Gay Talese’s Daily Routine, Plus a Money-Saving Tip from the Godfather of Literary Journalism
By Maria Popova
UPDATE: Talese’s routine is now included in this labor-of-love visual adaptation of famous writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard reminded us in her beautiful meditation on presence over productivity. Indeed, we seem to have an insatiable appetite for the daily routines and rituals of famous writers and artists, either for the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of a glimpse into their private worlds or in the hope that it would somehow help us finally master our own creative routines.
In A Writer’s Life (public library), Gay Talese — godfather of literary journalism, sage of the writing craft, chronicler of New York’s cats — shares the practicalities of his own daily routine and working environment:
When I am writing, each morning at around eight o’clock I am at my desk with a tray of muffins and a thermos filled with hot coffee at my side, and I sit working for about four hours and then leave for a quick lunch at a coffee shop, followed perhaps by a set or two of tennis. By 4:00 p.m. I am back at my desk revising, discarding, or adding to what I had written earlier. At 8:00 p.m. I am contemplating the numbing predinner delight of a dry gin martini.
Whether I am at home in New Jersey or New York, I work in a single room behind a desk that is U-shaped, formed by three tables at right angles, and I sit on a firm-backed cushioned swivel chair that has armrests and rollers — and, as I shift about, the roller sounds (whether in New Jersey or New York) emit precisely the same squeaks. In both locations the workroom walls — or, rather, the walls that face and flank my desk — are covered with white panels of Styrofoam insulation material, each panel ten feet long, two feet wide, and an inch thick. . . .
Talese goes on to further remove the writer’s world from the realm of the romanticized, bringing it down to the daily grind with a delightfully pragmatic money-saving tip on storyboarding:
In my opinion, these Styrofoam panels are more desirable as bulletin boards than are the wood-framed cork examples customarily sold in stationery stores. Each panel, selling for three or four dollars, is much less expensive than a corkboard of similar size, which costs twenty or thirty dollars or more, and in addition to being light enough to be affixed to walls with heavy tape reinforced maybe by a couple of thumbtacks, the Styrofoam panels are softer than cork and easier to penetrate with the dressmaker pins that I use when hanging up instructional notes or reminders to myself, or, on those rare occasions when my work is flowing, the many manuscript pages filled with finished prose that dangle overhead like a line of drying white laundry, fluttering slightly from the effects of a distant fan.
A Writer’s Life, needless to say, is a treasure trove from cover to cover. Complement it with the daily routines of Charles Darwin, William S. Burroughs, Joy Williams, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other famous writers.
Published July 3, 2013