write stories longhand while sitting in my closet at home when I was in junior high and high school. Since I became so absorbed in in my writing, it was a good idea to sit in a way no one could sneak up on me and accidentally scare me out of my wits. Even though I’ve evolved into being able to write in a variety of environments, I still prefer to write with my back to a solid wall.

One day I emerged from my closet and thought to myself, “Self, surely you’re not the only person who does weird things in order to write. And I KNOW you’re not the only person who talks to herself, so don't freak out about that.” My self suggested I do a little research to find out other “weird” things writers do. Here’s what I found:

Vladmir Nabokov wrote standing up and composed his stories on index cards.

Truman Capote insisted on writing while lying down with coffee and a cigarette. Of course, then he traded out the coffee for tea, then the tea for sherry. . .

Phillip Roth paced while he wrote, keeping a lectern handy. Robert Browning, also a pacer, supposedly paced a trail in the carpet.

William Faulkner preferred to write at night and was quoted as saying he always keep the whiskey handy. (Which explains a lot. . .)

John Cheever left his home each day with a suit and went to a windowless basement, but he did most of his writing in his boxers. This must be a trend because Victor Hugo had his servants take his clothes away while he wrote and Jessamyn West writes in bed before getting dressed, too. James Whitcomb Riley takes the cake though; he had a friend strand him in a hotel room without clothes so he couldn’t go to the bar until he finished writing.

Ernest Hemingway had to sharpen twenty pencils before he started to write his 500 words for the day.

Raymond Carver sometimes wrote in his automobile. (I’ve thought about hiding from my kids there. . .)

Several writers cited the bath tub, including Ben Franklin and Agatha Christie, who supposedly got great ideas while sitting in the tub and eating apples.

Shelby Foote, Civil War historian, insists on writing with a dipping pen and inkwell.

Several authors write in their bathrobes including John McPhee who goes so far as to tie himself to the chair with his sash.

In the opposite camp Benjamin Disraeli preferred to write in evening clothes.

Henrik Ibsen hung a portrait of his mortal enemy over his desk.

Isabell Allende would light candles for her dead relatives before starting to write.

Friedrich Schiller, a contemporary of Goethe, wrote with red curtains drawn and rotten apples in his desk to “arouse him.” ( His imagination. They aroused his imagination. Sheesh.)

Of course, Dorothy Parker, as always, takes the cake. When asked the best place to write, she answered, “In your head.”

So, what’s the point, you may ask. I already knew I was a little weird. Did you know, however, that rituals like these help stave off writer’s block? There’s something about the act of having an established place and an established routine that helps train your mind and let it know it’s time to write. Habit staves off anxiety.

In the interest of helping everyone find his or her groove, let’s share some of our own rituals. After all, I just came out of the closet.

Information taken from the following web sites:





Other examples taken from the wonderful The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes (pp. 135-140) If you haven’t read this book, it’s a really quick read full of inspiration.


Dianna Love said...

Sally - Informative and entertaining post. I started out writing at the computer in my office, but running a business full time meant a lot of distractions. When I hit the point of getting a faster computer, I took the old one to my studio (where my easel still sits) and set up a place in there to work. That computer has no internet and there is nothing around my desk except book projects.

When I go into my writing room and sit in that chair I'm automatically ready to work on a story. We work based on habit so I've trained myself to think "writing" in that space. I have a rule that I will not use that computer or area for anything except writing - so the office doesn't "bleed" over into my writing space.

I write everywhere I go(in a hotel room right now), but having a designated space at home has definitely made a difference. I have a friend who wrote her first two books (that were published) in her bathroom.

Good topic.

Anna Steffl said...

Fascinating. Just what I need.

I have two spots -- one is at a coffee house and another is on my orange couch with my tuxedo cat curled against my leg. If I just got rid of this pesky internet addiction thing these spots would work great. From now on PFHT and mail, but not celeb junk and movie reviews.

Debbie Kaufman said...

I also have two spots. One is a coffeehouse (alas, I can't drink the caffeine) and the other is my sofa with my laptop table.

No strange habits at this point. I'll put "Be more eccentric" on my To Do list later.

Maxine Davis said...


Enjoyed the post very much!

I sit at my computer in the--where else--computer room (I guess that says something about my creativity - I could say it's my 'writing' room or imagination-runs-wild room. We'll see)

When I first started writing, it was while working on school work. I'd write on my dissertation for a while and to keep from going crazy, I'd switch to my 1st book for a while - all on a manual typewriter!! After work hours, I would retype it on the computer at work and save it to one of those 8 inch floppy disks!! I love the changing times and my laptop that can go with me anywhere.

How you get anything written with children around is amazing to me and I just think you and the others with children are supermoms!

Linsey Lanier said...

Great post! I can relate to being scared out of your wits when someone sneaks up on you. I perpetually yelp when my husband calls me when I'm writing.

What a great list! I'll have to get that book.

Hmmm. Wonder what those authors would do if they'd had laptops. Of course, Shelby Foote has no excuse, but I guess that's how he gets in the mood for writing about the Civil War.

I like the idea of writing in bed before getting dressed - good way to capture those illusive dreams.

The best idea - tie yourself to a chair with the sash of your robe! I can see a workshop on that one, LOL. But yes, Dorothy Parker's advice is essential to keep in mind. You can write anywhere... if you can just get it all down at some point.

Me? I'm lucky enough to have my own "office" with an L shaped desk (actually two tables put together). Writing books are scattered everywhere. My pile of notes and folders that are fairly current are on my left. Business stuff, which I often ignore, is on my right. Right now, the left-side stack is about a foot and a half high. I just finished the first draft of my 343-page wip. So it's time to clean the stack up, reorganize, and start over with


Janette said...

The closet doesn't seem nearly as weird now, does it? I enjoyed your post immensely. I love knowing things that humanize authors. Now, I will only worry when you emerge from the closet in evening gowns with the stench of rotten apples coming off you. (Joking, of course.):)
By the way, I find that sitting in the floor somewhere with music on was always a favorite place for me to write. Of course, sitting in the floor these days is often an invitation for one of my children to use me as a human jungle gym.
Great post, Sally!

Jean said...

Sally, What a great post and funny topic. Right now I'm thinking a closet might be a wonderful place to retreat for writing! I started out with legal pads and a pen :) moved to a typewriter [ow]- talk about learning to avoid mistakes-- all in my laundry room at two different homes. I just set up a card table and went to work. Then I moved to a small banquet table in my living room, but that held hazards...like two-yr old fingers which liked to help erase files.
My next move was to occupy an extra bedroom because I could close the door on all my mess...ah, research. Then in order to write, I needed neatness, go figure, and moved into our living room that we weren't using. I loved it! Now that we've moved states and homes, my office is upside down again. I had the living room and now have the den, but I'm still not settled because my books are in the basement. So, I finished my manuscript at Starbucks. They thought I owned the chair in the corner and wondered how I could sit for hours and never move...lol.

Marilyn Baron said...

If I wrote in my closet I'd have to clean it out first. Ugg. Can't handle that. Luckily, I have an actual office downstairs where I write both fiction and write for clients. It's not always easy to shift gears but it works. I just bought a NEO and tried it out at the Write Inn and it was great. So now if I want to sit out at the pool or go anywhere else I can use that. But I'm pretty much conditioned to sit down and write when I'm at my office computer. My daughter likes to take her laptop to Starbucks. I haven't tried that yet. I'd probably be too tempted by the cookies and other treats they sell there. Not the coffee. I hate coffee.

I enjoyed hearing about where other authors write. Great post.

Marilyn Baron

Cinthia Hamer said...

Great Post, Sally!

Am I the only one who noticed that out of all the writers you listed, there were only three females who admitted to weird writing habits?

Back when I actually sat at a deskjob, I would choose (as often as possible) to have a cubicle with a solid wall at my back. Like you, I have a thing about the possibility of someone sneaking up on me. JPS says she thinks I was a gunslinger in a previous life. *snerk* I could write up a storm if I was afraid someone would come along and derail my train of thought.

Now, I get the most writing mileage out of being somewhere other than my home. Yesterday, I wrote four pages on my lunch hour in a crowded deli.

I know a certain Hot Tamale who confessed to a fear of turning into a Faulkner clone because she writes best after a glass or three of red wine.

CiCi Barnes said...

Great writing, Sally. Love your humor.

My writing now is mostly done in my study. I write about an hour+ then eat a few walnuts and write some more. Break for lunch, write, eat an apple and write some more, then dinner.

Can't write on the computer at night. It stimulates my brain and it won't shut off for sleep.

When traveling, I mostly use my NEO. So convinient.

Like Marilyn, I could never write in my closet. My clothes would revolt. Besides, with my bad knees, if I ever got down on the floor -- and that's a big if -- then I'd never get up.

Great topic, Sally. Interesting to hear everyone's habits.


Sally Kilpatrick said...


Thanks for stopping by and reinforcing the idea. Oh, and thanks for adding about the bathroom--that makes me feel a lot better about my closet!

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Anna and Debbie,

Thanks, guys! One of my other favorite spots to write is Gabriel's Desserts. The food is awesome, and there's no Internet to distract me.

I suppose you're right. We all need to work a little more on being eccentric. I'm drawing the line at the rotten apples.

Sally Kilpatrick said...


It could be worse. I have a feeling even if I got the front room clean enough to use, it would still be called the "junk" room. As for working with kids, I can't promise that my sentences always make sense.

Kudos on the dissertation!

Sally Kilpatrick said...


You are lucky to have your office. And I'm glad to know I'm not the only one with foot high stacks. Good luck with the WIP.

Thanks for visiting--no fears about the apples. You can start getting concerned if you see red curtains. May the Last of the Mohicans always inspire!

Sally Kilpatrick said...


I feel your pain. I have written all through the house at many different locations. Before the closet the dining room table or the kitchen table were the most successful. Sometimes, though, you just have to pick up and move away from the distractions of home.


That was, indeed, a subtle hint that my house is less than tidy. Thanks for showing us how to get conditioned. : ) I'm glad you have the NEO, though; I remember you weren't that found of the laptop.

Sally Kilpatrick said...


You're right. I tried and tried to find more habits from women, but if they do weird things they are talking. I thought for sure La Nora would admit to something, but not that I could find.

A glass or three of red wine. Hmmm. I'd like what I wrote a lot better, but I wouldn't vouch for the quality.

Sally Kilpatrick said...


Thanks for your compliment. And based on your schedule, you must be a writing machine. : )

As for sitting on the floor in the closet? I've progressed to a little computer desk from Ikea so I don't sit on the floor anymore. The desk taking up three-quarters of the closet makes the whole thing seem surreal.

Tami Brothers said...

Hey Sally,

I can definitely see "YOU" in your blog posts. I almost cracked up when you started talking about talking to yourself... As long as your CAR doesn't start talking back, then I think you are good...grin...

I love these little peaks into other writers lives. I didn't know any of this stuff and I'm glad you decided to write about it. I am looking up some of the authors as we speak....


Sally Kilpatrick said...

Thanks, Tami--fortunately, the car doesn't talk back, but if it did it would be like KITT on Nightrider and that would be cool.

I just wish I could have found more on newer writers, but they seem to be guarding their secrets a little better.

Ana Aragón said...


Just hopped on because the All-Star game last night (and the paper that was due) kept me from clicking on the PFHT blog.

Great post! I loved reading about different author's writing habits. I have a great big credenza in the office I share with my husband (not so nice) that sits in front of a window that faces the trees in my back yard. I love looking at "green" stuff...trees, flowers, mountains in the background. That always puts me in the mood to write.

But I also enjoy writing with others...because if I can't think of a word or phrase I need, I just pop out with, "What word/phrase am I looking for here?" Tammy Schubert comes up with some great ideas!


Sally Kilpatrick said...

Thanks for popping in, Ana. I've always been interested in what other writers do, and I'm glad you agree. I enjoy writing with husband--except for the part where he writes so well even though he hasn't been actively trying for as long as I have. : )