Famous Poets and Their Writing Habits: What We Can Learn from Them

Writing is Your Job

Maya Angelou was a writer, poet, civil rights activist and award-winning author known for her acclaimed memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.

In the book, Daily Rituals (audiobook), Angelou describes her daily routine and schedule in detail from morning till night. I like how she acknowledges her time writing as going to work, just like her husband. It’s important, as writers, to value your writing time as just as crucial as if you are going to a traditional job. Your work is serious and necessary. 

“I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine.

I keep a hotel room in which I do my work—a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon.

If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind.

I shower, prepare dinner so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner, I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.” 


Exercise Daily

Walt Whitman was fascinated with the mind-body connection—the question of whether we are bodies in minds, or minds in bodies—a concept that interested philosophers for years. He was awakened to the relationship of the body and spirit more fully after his experience as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War. In his collection, Specimen Days, he writes about working out and taking care of oneself physically as part of the spiritual and creative connection to the body. 

In an entry from the winter of 1877, still recovering from the paralytic stroke that had left him severely disabled five years earlier, the sixty-six-year-old poet describes his workout in the gymnasium of the wilderness:

“A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high—pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety, I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets or plays — or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes and refrains I heard of the blacks down south, or patriotic songs I learn’d in the army. I make the echoes ring, I tell you!”

Next time you are in a creative slump, try going to the gym, working out at home, or going for a brisk walk. 


Keep a Journal

Sylvia Plath rarely spoke about her own craft publicly as she was incredibly self-analytical. However, she did keep a journal for most of her life, which is now available for us to read. 

Despite having published her first poem at eight years old, one could argue that her development as a writer grew the most due to her diligent journal keeping. She started journaling during her adolescence and it eventually grew to a kind of obsession. She recorded her thoughts, feelings and actions (rendered beautifully, I might add. Nothing like my teenage journals of high school drama and things my mother wouldn’t let me do). 

Plath’s journals helped her with structure and with writing The Bell Jar, her semi-autobiographical novel. Keeping a journal is such a wonderful practice for writers to incorporate into their daily routine. Try waking up half an hour earlier to making the time to write out your thoughts before the day officially begins. 


Challenge Your Process

Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time, challenged the existing definitions of poetry.  As writers, we can learn so much from her by simply reading her work—by studying the way she experimented with words and expressions in order to free them from conventional restraints. 

According to Flavorwire, Dickinson didn’t just write in notebooks or paper. She wrote on envelopes, opening them, closing them, and cutting them so the shape of the paper would be in conversation with the form and meaning of the poem.