Anthony Burgess could write a novel in four weeks
“I write fast. So what?”
Anthony Burgess (1917–1993)
Most of the time, I find writers’ descriptions of their work habits comforting. You don’t have to spend much time reading about, say, Virginia Woolf or Franz Kafka or Susan Sontag or Joseph Conrad or Lorraine Hansberry or Dorothy Parker to discover that getting quality work onto the page is a real struggle even for the most accomplished writers, sometimes brutally so. Naturally, this tends to make me feel better about my own exquisitely inefficient process.
Occasionally, however, I’ll run across a writer who is the opposite, one of those cheerfully industrious and effortlessly prolific souls like the British novelist Anthony Trollope, who knocked out 3,000 words every morning before heading to his day job at the Post Office—and who, if he completed one novel during his daily three hours, would get out a fresh sheet of paper and immediately begin the next one.
Another example of this rare and rather infuriating breed—also British and also named Anthony—came to my attention last week: Anthony Burgess, the author of 33 novels, though nowadays he is known for just one of them, 1962’s A Clockwork Orange. In a 1988 interview, Burgess explained how he wrote so much:
I am a hard worker by temperament. E. M. Forster wrote six novels, and that was enough. Virginia Woolf? Not much more. Me, I have to write an average of 1,000, sometimes 2,000 words a day. That’s hard work. Every morning, I begin by drinking a big cup of tea with six or seven teabags, and I compose the expositionary part of a fugue to get the brain stirred up. Only then do I sit down to work. I write fast. So what? No one would criticize a craftsman for being too fast on the job.
The part about the fugue is a reference to Burgess’s other passion: composing music, which he took as seriously as writing, once saying, “I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.”
As for Burgess’s very strong cup of morning tea—well, that was only one of his crucial writing accessories. According to the biographer Andrew Biswell, Burgess also smoked constantly while writing, with a typical intake of 80 cigarettes per day. Further, Biswell writes: “When his concentration failed, he would take three dexedrine tablets, washing them down with a pint of iced gin and tonic before returning to the typewriter.” According to Biswell, Burgess and his wife had a dozen bottles of Gordon’s gin delivered to their house each week—“an astonishing input considering that they hardly ever entertained visitors.”
Despite the mountain of writing he produced—and his 33 novels are even more remarkable when you consider that he didn’t publish his first until age 39—Burgess had the gall to claim, in a 1971 interview, that he was “a very slow writer.” He continued:
I have a lot of energy, I’m fairly strong. I can stay at the table for a long stretch, smoking a lot. Get a fair amount done that way. I get a thousand words a day down, you see, in good conditions. Which is all right. Ideally you get an 80,000-word book done in eighty days, two and a half months, about three months. I have written a novel in four weeks. . . .
I work every day, including weekends. Having started to write very late, I feel guilty about wasting my time, even socially. Going out to dinner, you know, I feel very guilty about it.
That last comment may contain the real secret to Burgess’s prolificacy: not Dexedrine, cigarettes, and booze but good old-fashioned guilt and shame! Truly, it is a wellspring.
“THE CHEMICAL LIFE”
Speaking of Burgess’s Dexedrine habit: He was hardly the only 20th-century writer to rely on amphetamines to get his work done. In fact, my Daily Rituals research revealed a whole slew of writers who used speed to write, including W. H. Auden, Graham Greene, Ayn Rand, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Susan Sontag. I wrote a bit about this in my 2013 Slate series on outstanding themes from the book—read the amphetamines article here.
“WE ALL HAVE SOME WEIRDNESS”
On Instagram, the author and activist adrienne maree brown has been sharing some excerpts from Daily Rituals: Women at Work, and it’s been really lovely to see her followers vibe on the routines of Octavia Butler, Nina Simone, and Zora Neale Hurston. Follow her for—I hope—additional excerpts in the coming days.