The Daily Habits of Famous Writers: Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King & More


Image by The USO, via Flickr Com­mons

Though few of us like to hear it, the fact remains that suc­cess in any endeav­or requires patient, reg­u­lar train­ing and a dai­ly rou­tine. To take a mun­dane, well-worn exam­ple, it’s not for noth­ing that Stephen R. Covey’s best-sell­ing clas­sic of the busi­ness and self-help worlds offers us “7 Habits of High­ly Effec­tive Peo­ple,” rather than “7 Sud­den Break­throughs that Will Change Your Life Forever”—though if we cred­it the spam emails, ads, and spon­sored links that clut­ter our online lives, we may end up believ­ing in quick fix­es and easy roads to fame and for­tune. But no, a well-devel­oped skill comes only from a set of prac­ticed rou­tines.

That said, the type of rou­tine one adheres to depends on very per­son­al cir­cum­stances such that no sin­gle cre­ative person’s habits need exact­ly resem­ble any other’s. When it comes to the lives of writ­ers, we expect some com­mon­al­i­ty: a writ­ing space free of dis­trac­tions, some pre­ferred method of tran­scrip­tion from brain to page, some set time of day or night at which the words flow best. Out­side of these basic para­me­ters, the dai­ly lives of writ­ers can look as dif­fer­ent as the images in their heads.

But it seems that once a writer set­tles on a set of habits—whatever they may be—they stick to them with par­tic­u­lar rig­or. The writ­ing rou­tine, says hyper-pro­lif­ic Stephen King, is “not any dif­fer­ent than a bed­time rou­tine. Do you go to bed a dif­fer­ent way every night?” Like­ly not. As for why we all have our very spe­cif­ic, per­son­al quirks at bed­time, or at writ­ing time, King answers hon­est­ly, “I don’t know.”

So what does King’s rou­tine look like? “There are cer­tain things I do if I sit down to write,” he’s quot­ed as say­ing in Lisa Rogak’s Haunt­ed Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King:

“I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a cer­tain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, some­where with­in that half hour every morn­ing,” he explained. “I have my vit­a­min pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumu­la­tive pur­pose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of say­ing to the mind, you’re going to be dream­ing soon.”

The King quotes come to us via the site (and now book) Dai­ly Rou­tines, which fea­tures brief sum­maries of “how writ­ers, artists, and oth­er inter­est­ing peo­ple orga­nize their days.” We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured a few snap­shots of the dai­ly lives of famous philoso­phers. The writ­ers sec­tion of the site sim­i­lar­ly offers win­dows into the dai­ly prac­tices of a wide range of authors, from the liv­ing to the long dead.


Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

A con­tem­po­rary of King, though a slow­er, more self-con­scious­ly painstak­ing writer, Haru­ki Muraka­mi incor­po­rates into his work­day his pas­sion for run­ning, an avo­ca­tion he has made cen­tral to his writ­ing phi­los­o­phy. Expect­ed­ly, Muraka­mi keeps a very ath­let­ic writ­ing sched­ule and rou­tine.

When I’m in writ­ing mode for a nov­el, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the after­noon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and lis­ten to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this rou­tine every day with­out vari­a­tion. The rep­e­ti­tion itself becomes the impor­tant thing; it’s a form of mes­merism. I mes­mer­ize myself to reach a deep­er state of mind. But to hold to such rep­e­ti­tion for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of men­tal and phys­i­cal strength. In that sense, writ­ing a long nov­el is like sur­vival train­ing. Phys­i­cal strength is as nec­es­sary as artis­tic sen­si­tiv­i­ty.

Not all writ­ers can adhere to such a dis­ci­plined way of liv­ing and work­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly those whose wak­ing hours are giv­en over to oth­er, usu­al­ly painful­ly unful­fill­ing, day jobs.


Image of Franz Kaf­ka, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

An almost arche­typ­al case of the writer trapped in such a sit­u­a­tion, Franz Kaf­ka kept a rou­tine that would crip­ple most peo­ple and that did not bring about phys­i­cal strength, to say the least. As Zadie Smith writes of the author’s por­tray­al in Louis Begley’s biog­ra­phy, Kaf­ka “despaired of his twelve hour shifts that left no time for writ­ing.”

[T]wo years lat­er, pro­mot­ed to the posi­tion of chief clerk at the Work­ers’ Acci­dent Insur­ance Insti­tute, he was now on the one-shift sys­tem, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exer­cis­es, then a fam­i­ly din­ner. After which he start­ed work around 11 PM (as Beg­ley points out, the let­ter- and diary-writ­ing took up at least an hour a day, and more usu­al­ly two), and then “depend­ing on my strength, incli­na­tion, and luck, until one, two, or three o’clock, once even till six in the morn­ing.” Then “every imag­in­able effort to go to sleep,” as he fit­ful­ly rest­ed before leav­ing to go to the office once more. This rou­tine left him per­ma­nent­ly on the verge of col­lapse.

Might he have cho­sen a health­i­er way? When his fiancée Felice Bauer sug­gest­ed as much, Kaf­ka replied, “The present way is the only pos­si­ble one; if I can’t bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it some­how.” And so he did, until his ear­ly death from tuber­cu­lo­sis.

While writ­ers require rou­tine, nowhere is it writ­ten that their habits must be salu­bri­ous or mea­sured. Accord­ing to Simone De Beau­voir, out­ré French writer Jean Genet “puts in about twelve hours a day for six months when he’s work­ing on some­thing and when he has fin­ished he can let six months go by with­out doing any­thing.” Then there are those writ­ers who have relied on point­ed­ly unhealthy, even dan­ger­ous habits to pro­pel them through their work­day. Not only did William S. Bur­roughs and Hunter S. Thomp­son write under the influ­ence, but so also did such a seem­ing­ly con­ser­v­a­tive per­son as W.H. Auden, who “swal­lowed Ben­zedrine every morn­ing for twen­ty years… bal­anc­ing its effect with the bar­bi­tu­rate Sec­onal when he want­ed to sleep.” Auden called the amphet­a­mine habit a “labor sav­ing device” in the “men­tal kitchen,” though he added that “these mech­a­nisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and con­stant­ly break­ing down.”

So, there you have it, a very diverse sam­pling of rou­tines and habits in sev­er­al suc­cess­ful writ­ers’ lives. Though you may try to emu­late these if you har­bor lit­er­ary ambi­tions, you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off com­ing up with your own, suit­ed to the odd­i­ties of your per­son­al make­up and your tolerance—or not—for seri­ous phys­i­cal exer­cise or mind-alter­ing sub­stances. Vis­it Dai­ly Rou­tines to learn about many more famous writ­ers’ habits.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dai­ly Rou­tines of Famous Cre­ative Peo­ple, Pre­sent­ed in an Inter­ac­tive Info­graph­ic

Haru­ki Muraka­mi Lists the Three Essen­tial Qual­i­ties For All Seri­ous Nov­el­ists (And Run­ners)

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Hon­oré de Balzac Writes About “The Plea­sures and Pains of Cof­fee,” and His Epic Cof­fee Addic­tion

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • megan says:

    A very diverse sam­pling that dis­cuss­es ONLY the habits of male writ­ers? Wow. Two major female writ­ers are quot­ed here, talk­ing about the habits of male writ­ers.

  • Luke says:

    Say what you will about the bru­tal­i­ty they put them­selves through, you have to admire their com­mit­ment to their art.

  • Shaun says:

    Megan! Just for you. Here is Maya Angelou’s writ­ing rou­tine via James Clear’s blog via an inter­view with The Dai­ly Beast. His web­site has some more male and female rou­tines.

    “I keep a hotel room in my home­town and pay for it by the month.

    I go around 6:30 in the morn­ing. I have a bed­room, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s The­saurus, a dic­tio­nary, and the Bible. Usu­al­ly a deck of cards and some cross­word puz­zles. Some­thing to occu­py my lit­tle mind. I think my grand­moth­er taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “lit­tle mind.” So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decid­ed that there was a Big Mind and a Lit­tle Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to con­sid­er deep thoughts, but the Lit­tle Mind would occu­py you, so you could not be dis­tract­ed. It would work cross­word puz­zles or play Soli­taire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the sub­jects I want­ed to write about.

    I have all the paint­ings and any dec­o­ra­tion tak­en out of the room. I ask the man­age­ment and house­keep­ing not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it dis­card­ed. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!”

    But I’ve nev­er slept there, I’m usu­al­ly out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve writ­ten that morn­ing, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.

    Easy read­ing is damn hard writ­ing. But if it’s right, it’s easy. It’s the oth­er way round, too. If it’s sloven­ly writ­ten, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the read­er what the care­ful writer can give the read­er.

  • Daniel Thaler says:

    That pret­ty much wraps up why Kaf­ka wrote the way he did and the sub­ject mat­ter he came up with for his nov­els. A tad depressed I’d say. So many writ­ers and poets are though. Meta­mor­phe­sis was one of the weird­est and depress­ing predica­ments for a human being to find them­selves in I can con­ceive of, and it is not clas­si­fied as sci­ence fic­tion. He may have real­ly felt like that!

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