Wasting time recently on Twitter, I saw Ursula Le Guinn’s writing schedule pop up and quickly grab 50,000 likes. It was, admittedly, pretty likeable. The highly regarded and immensely popular author claimed a charmingly chill workday:
5:30 am – wake up and lie there and think
6:15 a.m. – get up and eat breakfast (lots)
7:15 a.m. – get to work writing, writing, writing
Noon – lunch
1:00-3:00 p.m. – reading, music
5.00-8.00 p.m. – make dinner and eat it.
After 8:00 p.m. – I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this
“I see you Ursula Le Guinn and raise you a Hunter S. Thompson,” one wag couldn’t resist commenting:
3:00 p.m. – rise
3:05 p.m. – Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhill cigarette
3:45 p.m. – cocaine . . .
Midnight – Hunter ready to write
Famous writers’ day-to-day work habits are the stuff of hundreds of articles and more then a few books. And I confess, I’m one of the many who reads them with guilty pleasure. But my real interest lies beyond writers’ daily agendas — what intrigues me is the view out their windows.
I hold two people responsible for my fixation: my father the architect, who loved a good view, and my husband who harbors his own secret obsession — visiting the homes of dead authors. Together, we’ve chalked up an impressive list of house visits. Yeats, Keats, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Conan Doyle, or at least the house where he dreamt up The Hound of the Baskervilles, Rudyard Kipling’s Vermont retreat and my personal favorite, Tolstoy’s winter home in the outskirts of Moscow.
Tolstoy’s study, where he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, looks out over a tended lawn crisscrossed with footpaths. It wasn’t always that way. When Tolstoy brought his wife Sophia and their 13 children to the house in 1882, the garden was “as dense as a forest,” according to the author, who described it as a tangle of strawberries, gooseberries and rose bushes growing in and among apple and cherry trees.
The writer’s desk faces the window. His hardback chair is oddly stubby, the legs sawed down to accommodate Tolstoy’s refusal to wear glasses and his insistence on reading his manuscripts on the desk. He purposely chose the most remote room in the house, wanting his study far removed from the hubbub of the household. Even his children’s shouts were muffled, no easy task when on grey winter days the gang was often found sledding down the carpeted staircase on metal trays.
There is something thrilling about being in that room, imagining the great author at work. Inspiring in a very different way is the tiny writing table, cornered in a busy living room, where Jane Austen drafted Pride and Prejudice; thegarden vista as enticing as some of her descriptive passages. By contrast, the Brontë parsonage sits in the wild moorland of west Yorkshire with bleak views that clearly inspired both Charlotte and Emily.
My desk, an old kitchen table, sits perpendicular to my study window. The result is when I look up and over, I see little more than treetops and sky. Writing for me is a series of stops and starts. I shuttle between ideas of what could be, the scratchings in my notebook and the blank screen on my computer. When I do stop, it’s become a habit of mine to get up and lean on my windowsill to take in the view I can’t see while seated — three tall yew trees and a beaten path winding up hill and into the woods. It’s in those moments, gazing out my window, away from the distractions of my desk and reminders of unfinished work, that I’m often at my most clearheaded. I can pause, watch the way the light hits the trees, and breathe. Ready to start again.