arly in my writing career, I discovered Perkins. Life was complicated then. I was a full time teacher with a young family and hardly a spare minute. To add writing to the mix meant that I had to squeeze an extra hour or two from an already crowded day. So I started getting up earlier than normal, well before my wife and kids, and designated that time for writing.
Each morning for the first week, I brewed a pot of coffee, slipped into an empty room, and stared bleary-eyed at a computer screen making little progress. The house was too quiet, the air too still, and there were oh so many distractions far more interesting or important than writing. And then I discovered Perkins, and a routine that made all the difference.
Frustrated by my lack of progress at home, I headed to a nearby Perkins restaurant early one morning. The place was just a few blocks away and open 24 hours for my convenience. There the tables were large, the coffee hot and plentiful, and the restaurant was mostly deserted, save for five grizzly men, all retired I assume, who had gathered to debate politics and life’s sad state. I chose a table near a window far away from them, and soon I was lost in a caffeine-fueled world of my own. There, with the comforting hum of voices in the background, with few distractions to impede my progress, I sat at my adopted desk and, for the first time in a week, made some headway.
For over 20 years now, I’ve started each morning in a similar way. The nearby Perkins closed a few years ago so the venue has changed but the routine hasn’t varied. Seven days a week, even on vacations, I find a cozy cafe or restaurant, and immerse myself in writing for an hour and often more.
My routine isn’t for everyone, but I can’t help but think that for serious writers some kind of routine is important. From what I can tell, the greatest writers of all time had their own well-honed, though sometimes quirky practices, so maybe I am on to something.
Like me, for example, American poet Sylvia Plath started her writing day early, up at 4 a.m. and writing feverishly until her children demanded attention. John O’Hara, on the other hand, wrote between midnight and 7 a.m. and then crawled into bed for the rest of the day.
For others, it was water that beckoned the muse. Benjamin Franklin liked to write while immersed in the bathtub. So did Ann Landers, the famous columnist, Edmond Rostand, the French playwright, and Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita. I am not sure how they kept their pages dry, but for them it worked.
Truman Capote wrote best in motel rooms and called himself ‘a horizontal writer’. Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote lying down, too. Not so for Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway who all wrote standing up.
Virginia Wolfe wrote in a converted basement billiards room, surrounded by old files and stacks of books. J.K.Rowling famously wrote large portions of Harry Potter aboard a train, soothed by clattering wheels and swaying cars. Stephen King, one of the most prolific of writers, works at the same desk every morning, surrounded by familiar writing tools, keeping butt in the chair until he reaches his target of 10 pages.
It seems to me that one secret to a successful writing career is not that we all have the same habit, but that we have habits of some kind that work for us – a place, a time, a favourite pen, a comfortable chair. Habit can induce consistency, offset writer’s block and lead to productivity, be it a paragraph a day or Stephen’s King’s enviable 10 pages.
For me, the habit is early morning coffee at a place nearby. What, I wonder, is yours?
Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and author of non-fiction books for youngsters.