Modes of Literary Composition

Is it better to write in the morning or late at night—at set times or just as the urge dictates—rapidly and hot off the brain or only after careful reflection—on a full stomach or empty—after a few drinks or stone cold sober? Does laborious editing and revising actually improve the work or suck the inspiration out of it? And is it better and more enjoyable to write in bed, at the kitchen table, in a crowded coffeehouse, or at a sidewalk café in Paris? Authors answer these and other questions over the course of time as suits their needs and temperaments. Modes of literary composition differ as widely as the works and dispositions of the authors themselves.


Some authors love the act of writing and cannot imagine anything more gratifying. The great French naturalist and mathematician Buffon (1707-1788) said of the hours devoted to writing, “These are the most luxurious and delightful moments of life: moments which have often enticed me to pass fourteen hours at my desk in a state of transport.” Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) claimed that while writing was a hard business, nothing made him feel better. He said that he had to write whether he got paid for it or not. “But it is a hell of a disease to be born with,” he said. “I like to do it. Which is even worse. That makes it from a disease into a vice. Then I want to do it better than anybody has ever done it which makes it into an obsession. An obsession is terrible.”


Some authors love the initial act of composition but hate to revise. The Roman poet Ovid (34 B.C.-A.D. 17) is said to have found revising so laborious that he seldom did it. The English satiric poet Charles Churchill (1732-1764) told his publisher that correcting what he first set down “was like cutting away one’s own flesh.” And Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) never took the trouble to revise anything. She said, “I have never understood how people could labor over a manuscript, write and re-write it many times, for to me, if you have something to say, the words are always there. And they are the exact words and the words that should be used.”


Gertrude Stein writing


Usually working late at night when everything was quiet, Stein wrote slowly, four or five lines to a page. She could seldom write for more than half an hour at a time, but she observed that if you write for half an hour a day, it adds up over the years.


Virgil (70 B.C-19 B.C.), on the other hand, was a slow and fastidious author.  He spent ten years writing the Aeneid, turning out an average of only three lines a day. He is said to have written the lines in the morning and devoted the afternoon to reworking them. The only thing that prevented him from spending even more time revising his great epic is that he contracted a fever and died at the age of 50.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616) apparently composed rapidly, which sometimes hurried him into careless errors—this according to Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare personally. “I remember,” said Jonson, “the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn’d) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech.” Jonson claimed that in saying this he was merely being truthful, not malevolent, “for I lov’d the man, and doe honour his memory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any.) Hee was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d.”


William Shakespeare


Jonson remarked that Shakespeare’s wit was in his own power, “would the rule of it had beene too. Many times hee fell into those things, could not escape laughter: As when hee said in the person of Cæsar, one speaking to him: Cæsar did never wrong, but with just cause: and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices, with his vertues.”


Two of Shakespeare’s actor colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, confirm Jonson’s statement about Shakespeare’s easy facility in composing, and they add that Shakespeare only lightly revised his manuscripts. Heminges and Condell state in a brief introduction to the First Folio of the plays (1623), which they prepared for the press, that Shakespeare “was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.”


Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was an exceptionally meticulous writer and an almost compulsive reviser. He seldom let a poem go to press that had not lain under his scrutiny for two years. Samuel Johnson tells us, “He examined lines and words with minute and punctilious observation, and retouched every part with indefatigable diligence, till he had left nothing to be forgiven.” Johnson further states that Pope consulted his friends and listened to their criticism, “and, what was of more importance, he consulted himself, and let nothing pass against his own judgment.”


Alexander Pope


The publisher Robert Dodsley told Johnson that Pope once handed him the manuscript of two satires that he wanted fairly copied. “Almost every line,” said Dodsley, “was then written twice over; I gave him a clean transcript, which he sent some time afterwards to me for the press, with almost every line written twice over a second time.”


John Dryden (1631-1700) equaled, and in some ways surpassed, Pope in ability, though he lacked Pope’s diligence. Johnson says that Dryden “never attempted to make that better which was already good, nor often to mend what he must have known to be faulty. He wrote, he tells us, with very little consideration; when occasion or necessity called upon him, he poured out what the present moment happened to supply, and, when once it had passed the press, ejected it from his mind.”


English poet William Mason (1724-1797) believed in writing quickly in the heat of inspiration. If he got stuck for a word or phrase, he simply left a space and went back and filled it in later. Thomas Gray (1716-1771), unlike Mason, labored over each line of a poem before starting to write the next. Gray also had the notion, according to Johnson, “that he could not write but at certain times, or at happy moments.” Johnson labeled this “a fantastick foppery,” maintaining that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”


Samuel Johnson (1708-1784) himself had a remarkable facility for quick, accurate, and vigorous writing. He dashed off many of his Rambler essays the night before the day of publication without reading them over before sending them to the printer. And the essays are among the finest in the language.


Samuel Johnson


James Boswell, Johnson’s friend and biographer, accounted for Johnson’s extraordinary ability by saying that “he had accumulated a great fund of miscellaneous knowledge, which, by a peculiar promptitude of mind, was ever ready at his call, and which he had constantly accustomed himself to clothe in the most apt and energetick expression.”


Mark Twain (1835-1910) also wrote fluently without need of much revision. He mentions in his Autobiography that he always had at least two literary projects going concurrently, sometimes as many as four or five. “As long as a book would write itself I was a faithful and interested amanuensis and my industry did not flag, but the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations, inventing its adventures and conducting its conversations, I put it away and dropped it out of my mind.”


Years earlier, when he was about half way through writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, his inspiration gave out. The book came to a complete halt. He felt distressed and disappointed, but he pigeonholed the manuscript and forgot about it. Two years later he took it out and read the last chapter he had written. “It was then,” he said, “that I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry you’ve only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time, while you are asleep—also while you are at work at other things and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on. There was plenty of material now and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble.” From then on, whenever a book came to a halt and refused to write itself, Mark Twain simply pigeonholed it for two or three years, knowing the tank would eventually fill up again and allow him to finish.


In later life Mark Twain preferred writing in bed, as did Edith Wharton, Marcel Proust, Colette, Sir Winston Churchill, and James Joyce. (In separate beds, of course. Not the same one.)


Mark Twain in bed


William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is also said to have done much of his writing in bed and in complete darkness. He defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility,” and what can be more tranquil than lying in bed in the dark, recalling certain powerful feelings, and trying to express them in verse? He kept a pencil and paper near his bed and jotted down his musings as they occurred to him in the course of the night. Wordsworth, who wrote in a clear, flowing hand normally, trained himself to write legibly in the dark so that none of his thoughts would be lost. In this way, he purportedly wrote a large body of work in bed, late at night, and in complete darkness.


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1794-1822) loved to do his writing outdoors. He did his best work in the seclusion of a forest or on the bank of a river or the shore of a lake or sea. He would commonly rise early in the morning and hike into the forest or to the nearest body of water where he would spend the day writing and reading. “In composing,” he explained, “one’s faculties must not be divided; in a house there is no solitude: a door shutting, a footstep heard, a bell ringing, a voice, causes an echo in your brain and dissolves your visions.”


Shelley writing


In Italy late one summer afternoon, his friend Edward John Trelawny found Shelley in a pine forest near Pisa working on his poem “Ariel.” Trelawny picked up a fragment to read but could hardly decipher a word. “It was a frightful scrawl,” he said; “words smeared out with his finger, and one upon the other, over and over in tiers, and all run together…; it might have been taken for a sketch of a marsh overgrown with bulrushes, and the blots for wild ducks.”


On Trelawny making this observation to Shelley, the poet told him, “When my brain gets heated with thought, it soon boils, and throws off images and words faster than I can skim them off. In the morning, when cooled down, out of the rude sketch, as you justly call it, I shall attempt a drawing.”


When Shelley learned that Wordsworth wrote poetry in bed in the dark, he decided to try it himself. “But he succeeded very ill in his writing,” said his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg; “he usually lost his pencil, or his paper, or both; and when he contrived to keep them, the writing was illegible.” So Shelley gave up the practice of writing in bed in the dark and went back to composing mostly outdoors in the daylight.


Mark Twain wrote in his Autobiography that Bret Harte (1836-1902) once came to stay with him for a day because Harte had a story only half written that had to be submitted the following morning, and he needed peace and quiet to finish it. But instead of getting down to work after dinner, he sat up late into the night chatting and drinking hot whisky punches with Clemens as if he hadn’t a care in the world.


Bret Harte


Clemens finally excused himself around one o’clock in the morning and went to bed. Harte took a fresh quart bottle of whisky upstairs to his room, and during the course of the night sent down for another bottle. Next morning he came downstairs to breakfast, both bottles empty, looking fresh and alert, not even tipsy, and his finished story, said Mark Twain, was among his best.


Hemingway during his formative years as a writer in Paris liked to work in the morning at an outdoor café. He didn’t require much: “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket.”


He early discovered not to write himself dry, but to stop when he knew what would happen next. That way he could pick up the storyline next morning and not get stuck. He also trained himself not to think about what he was writing from one session to the next. “That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” Each morning he read his work from the beginning, correcting as he went along, and took up the action where he left off the previous day.


If working on a novel, and the thing got too long to read from the beginning, he read the previous two or three chapters. “That’s how you make it all of one piece,” he explained. He avoided discussing with others what he was currently writing, believing he risked talking it away instead of writing it, and although a heavy drinker, he said, “My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing.” Later in his career he told a friend, “Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.”


Ernest Hemingway


Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), author of many short stories and some very long novels, also liked to write standing up, but as he stood nearly six feet six inches tall, he sometimes used the top of his refrigerator as a desk. He would write for hours, dropping the finished pages onto the kitchen floor where they would be gathered up later and arranged in proper sequence.


Thomas Wolfe


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