Sitting, standing, or lying down: How do writers write?
“I am a completely horizontal author.” Truman Capote
Writers don’t need a lot of paraphernalia. Something to to write with, something to write on, somewhere to write. But once those basics are sorted, the manner in which they do it is almost infinitely varied.
Personally, I also need a reasonably comfy chair. Nothing that’s going to make me nod off it’s so soothing, yet something reasonably robust (in an 1883 letter to a friend, Balzac wrote “Yesterday my arm-chair, the companion of my vigils, broke. It is the second I have had killed under me since the beginning of the battle that I fight.”). I type this sitting on a pretty cheap wooden dining room chair with a pretty cheap cushion as mitigation. But not everybody has plumped for something from the local pine shop in town.
Prolific German playwright, poet and novelist Johann von Goethe (1749 – 1832) was well aware of the advantages of a healthy ergonomic writing environment. He usually wrote at a standing desk, but when he became tired instead of throwing himself into a soft armchair, he perched on a high wooden stool called a ‘sitzbock’. Also known as a ‘donkey’, it looks like a cross between a small pommel horse and an upholstered saddle for riding horses, with four sloping legs. It’s more for perching on, half-standing, allowing the back muscles to relax while keeping the back upright. If you’re eager to see it in person, it’s on display in the writer’s study at the Goethe Gartenhaus Museum in Weimar, Germany.
Although some critics suggest that the rise in the use of standing desks over the last decade is some kind of health fad, the truth is that many writers have preferred to work vertically. Among the keenest standers was Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) for whom it was a habit formed even before the injuries he sustained in two plane crashes in 1954 made it painful for him to sit for long periods.
At his Finca Vigia home in Cuba Hemingway’s wife Mary built him a four storey tower where he could write as a birthday present, but he much preferred his bedroom, closer to the hustle and bustle of the house. Here he worked on top of a bookcase placed next to a wall, his typewriter at chest height in the middle flanked by stacks of books and papers. Nearby was his word count chart, as Hemingway was very conscientious about hitting his 500-ish words a day mark, though he upped his game for The Sun Also Rises to nearer 2,000.
Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885) arrived in Guernsey in 1855 having gone into exile from his native France after crossing political swords with Napoleon III. He lost no time in buying Hauteville House, a large white villa at 38 Rue Hauteville, St Peter Port, and renovating it to his exact specifications. Most of the rooms were done out in a kind of opulent Gothic style, but on the top floor he did quite the reverse for his own writing room, known as the Lookout, where he wrote his masterpieces Les Miserables and The Toilers of the Sea.
It was built in 1861 and has the feel of a conservatory or greenhouse perched on the top of the house rather than in the back garden, with large glass windows on three sides and a glass roof. Hugo added mirrors to accentuate the feeling of light and so the sea could be seen on all walls. Measuring nearly 6m by 3m, it was inspired by the Crystal Palace in London built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 - he called it his ‘Crystal Room’. Hugo started writing in it in 1862 before it was completely finished.
Here, at his standing desk by a sea-facing window, he wrote during the next 15 years of exile as he enjoyed panoramic views over the town and the islands of Herm and Sark, as well as to (on a clear day) France. He wrote about this view in a poem in which he describes being deep in thought as he writes at his window, watching the seagulls, the ships, and the tide coming in and out.
More along my line of thinking is Charles Dickens who liked chairs with cane seating. Dickens was very keen on his – on display at the Charles Dickens Museum in London - because he suffered from an anal fistula and he thought the cane provided plenty of soothing air around his bottom. He wrote to his friend the journalist and printer Francis Dalziel Finlay who had also undergone an operation for an anal fistula: “You know by this time, I may assume, the importance of always using an open-work cane chair? I can testify that there is nothing quite like it. Even in this episodical hotel-life, I invariably have my cane chair brought from a bedroom.”
The chair on which JK Rowling drafted parts of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) was not at all fancy. It was a simple oak dining room chair with a red thistle decoration dating from the 1930s. After Goblet of Fire came out in 2000 shed donated it to a charity auction having repainted the chair including an inscription around its frame: ‘You may not find me pretty but don’t judge on what you see. I wrote Harry Potter while sitting on this chair.’ Rowling was given the chair for free in 1995 for her Edinburgh council flat. It sold at auction in 2016 for £278,000 along with a letter of provenance from Rowling stating “My nostalgic side is quite sad to see it go, but my back isn’t.”
Eighteenth century poet and translator of Homer, William Cowper even wrote a poem inspired by his day-bed/chair. The start of his 1785 ‘The Task’ – written in an attempt to beat writer’s block - begins “I sing the Sofa”. The furniture in question is on display at the Cowper-Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire where you can also view his tiny summerhouse where he wrote and which he described it as “not much bigger than a sedan-chair”.
Perhaps surprisingly, writing lying down or in bed is a common part of many writers’ routines. There is even some research that suggests horizontal working is more conducive to creative problem solving than something more upright.
Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) spent a lot of time writing in bed as a young man, but then moderated the habit to include a standing desk and an armchair. Eccentric English poet Edith Sitwell is said to have prepared for a day’s writing, usually in bed surrounded by various lined notebooks, by contemplating her work ahead from the comfort of an open coffin (maybe with a large pinch of salt…). And lying on his stomach was James Joyce’s preferred method while writing in large blue pencil while wearing a white coat, to help deal with his worsening eyesight.
But the most committed to non-verticality was Truman Capote (1924-1984) who once described himself as as “completely horizontal author”. He wrote longhand in this ideal position and kept cigarettes and coffee to hand, moving on to mint tea, sherry, and then martinis as the day progressed. I think we might all be a little bit Team Truman.
Some fascinating insights here, Mark, thanks for sharing. I try to vary my writing position as I think it helps keep the mind more mobile.
Of the many excellent things in this episode, my favourite is discovering that Hemingway wrote standing up. I do like the idea of it