Literary Life

The working habits of authors can sometimes be as interesting as their creations, on the evidence of Harry Bruce’s “Page Fright,” a delightful volume about the practical side of “the world’s loneliest calling.” He starts with a close look at the tools of the trade: John Steinbeck sometimes went through 60 pencils a day, and Mark Twain was impressed by his first encounter with a typewriter (in 1874), saying: “It piles an awful stack of words on one page.” But much of the book concerns writers’ modes of production.

Thomas Hobbes wrote on his bedsheets, and when those were full he “scrawled on his thighs”; Voltaire is said to have used his naked mistress’s back for a desk. What is it about supine authorship? Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edith Wharton liked writing in bed. Not Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin or Lewis Carroll—they scratched away at stand-up desks. Winston Churchill might have come up with the best approach: He would pad around, thinking aloud, while stenographers tried to keep up. No arguing with the results: He produced nearly 30 million words, won a Nobel and went through countless cigars while the stenos hung on every puff. That’s genius-level multitasking.

Dave Shiflett, Wall Street Journal


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