Famous Women Authors Share Their Daily Writing Routines
Advice on setting a schedule from Edith Wharton, Zadie Smith, and Hilary Mantel
This piece is excerpted from Daily Rituals: Women at Work, a collection of the daily routines of 143 women artists.
Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
In her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Wharton described her life as divided into two “equally real yet totally unrelated worlds,” which went along “side by side, equally absorbing, but wholly isolated from each other.” On the one hand, there was the real world of her marriage, her home, her friends and neighbors; on the other, the fictional world she created each morning in bed, writing longhand on sheets of paper that she dropped onto the floor for her secretary to retrieve and type up. Wharton always worked in the morning, and houseguests who stayed at the Mount — the 113-acre estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Wharton penned several novels, including The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome — were expected to entertain themselves until 11:00 a.m. or noon, when their hostess would emerge from her private quarters, ready to go for a walk or work in the garden. If guests needed to speak to the author during the morning, however, Wharton was willing to receive them in her bedroom. The historian Gaillard Lapsley was one such visitor, and he later wrote a memorable description of Wharton in bed, “flanked by night tables charged with telephone, travelling clock, reading light.” She would be wearing, he continued,
a thin silk sacque with loose sleeves, open at the neck and trimmed with lace and on her head a cap of the same material also trimmed with lace which fell about her brow and ears like the edging of a lamp shade . . . Edith’s mask stood out sculpturally beneath it. She would have her writing-board perilously furnished with an inkpot on her knee, the dog of the moment under her left elbow on the bed strewn with correspondence, newspapers and books.
The “dog of the moment” referred to one of the numerous canines Wharton owned over her lifetime, which included Spitzes, Papillons, a poodle, a Pekinese, and a pair of long-haired Chihuahuas named Mimi and Miza. Dogs had been a tremendous comfort to Wharton since her earliest childhood; and when, in her last years, Wharton made a list of the “ruling passions” of her life, dogs ranked second only to “Justice and Order,” and were followed by books, flowers, architecture, travel, and “a good joke.”
Evenings at the Mount, Wharton would read to her guests from the novel she was writing, or from the work of one of her favorite authors. Although she was happy to share her writing in progress, she never had much to say about the writing process itself. A guest at The Mount recalled that “very little allusion was made to it, and none at all to the infinite pains that she put into her work or her inexhaustible patience in searching for the material necessary to perfect it.” One unspoken requirement was that she follow the same schedule each day, with as little variation as possible. As Wharton wrote in a 1905 letter, “The slightest interruption in the household routine completely de-rails me.”
Zadie Smith (b. 1975)
In interviews over the years, the London-born novelist has said that she doesn’t write every day — and although she sometimes wishes she had that compulsion, Smith also recognizes the value of writing only when it feels necessary to her. “I think you need to feel an urgency about the acts,” she said in 2009, “otherwise when you read it, you feel no urgency either. So, I don’t write unless I really feel I need to.” Even when Smith does feel that urgency, she writes “very slowly,” she said in 2012, “and I rewrite continually, every day, over and over and over. . . . Every day, I read from the beginning up to where I’d got to and just edit it all, and then I move on. It’s incredibly laborious, and toward the end of a long novel it’s intolerable actually.”
Smith has also been vocal about the difficulty of writing in a world of infinite digital distractions, and in the acknowledgements section of her 2012 novel NW she thanked two pieces of Internet-blocking software, called Freedom and Self Control, for “creating the time.” She does not use social media, and as of late 2016 she did not own a smartphone, and had no plans to acquire one. “I still have a laptop, it’s not like I’m a nun,” Smith said, “I just don’t check my email every moment of the day in my pocket.”
Hilary Mantel (b. 1952)
The Booker-prize winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, as well as several other novels and a memoir, Mantel finds fiction-writing an all-consuming and thoroughly unpredictable activity. “Some writers claim to extrude a book at an even rate like toothpaste from a tube, or to build a story like a wall, so many feet per day,” the English author wrote in 2016.
They sit at their desk and knock off their word quota, then frisk into their leisured evening, preening themselves.
This is so alien to me that it might be another trade entirely. Writing lectures or reviews — any kind of non-fiction — seems to me a job like any job: allocate your time, marshall your resources, just get on with it. But fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning and end or method of measuring achievement. I don’t write in sequence. I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.
Mantel writes every morning as soon as she opens her eyes, seizing the remnants of her dream state before it dissipates. (Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night and writes for several hours before going back to sleep.) Her writing days tend to fall into one of two categories: “days of easy flow,” which “generate thousands of words across half a dozen projects,” and “stop-start days,” which are “self-conscious and anxiety ridden, and later turned out to have been productive and useful.” She writes by hand or on the computer, and considers herself “a long thinker and a fast writer,” which means that a lot of her writing day is spent away from her desk, on the thinking part. When she does sit down at the computer, Mantel will sometimes “tense up till my body locks into a struggling knot,” she wrote in 2016. “I have to go and stand in a hot shower to unfreeze. I also stand in the shower if I get stuck. I am the cleanest person I know.”
To other writers who get stuck, Mantel advises getting away from the desk: “Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just sit there scowling at the problem,” she has written. “But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” Over the course of her career, Mantel has learned extraordinary patience: She first began considering a series of novels based on the life of Thomas Cromwell in her twenties but didn’t begin writing the first of them, Wolf Hall, until thirty years later. (When she finally began writing it, however, she worked with tremendous speed, cranking out the 400-page book in five months, working 8 to 12 hours a day.) “Sometimes people ask, does writing make you happy?” Mantel told a visiting reporter in 2012.
But I think that’s beside the point. It makes you agitated, and continually in a state where you’re off balance. You seldom feel serene or settled. You’re like the person in the fairy tale The Red Shoes; you’ve just got to dance and dance, you’re never in equilibrium. I don’t think writing makes you happy . . . . I think it makes for a life that by its very nature has to be unstable, and if it ever became stable, you’d be finished.