It didn't occur to me then why she'd selected such a newbie for her autobiography. What did she see in me? Now I think maybe she appointed me because of my youth and gullibility. In hindsight I wonder if her stories weren't a tad farfetched.
Anyway, I faithfully hunted and pecked her words out on an ancient Underwood typewriter like the one left. (That isn't the Duchess, by the way.) To this day I'm still not sure how the typewriter arrived to my room. It just was. And when we moved away from that cute little craftsman bungalow and headed north to Alaska for a 4-year stint because my mother became a Government Agent recruit (another story to come), the old Underwood got left behind.
These days I’m flipped upside down and living below the equator, and my machine of choice is my beloved Mac Air. But I still reminisce fondly of that 19th century relic (meaning the typewriter, NOT the Duchess —she would have my HEAD). And it’s got me wondering: what do best-selling authors use to get the words down? What's their 'process'?
In this modern day and age of miraculous technological conveniences that avow to take away your difficulties, and promise you every advantage and more time to party, you might find the following accounts suspect. Who wouldn’t want to use the latest sleek laptop, genius app or dictation software? With anything else it would take years to finish a book. Right? But did you know that many top writers of our day don’t use the latest technology at ALL to pen their books? I didn't, but that’s indeed the case. And because of that, I decided to write this blog.
I was going to Google myself up some authors and write a: ‘Here’s a quick survey’ piece. I should know better than that by now, because I am endlessly curious about strange things and somewhat (?!) of a research addict. This list got long. Anyway, there are highlighted words along the way to take you to relevant webpages for images and more info. I've tried hard to edit myself within the post and added a few more links at the end. Check that out later if you’re interested.
It boggles my mind how any author could write on anything other than a computer. I'm not even a tablet fan. And my handwriting is worse than that of an over-caffeinated physician with Parkinson's, so longhand is completely out for me. Plus my experiences with the Duchess don't make me delight in the prospect of reverting to hammering on typewriter keys and the ensuing lever tangles. The mere idea gives me nightmares. Not to mention keeping track of all that paper!
But who am I to judge? These writers seem to have made their 'processes' work very well for themselves.
Author of more than 120 books (!) and counting, Danielle Steele has written them all on her 1946 German-made typewriter. She’s even given ‘her’ the very nickname of my cat.
From her blog: “My typewriter’s name is Ollie (an Olympia SG1, a German hand made table top manual typewriter, which weighs as much as I do. It is an incredibly fine machine. And I’m happy to say it’s older than I am).”
Other authors who use/used typewriters:
- At 83, Barbara Taylor Bradford (A Woman of Substance) still writes on her IBM Wheelwriter. From her interview in The Telegraph: “Taylor Bradford gets up at 6.30 every morning and works at her typewriter without consulting her husband about her work or showing him a draft--until it’s finished. “You don’t need your husband to be a sounding board. He’ll tell me if he thinks something is not right once it’s finished.”
- Jackie Collins (Lucky Santangelo books): Blue Bird Torpedo, Olympia Splendid
- Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls): Remington Portable
- Bette Davis: Remington Noiseless Portable
- Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa): Corona 3
- Jackie Kennedy: Royal
- Helen Keller: Hammond
- C. S. Lewis (Narnia Chronicles): Royal Signet #ES 14545 (read more about the restoration of his typewriter on La Vie Graphite)
- Poet and activist Maya Angelou used an electric Adler typewriter
Jane Austen wrote her novels with a quill pen and iron gall ink she made herself from the recipe of Martha Lloyd, Jane’s friend and sister in-law:
“Take 4 ozs of blue gauls [gallic acid, made from oak apples], 2 ozs of green copperas [iron sulphate], 1 1/2 ozs of gum arabic. Break the gauls. The gum and copperas must be beaten in a mortar and put into a pint of strong stale beer; with a pint of small beer. Put in a little refin’d sugar. It must stand in the chimney corner fourteen days and be shaken two or three times a day.”
She wasn't without her own writerly tribulations. Here in letters to her sister Cassandra, she laments about the quality of her quill pen.
“I must get a softer pen — This is harder. I am in agonies. ... I am going to write nothing but short sentences. There shall be two full stops in every line.” (Sept. 15, 1813)
“... as my pen seems inclined to write large I will put my lines very close together. ... The day seems to improve. I wish my pen would too.” (Nov. 3, 1813)
Although he writes his screenplays on computer, the magically talented Neil Gaiman (proving it here: The Sleeper and the Spindle) writes his novels by hand (in these notebooks.) And, like Simone de Beauvoir, Gaiman uses a fountain pen. "It started in 1994 when I wrote the novel Stardust — in my head I wanted it to be written in the same way as it would have been in the 1920s, so I bought a big notepad and Waterman pen." Gaiman owns about 60 fountain pens which he also uses to do book signings. His minimalist methods on the page enable him to quickly eyeball his progress. “I like changing ink color each day. It shows me at a glance how many pages I wrote,”
The idea of putting pen to paper is romantic, don't you think? I remember those days when I wrote letters. A visit to the stationery store was one of my favorite things to do. I have to tell you that I have a fetish for stationery: colored pens, fresh and unwrinkled spiral notebooks, suede-y moleskins with their fuzzy-edged paper, even gold stars and glitter sticks. (What you lookin' at?)
I plot on paper. Scribble unintelligibilities to myself. But unless they disappear, I'll never actually write my books with anything other than a computer. And it was this post from Neil Gaiman's Twitter page that reminded why I should stick to using a laptop. I recognized myself.
“Today I actually looked in the fridge just in case that was where I'd left my pencil. It wasn't there. I've become a serial pencil mislayer.”
Pencils, my coffee cup, keys, the computer adapter . . .
Contemporary authors who write longhand. (Can you say: writer’s cramp!):
- Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club)—her early drafts
- Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake)
- Joyce Carol Oates (Pulitzer Prize Finalist)—though she does own a SCM Smith Corona Electra 220 typewriter
- JK Rowling (you know her) plots in pen, it seems. Her Order of the Phoenix spreadsheet
Like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King also writes with a fountain pen. He began writing longhand after his 1979 car accident, when sitting at a computer had become too painful. In the author's note in his novel Dreamcatcher he wrote: “One final note. This book was written with the world’s finest word processor, a Waterman cartridge fountain pen. To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven’t been in years. I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candle light. One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored.”
Quentin Tarantino - "I'm not superstitious in my normal daily life but I get that way about writing, even though I know it's all bullshit. But I began that way and so, that's the way it is. My ritual is, I never use a typewriter or computer. I just write it all by hand. It's a ceremony. I go to a stationary store and buy a notebook - and I don't buy like ten. I just buy one and then fill it up. Then I buy a bunch of red felt pens and a bunch of black ones, and I'm like, 'These are the pens I'm going to write 'Grindhouse" with.” ‘ — Interview with Reuters.
George R R Martin (Game of Thrones) confessed on the Conan O’Brien show that he writes on “an old DOS machine that’s not connected to the internet.” We're talking the Pleistocene age of computers! He uses Wordstar 4.0 as his word processing system. “It does everything I want a word processing program to do and it doesn’t do anything else.” Like the evil autocorrect! He may have something there.
The late Barbara Cartland, writer of over 700 novels and step-granny to Diana, Princess of Wales, had a team to which she dictated her stories.
Of course, writers have only recently had the benefit of tablets, shiny laptops and intuitive dictation software.
Mark Twain designed his own notebooks: leather-bound, tabbed notebooks. Like one can do with modern-day agendas, he tore the tabs off each completed page so next blank one was easy to find. Also a fountain pen writer, he preferred the Conklin Crescent Filler. He chose it because the crescent on its barrel prevented it from rolling off his desk. In the 1890s when Twain’s rheumatism made it too painful to writing longhand, he tried writing using his left hand. But he eventually began to dictate his stories.
Dame Barbara Cartland
Photo: English society-photographer Allan Warren.
He was also somewhat consumed by his affection for an electric pencil sharpener. I'll forever be enamored with binaural beats. Whatever it takes to get the words down.
Ernest Hemingway - In his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway set a scene of where he wrote:
“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.”
Truman Capote had a highly personal process. From The Paris Review (1957):
“I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on the couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand … Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. I don’t get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees. Sure, it works fine; I can manage a hundred words a minute.”
Zoinks! That’s 6,000 an hour! The green-eyed monster (could be a tortoise) in me wants to believe he was fibbing about his speed . . .
I hope you enjoyed this post! Got something to say about it? Leave a comment below. Or, if you don't want to be public, send me a note here:
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Neil Gaiman’s blog
In addition to the Waterman fountain pens both he and Stephen King like, brands Gaiman has also mentioned he uses are: TWSBI Diamond 540, Visconti, Pilot Custom 823 Amber, Delta Fluida, Lepine Indigo Classic.‘
Neil Gaiman writes his novels by hand (in these notebooks: https://twitter.com/neilhimself/status/758359841912086529
Stephen King interview with Bryant Gumble. Around minute 4 is where he talks of writing longhand.
John Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters
The blurb describes it: Part autobiography, part writer's workshop, these letters offer an illuminating perspective on Steinbeck's creative process, and a fascinating glimpse of Steinbeck, the private man.
Danielle Steel blog. But how she has time to write a blog . . .
The Truman Capote excerpt from The Paris Review is also included in: Conversations, By Truman Capote, M. Thomas Inge
Writers and their typewriters, the full list
Steve Soboroff owns the typewriter Truman Capote wrote his last three novels on. You can listen to an interview with him here on Off Ramp with John Rabe, from Southern California Public Radio
"Truman Capote's nicotine stained Smith Corona, with which he typed his final three novels. It's now in Steve Soboroff's collection of historic typewriters, which he uses to raise money for scholarships."