Books · Research

On Weird Writing Habits & the Lure of Hemingway

This morning I got up at an ungodly hour in order to trudge down to a local McDonald’s and get some writing done. This is where I am now sat with my first coffee of the day- on a Bank Holiday, no less! I did this because I have two papers to finish writing and, for some strange reason, I always seem to get a lot of work done when I employ this tactic. This got me thinking about strange writing habits. The McDonald’s in question was today’s office of choice because I once found myself with some time to kill in the area. I popped in for a filet o’ fish and some free Wi-Fi, and ended up being especially productive. I’ve been back several times since, hoping to re-capture this productivity, and it hasn’t failed me yet. Who knew that Ronald McDonald was the patron saint of writers?!

My other strange writing habit was formed in a similar way. I once had a lunchtime deadline and was in a total panic. I decided to get the first Tube of the day to King’s Cross, so that I could spend a few hours working in the area before the British Library opened. I found a cafe in a quiet corner of the station, and had a very productive few hours. Ever since this occasion I have done exactly the same thing whenever I’m in a deadline panic. Again, it has never failed me!

I also have some musical writing rituals. I generally find it difficult to write while listening to music with words, but there are some exceptions to this rule. The only album with lyrics that I’m able to listen to while working is (bizarrely!) an obscure 1980’s offering from soft-rocker Bill LaBounty. More frequently I listen to one of two Bruce Springsteen tracks on repeat – either ‘The Fever’ or ‘Drive All Night’. There’s something about their hypnotic vibe that helps me to focus, and I can listen to them for hours. I think everyone in my house knows all of the words to these songs by now!  To get me in the mood for writing, or give me a lift when I’m getting tired, I always listen to some loud gangster rap. A bit of Snoop Dogg and I’m good to go! (Usually consumed with coffee, rather than gin and juice.) Again, many of my musical writing habits have been formed by my attempts to recreate the success of a previous occasion. I once finished a chapter while listening to Bill LaBounty, so I now associate him with productivity. I’m not sure of the psychology behind this, but for me it seems to work.

The time of day also has a big impact on my work. I do the bulk of my writing at night, clutching a coffee in the wee small hours of the morning. Though I am a confirmed night owl, I’ve also found recently that very early mornings work for me too. I think this is something to do with feeling so tired that I have less capacity to be distracted from writing. Distractions are my main bad habit while writing. Whenever I come to a difficult passage, I have an inclination to head straight for Twitter or ASOS. I do this without even realising sometimes, so I suddenly find myself searching for Stevie Nicks-style dresses when I’m meant to be formulating an argument about nineteenth-century opera. (Writing blog posts is another favourite method of distraction – and one I’m engaging in as we speak!) Succumbing to distraction is a really difficult habit to break. Sometimes I turn my internet off or go to a cafe with no Wi-Fi in order to finish work diversion-free.

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I always wanted to be a writer. When I was younger, the author I most idealised was Ernest Hemingway. There’s a particular photograph of him sitting at his typwriter under an open sky. Although I now realise that this isn’t clear, I always assumed that this was taken on a beach – perhaps during his time in Cuba. You can’t see the cocktail in the photograph, but I’m certain that it’s there – just out of shot. I imagined that writers could live like this; travelling to exotic places and writing important words whenever the mood struck them. The other writer whose lifestyle I coveted was Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame. She lounges at her laptop in her underwear, pondering life in her impossibly large apartment (we all know real writers don’t earn that sort of money!) So far I’ve found that the reality is quite different. I’m more likely to be found in my pyjamas at the dining table instead of in a kimono on a Caribbean beach. Rather than writing about life or love, I can often be found writing copy for pest control and double glazing companies. Of course, I also spend a lot of time writing about my research and (as my long-suffering supervisor knows all too well!) often tend to write too much.

Writing can be a really painful process. As Hemingway himself said:

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Even when writing about double glazing (or perhaps especially!) it can be agonising and arduous to organise your thoughts on paper. For me, my weird writing habits help to combat this. As time goes on, I find that I’m able to do more of the writing I love and less of the writing I don’t. I’ve been lucky enough to write for several magazines in the past few years, giving me the chance to share my historical interests with a wider audience. Though I’m not quite at the Hemingway stage yet, I hope that one day I will achieve my goal of a beachside office, complete with cocktail bar. I just hope that, wherever I end up, there’s a McDonald’s nearby for early morning deadline panics!

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