Friday, January 31, 2014

19th Century Writers, Productivity, and Us

photo courtesy
"Prowling about the rooms, sitting down, getting up, stirring the fire, looking out of the window, tearing my hair, sitting down to write, writing nothing, writing something and tearing it up, going out, coming in, a Monster to my family, a dread Phaenomenon to myself..." --Charles Dickens in a letter to a friend, February 19, 1856, while working on Little Dorrit

Does the above quote describe any of your writing sessions of late, even though the new year has barely begun? Take heart. You're in good company!

I came across these words of Dickens in an article from the archives of the New York Times: The More They Write, The More They Write, by Jay Parini, dated July 30, 1989. In it, Parini discussed the productivity of some of the great writers of the 19th century and shared insights into their peculiar habits that helped them sustain their high level of writing output.

He wrote about Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) whose work included 27 novels and a 700 page journal: "The ferociously driven author always had at least two projects in the works at any given time, and...two desktops (which) helped to keep them separate." Two desks? That would be a luxury. Can we also have an extra day in the week?

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), who wrote numerous books between 1822-1848 (eight books in 1842 alone), drank potent cups of coffee. "To spur himself on," Parini wrote, "Balzac used heavy doses of coffee that he prepared in the Turkish fashion, infusing the grounds in cold water, then heating them; he gradually used less and less water, creating a brew as thick as mud--a caffeine riot." Maybe some chocolate, too?

"Dickens (1812-1870), he added, "had no will to resist taking on new projects. Since his novels sold exceedingly well, publishers were only too willing to get him to sign on the dotted line. At several points in his career, he worked simultaneously on two or three novels while editing a journal and managing the affairs of a vast extended family. His energy level was such that he often took long late-night walks to cool his nerves." Yes, walks. I can identify with that, but not late at night!

Yet, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), author of over 60 novels, wrote only three hours a day. Trollope was quoted as saying, "All those I think who have lived as literary men will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write." His plan was to write 250 words every quarter of an hour. Three hours sounds reasonable, but 250 words every 15 minutes? Hmmm....

So what can we take from this? A few thoughts:
1. Productivity is a personal thing.
2. Productivity...ahem...takes work.
3. But productivity doesn't always mean driving ourselves to exhaustion.
4. Productivity is a result of balance, being realistic, and discovering our own personal rhythms (and limits)--although the examples of others can be a source of inspiration, including 19th century authors for the 21st century.

Getting an insight into a-day-in-the-life of the famous Charles Dickens makes me want to re-read one of his all time classics, A Tale of Two Cities. The opening line has stayed with me since high school: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Sort of describes the writing life in general, doesn't it?

Do any writerly idiosyncrasies help keep your words flowing? Unusual patterns or habits? Do you struggle with "Charles Dickens"-type days? Any plans to read a classic this year?


  1. I should read Tale of Two Cities. ;) That writers work so hard to be published, and once they're published, to STAY published, is part of what stops me as a writer. I'm not sure I want to work that hard. Most publishing authors these days really do work every bit as hard as the famous authors you listed above. Unless you're Donna Tartt, who releases a book about once every ten years.

  2. Very interesting. I think a little immersion helps, once I get into it I can write for hours. I do have quite a few of those Dickens days though.

    I read 2 Cities last year and am (slowly) reading Bleak House at the moment.

    Moody Writing

  3. I'm always doing many things at the same time, not all of them as well as I should. Not sure that qualifies as a Dickens sort of day, though.

  4. Cathy, I agree it's difficult in today's world to not only break into print but to actually get that book(s) out there in the marketplace. I keep trying, though. Maybe it's a bit like hitting our heads against the wall, but I still want to try. As long as I'm not, as Dickens says, a monster to my family!

    mooderino, 'immersion' is a neat way to put it. Those are the times--when we're in our writing world, things are going well, and we're oblivious to time passing--that are the most fun. They help balance out the Dickens days, that's for sure. Thanks so much for stopping by :-)

    Peggy, when you say you're always doing many things at the same time, do you mean you multitask or that you have a number of writing projects going at the same time? At any rate, you must have all kinds of ideas to draw from. A writer never gets bored, does she? Have a great rest of the weekend- and a good week ahead :-)

    1. Multitasking (who doesn't, these days) as well as multiple writing projects. No, I'm not bored, but I believe I am tired of winter.

    2. I'm with you, Peggy--the winter's been rough. But at least our electricity has stayed on. Very thankful for that. Any power outages for you? Stay warm in this latest round :-)

  5. I try to do too many things at one time, and not all of them well.

  6. Rachna, it is hard to follow through on one idea when so many others are demanding our attention, isn't it? Plus all the other things of life you are busy with. Good luck and may this be the year you see some of your writing dreams come true :-)