by Juhi Singhal Karan
What do authors need “in order to release [their] imagination,” as Toni Morrison put it? What causes the muse to take flight?
The process of writing is as fascinating as the written word itself, as will be evident from these five bloomers, each of whom had their own unique ritual.
Robert Frost feared the dark ever since his teen years, yet he wrote during the night hours. As Celia Blue Johnson explains in Odd Type Writers, Frost had a “deep-rooted fear of the dark,” a fear that compelled him to sleep in his mother’s room as a teen. The dichotomy of fearing the dark and yet writing “while the stars twinkled above the farmhouse,” as Johnson put it, is not the only odd thing about Frost’s writing process. He told The Paris Review that he never had a desk or a writing room in his entire life. In his own words, “I never write except with a writing board. I’ve never had a table in my life. And I use all sorts of things. Write on the sole of my shoe.”
William H. Gass
William H. Gass has to feel mad while writing. As Bradford Morrow noted, a lot of Gass’s work stems from “rage and frustration, or even just ‘getting even.’” In Gass’s own words, “I get very tense working, so I often have to get up and wander around the house. It is very bad on my stomach. I have to be mad to be working well anyway, and then I am mad about the way things are going on the page in addition. My ulcer flourishes and I have to chew lots of pills. When my work is going well, I am usually sort of sick.” Perhaps his photography helps him in readying himself too. As he told Diane Ackerman in The New York Times, most of his days begin by photographing “[T]he rusty, derelict, overlooked, downtrodden parts of the city. Filth and decay mainly.” It’s only after he’s done taking the pictures that he proceeds to write.
Maya Angelou wrote in hotel rooms, renting one “in every town [she] ever lived in.” Her only accompaniments while writing were “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.” Even the walls were stripped bare. Sometimes to “occupy [her] little mind” she also carried a “deck of cards and some crossword puzzles.” In her words, “I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.”
Wallace Stevens was an ambler, composing poems “while migrating back and forth on foot between his comfortable house on Westerly Terrace and his office at an insurance company” in Hartford, Connecticut. He declared, “I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking. Any number of poems have been written on the way from the house to the office/ I carry slips of paper in my pocket and put down ideas and notes.” He is also reported to have said that “he enjoyed matching the words in his head to the rhythm of his steps.” The path that was not just Stevens’s “pedestrian commute” but also his “journey of imagination” is now open to the general public as The Wallace Stevens Walk.
Toni Morrison began writing before dawn “as a necessity” but it turned into a choice: “eventually I realized that I was clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning.” Getting up early, and “mak[ing] a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark” is in her words, a “ritual [that] comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call non-secular.” As she explains, “Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”