“Would you like to know the great drama of my life?” Oscar Wilde once famously addressed an annoying interlocutor, “I’ve put my genius into my life, I’ve put only my talent into my work.” It is intriguing to look at the uniquely personal ways some famous writers informed their ritual of writing. Wilde reportedly carried a notebook wherever he went. Many of his witticisms can be attributed to his filtered collections from the conversations around him. Wilde was by no means the only writer to travel scribbling what he heard around him. George Bernard Shaw found himself travelling aimlessly on the buses of London seeking the pleasure of the immediate randomness of crowds and conversations, hoping to catch a snippet or two that would attract his interest.
Anton Chekhov was a classic case in point of a creative mind that could only function with human noises around it. Chekhov would throw massive parties at his place where he would invite friends and relatives over. Amidst the gathering and glee, Chekhov would scribble away furiously at one corner of the room, seemingly oblivious to the sound waves around him. Surrounded by the drama and dialogues, Chekhov would create some of the best dramatic scenes in the history of theatre, with striking and shockingly real portrayals of human life in all its trials, conflicts and confusions. Graham Greene maintained what he classified as his ‘dream diary’, in which he would scribble away all that he remembered of his latest dream. He, apparently, incorporated many of those passages in his fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s case was unequivocally Freudian. He would picture himself locked in a dark room whose key had been lost. He fancied himself this way when he would write his most important passage. Mikhail Bakhtin tore off pages from his manuscript on the history of the German novel to make wrappers for his cigarettes during paper shortage while being confined to his apartment in a heavily bombed Moscow during the Second World War.
Marcel Proust was a recluse who ate, slept and wrote in a single room with cork lining in order to escape the noise of the Parisian streets. Hans Christian Andersen was haunted by the fear of being burnt alive to the extent that he would carry a rope with him whenever he travelled so that he could escape in the event of a fire. Writing postures often contributed to the creative process. Truman Capote wrote supine on his sofa with a glass of sherry while Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway could only write while standing up.
Victor Hugo would start writing stark naked. The American short-fiction writer, John Cheever, wrote just in his underclothes. Alexandre Dumas maintained different coloured notebooks for different genres of writing. Colours were important for James Joyce as well: his writing ritual included putting on a spotless white coat and using blue pencils. When his eyesight deteriorated, he began to use coloured crayons on cardboard to write. T.S. Eliot often powdered his face green while he wrote. Agatha Christie had a constant supply of apples near her luxury bathtub while Friedrich Schiller kept rotten and rotting apples in the drawer beneath his writing desks.
This article had begun with Wilde and concludes with one of his self-proclaimed fans. Christopher Hitchens admitted that his working day alcohol intake was substantial enough to stun an average mule. His theory of work was appropriated by his friend, Ian McEwan.
The habits and the fetishes of these writers are testimony to their uncommon creative energy that they intuitively invested in the banal. Their habits also demonstrate that they sought to defy the notion of normalcy in their writings.