The Incredible Eccentricities of 20 Great Writers

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Truly great artists will do whatever it takes to find their muse.

1. John Cheever

The short story guru was like everyone else: He woke up, put on a suit, and went to work. And unlike everyone else, he took an elevator down to his apartment building’s basement, stripped off all his clothes, and wrote in his underwear.

2. Gertrude Stein

Stein liked lounging in the passenger seat of her Model-T Ford, penning prose while her partner Alice Toklas drove around doing errands.

3. Virginia Woolf

Woolf used a standing desk before it was cool. (She wanted to work on the same playing field as her sister, who was an artist.) Although she decided to take a seat later in her career, Woolf loved purple and wrote most of Mrs. Dalloway in purple ink.

4. Sir Walter Scott

Scott penned most of the poem Marmion in his head while riding a horse.

5. James Joyce

The modernist master liked writing in bed while on his stomach. He also always wore a white coat for practical reasons. Joyce was nearly blind, and the bright coat reflected light and helped him see. As his eyesight worsened, he wrote on cardboard with colored crayons.

6. Friedrich Schiller

Schiller worked late at night, so to keep the sandman away, he’d dip his feet in ice-cold water. But it gets weirder: Schiller always wrote with a bunch of rotten apples stowed in his desk drawer. He said the smell motivated him.

7. Alexander Dumas

Dumas insisted that all of his literary output be color-coded: Blue paper for fiction, pink paper for articles, and yellow paper for poetry.

8. Demosthenes

To keep on task, the Greek orator would shave half of his head because it forced him to stay inside and work. Plutarch writes, “Here he would continue, oftentimes without intermission, two or three months together, shaving one half of his head, that so for shame he might not go abroad, though he desired it ever so much.”

9. Lord Byron

Byron was basically an eccentric amateur zookeeper. At school, he kept a bear in his dorm room. (He leashed it up and took it for walks around campus—he even tried to get it a fellowship.) Later on, according to Percy Shelley, Byron kept eight dogs, three monkeys, five cats, some peacocks, eagles, crows, and falcons inside his house.

10. Yukio Mishima

Nominated for three Nobel prizes, Mishima actually founded an emperor-worshipping cult for teenage boys. In 1970, he stormed the Japanese Defense Headquarters with a sword and four of his boys. After failing to overthrow the government, he committed suicide.

11. Oscar Wilde

Wilde didn’t care what Victorian England thought. He’s rumored to have once walked down the street with a lobster on a leash.

12. John Milton

Milton started his day at 4:00 a.m. He spent the first hour thinking in solitude. Then an aide would read him the Bible for half an hour, afterward dictating whatever Milton said. (Milton was blind, and those dictations would become Paradise Lost). Whenever the aide was late, Milton griped, “I want to be milked. I want to be milked.”

13. Honoré de Balzac

No one worked harder than Balzac. He’d wake up at 1:00 a.m., write for seven hours, take a nap at 8:00 a.m., wake up at 9:30 a.m., write again till 4:00 p.m., take a walk, visit friends, and call it a night at 6:00 p.m. To fuel all that writing, he threw back upwards of 50 cups of coffee per day.

14. Franz Kafka

To keep his mind fresh, Kafka exercised in front of the window—naked.

15-20. Plenty of other writers liked working in the buff…

Benjamin Franklin took “air baths,” writing his essays and letters in a cold room while nude. Agatha Christie and Edmond Rostand both liked writing in the bathtub. James Whitcomb Riley wrote naked so he wouldn’t be tempted to walk to the bar, and when Victor Hugo felt distracted, he removed all his clothes so that he was totally alone with pen and paper. As a writing warm-up, D.H. Lawrence would climb mulberry trees in his birthday suit.

Of course, all these peculiar work habits pale in comparison to the amazing drive and creative vision displayed by epic author and filmmaker Eric Jonrosh. For a clearer window into Jonrosh’s greatness, tune in to The Spoils of Babylon on IFC on January 9 at 10/9c.

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January 8, 2014 - 7:00am
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