A moving gif of Colette with her dog, and writing saying Toby-Chien, with moving fleas and combs

The most unusual writing rituals of famous authors

All artists have their eccentrics, and authors are no different. Here, from hanging upside down to sniffing rotten apples, are some of the most unusual habits famous names have used to get the juices flowing...

In November, following the publication of his presidential memoir, it emerged that Barack Obama wrote the entire 760-page tome by hand, on yellow legal notepaper with a pen. A pen!?

"I still like writing things out in longhand, finding that a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness,” he wrote in A Promised Land.

Of course, Barack Obama's preference for real paper was nothing compared to the famous writing quirks from history. From picking fleas from pets to sleeping in coffins, hanging upside down to sniffing rotten apples, literature has a long history of odd rituals to beat writer's block. So here, from Jack Kerouac to Colette, Truman Capote to Maya Angelou, are some other authors who chose not to do things by the book.

How do you like them putrid apples?

'There was something in the sweet, rancid mustiness of those apples [that] jolted his brain into activity'

Aldous Huxley swore by the creative benefits of LSD. Jack Kerouac's stimulant of choice was benzedrine. And Honoré de Balzac was said to drink 50 cups of coffee a day to kick his synapses into gear. But for the German poet Friedrich Schiller, nothing sharpened the mind like a stash of putrid apples.

According to his friend Goethe, Schiller used to leave rotten apples in his desk drawer so he could take a lug of their foul bouquet whenever he felt his inspiration running low. According to his wife, he “could not live or work without it.” As Diane Ackerman wrote in A Natural History of the Senses, it was “something in the sweet, rancid mustiness of those apples jolted his brain into activity.”

Picking fleas from pets

Colette (full name: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) was the ultimate literary renegade who both outraged and intoxicated turn-of-the-century Paris. She was an author, a poet, a memoirist, a feminist icon and a prolific journalist who trapezed between all manner of subjects from trench warfare to domestic abuse, fashion to faking orgasms.

But she was also an animal lover, and would begin her day's writing by methodically picking fleas from her beloved pet bulldog's back until she was ready to put pen to paper.

Hanging upside down

"You've just got to relax and let go. The more you do it the more you let go. And then soon it's just, wow"

When Dan Brown's head begins to overflow with complex ideas about cryptography, symbology and the twisty, cerebral plotlines for which he's famed, he dangles upside upside down like a bat to let the chaff fall out.

The Da Vinci Code author revealed in 2013 how he likes to don a pair of gravity boots and hang from an exercise frame to think it out. “It does help,” he told The Sunday Times. “You've just got to relax and let go. The more you do it the more you let go. And then soon it's just, wow.”

On top of that, he keeps an hourglass on his desk. Every hour he puts his manuscript to one side and does a bout of push-ups, sit-ups and stretches.

A glass of sherry and an empty hotel room

A black-and-white photograph of Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou in 1992. Image: Getty

The renowned poet, author and civil rights beacon Maya Angelou rarely wrote at home. Rather, she would rent a hotel room nearby, order staff to take all pictures and knicknacks off the walls, and write on the bed from 6.30am to lunchtime.

“I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry,” she told the Paris Review in 1990, adding: “I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in … To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe.”

Rude, nude and in the mood

'When a deadline loomed Victor Hugo had no choice but to gather up all his clothes, and order a servant to hide them away so he couldn't leave the house'

For Victor Hugo – 19th-century Paris' bon-vivant-in-chief – nothing ruined a good day's writing than the draw of a local brothel (he was such a fixture in the city's pulsating nighttime economy that when he died the brothels of Paris were said to have closed down for a day of mourning so sex workers could pay their respects).

So when a deadline loomed (most famously that of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the winter of 1830), he had no choice but to gather up all his clothes, and order a servant to hide them away so he couldn't leave the house.

Now stark naked but for a “a huge grey knitted shawl, which swathed him from head to foot,” according to his wife, he was forced to stay indoors and write like the clappers until he finished the novel.

Never start writing on a Friday

A photograph of Truman Capote, at home, sitting in a white robe with a notebook, surrounded by blankets and ornaments
Truman Capote at home. Image: Slim Aarons / Getty Images

Truman Capote was, by his own admission, an odd fellow, with more superstitions than a Stevie Wonder song. He claimed never to start or finish a piece of work on a Friday, refused to phone a friend if their number added up to 13, or stay in a hotel room of the same number.

And, while chain smoking was critical to his creative process, he couldn't allow more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket as he wrote (aside: he also refused to travel on a plane with two nuns on it, or be in a room that contained yellow roses). “It’s endless, the things I can’t and won’t,” he told an interviewer in 1957. “But I derive some curious comfort from obeying these primitive concepts.”

Crayons, card and a big white coat

'He wrote at night mostly, and he lay always across the bed on his stomach when he wrote'

By the time James Joyce got round to writing Finnegan's Wake his eyesight was failing. He'd suffered eye troubles his entire life, undergoing some 25 fruitless operations to restore his vision. And by 1923, he was almost blind.

So, according to biographer Gordon Bowker, he came up with a simple ruse to defeat his myopia. As his sister Eileen explained: “He wrote at night mostly, and he lay always across the bed on his stomach when he wrote. He had a huge blue pencil, like a carpenter's pencil, and a white coat on to reflect on the paper because … it gave a kind of white light.”

Drugs, coffee and a 120-foot roll of paper

A photograph of an exhibit of Kerouac's work; there are photographs of him on the background, as a visitor looks at an exhibit.
Kerouac's manuscript goes on display in San Fransisco, in 2006. Image: Getty

It's one of the most famous legends in modern literature: Jack Kerouac, his mind boiling over with with drug-fuelled creative juice, crashed out the entirety of his beat classic On The Road on a single 120-foot roll of typing paper, sellotaping bits together so he'd never have to reload his typewriter. It took him three short weeks of feverish typing, powered by a diet of benzedrine and coffee, in one mesmerising screed of unbroken prose.

Rich with hedonistic adventures, riding freight trains, hanging out with hobos, and drinking red wine under the moon, the manuscript became the very definition of a youthful lust for life, a blueprint for a generation desperate for a sense of place in a fast-changing world.

Have a lie down in an open coffin

'Was it the idea of the coffin or the feel, smell, foul air of it that made creativity possible?'

I've left this one until last because, well, it was only gossip. But as literary legends go, it's one of the best. According to rumour, the poet, critic and inveterate misanthrope Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin before she began her day's writing. 

"What was it exactly about that dim, contained solitude that spurred her creativity?' wrote Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses. "Was it the idea of the coffin or the feel, smell, foul air of it that made creativity possible?"

Or maybe the closer she felt to death, the more she felt alive. “I am not eccentric," she famously said. "It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of catfish."

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more