Could Following Joan Didion's Writing Routine Make Me Write Like Joan Didion?

I copied my favorite writers’ schedules to see if they would offer the secret to unlocking my ultimate creative potential.

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How does one make a life as a writer? So much about it is unknowable: How do you put words in the right order so that they reveal something essential, but not in an annoying way? How do you keep your tenses straight? How do you make money? Do I need to have at least one grandparent who was a Rockefeller, or, failing that, at least a Pierpont Morgan? Only one aspect of making a living as a writer seems knowable: how writers schedule their days.

As a young writer, I would study any scrap of information I could find about my idols’ schedules, but I never found one I could fully copy, since none of the writers I admired also had to “attend college classes” or “work randomly scheduled shifts at Victoria’s Secret.” As a result, there are some problems with the schedule I ultimately cultivated. For example, “brushing my teeth” is not explicitly built into it, so either I brush my teeth while I’m supposed to be doing something else or, if I’m working at home alone all day, I just don’t do it until I go to bed. For this reason and for many others — I haven’t won an Emmy yet, I don’t have a Pulitzer, I’ve never even been longlisted for a National Book Award — I decided to try out famous writers’ schedules and see if they didn’t make my writing a little bit, you know, “better.”

To find these schedules, I read two books about artists’ routines, both by Mason Currey: Daily Rituals and Daily Rituals: Women At Work. What I learned from these books is it’s crazy how many writers — Sartre, Auden, Graham Greene, Ayn Rand of course — were on amphetamines. (Which proved one of my long-held theories: that if I abused Adderall, I would be famous by now.) I dug through these books for schedules by people whose work I admired, schedules that seemed largely drug-free, and schedules that were daily as opposed to the Susan Sontag school of “I do nothing for 2 weeks and then in a guilty panic I stay up 24 hours to meet a deadline.” These are their stories.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf wrote for three hours a day, but didn’t start until 10 a.m. So I spent the morning doing something Woolf found essential to her creative process: I took a bath.

To be perfectly frank, I hate baths. You’re paralyzed and you’re sweaty. During a bath I’m always tempted to look at my phone and play a high-risk game of phone death roulette. But today I was on God’s time (Virginia Woolf’s schedule from 100 years ago) and at my family’s house, which has a nice tub. I bathed. I did not find it particularly inspiring.

I spent the first of Woolf’s three work hours writing headlines for The Onion. That done, with two more hours of writing ahead of me, I had no choice but to finally start working on a new spec pilot I’ve been avoiding. This, I have found, is the greatest benefit of having set writing hours: you have to fill them with something, and this forces you to do work you could otherwise indefinitely avoid by just doing Duolingo lessons instead. Though Woolf wrote for fewer than half the number of hours I try to each day, on her schedule I did get a good amount of work done, and what’s more, I smelled like bath salts. Not too bad.

Alice Walker

Alice Walker’s schedule was based around writing while her daughter was at school; I had a leg up, as I don’t even have a daughter in the first place. I wrote during Alice Walker’s daughter’s school hours, 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m, and got a lot done. I finished reading a book for research and I wrote a top ten list for a friend’s Substack. For the rest of the day, instead of taking care of a family, I was free to do whatever I wanted. I was living the dream!

Edith Wharton

I have thought often about how Edith Wharton wrote, because she was the first writer I heard of who wrote, like I did, in bed. I have since encountered many more writers who do this, most of whom probably do it not for the reasons Wharton did (Dramatically lazy! Rich and hiding from the houseguests in her massive mansion! Flair!) but instead, for the reason I started doing it (Being too broke to own a desk, let alone a room big enough to hold a desk). I now own a desk and a chair, both of which I got for free, but I still often write from my bed for some variety. On this visit to my dad’s house, I had been writing exclusively from bed.

Wharton wrote in the mornings, dropping pages on the floor as she went, for her secretary to type up. I wrote until noon, working on the outline for the TV pilot, not dropping my computer on the floor.

Simone de Beauvoir

Back in New York, I decided to try out de Beauvoir’s schedule. From 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., I worked. I was still working on my spec pilot, and I had begun to see that in my outline, nothing really happened. The things that were happening, just barely, were happening to my characters, when what I really needed was for my characters to happen to things. (My therapist told me the same holds true in my life.) Solving this problem was very difficult, but just forcing myself to sit in front of my computer for three hours ensured at least some progress was made.

At lunch, de Beauvoir would see her friends, so I went over to my friend Renée’s house. We talked about our work and love lives, about setting long-term goals and making to-do lists. I found the visit invigorating! The thing they don’t tell you about living the life of an independent writer is that you actually have to talk to other people or you become bored, tired, insane, or, like me, all three.

De Beauvoir wrote again from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. so after my visit to Renée’s, I was excited to see if I could get anywhere with my pilot that evening. By the time 9 rolled around, I had a whole new outline. In the evening, de Beauvoir might go to the movies with Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher and playwright who was her primary lover. So I watched After Yang, which I enjoyed immensely not only because it was a phenomenal movie but also because, when it was done, I did not have to discuss it with my amphetamine-dependent existentialist “primary lover.” The entire day was a perfect schedule; I truly believe anyone who follows it could easily, like de Beauvoir, become a key figure of French feminism while also juggling multiple lovers.

Patti Smith

I was excited to try Patti Smith’s schedule, because Smith is a god to me. I was also excited to try Smith’s schedule because, from reading M Train, I understood it to involve unlimited amounts of coffee.

I started the laborious process of writing an essay about my ex — a piece pitched while he was still my sweetheart — and which I planned to still write even though he had made my life hell. I was a professional writer! I had a massive amount of cold brew both next to and inside of me! I can do all things through Patti Smith who strengthens me! When she’s done writing, Smith takes long walks; I did not, because it’s just such a production to put actual pants on. Instead, I kept working.

Like Smith, I ended the day by watching a detective show. Smith has called TV detectives the poets of today; I watched the pilot of a show about Alfred Molina solving a murder in a small, twee Canadian town, and didn’t feel particularly poetic.

Miranda July

Miranda July wakes up at 6:30 a.m. This seemed ungodly to me until I developed “my ex has made me insane”-based insomnia and ended up starting my day even earlier. July spends much of the morning doing Mom duty, as well as checking emails and getting dressed.

I spent a full hour reading emails in bed, but the “getting dressed” part I was not so enthused about. I really, really did not want to get out of my pajamas. I wanted to stay in them and feel bad. July describes getting dressed as “a bit of an antidepressant,” and it turns out she’s right: once I was dressed, it was actually very nice. At this point, I still had nearly 2 hours before 9 a.m., when July starts writing. I made my bed, cleaned my house, brushed my teeth, put my contacts in, and started doing my laundry. I got a bagel. I read. I wrote from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. straight through. I accomplished more things in one day than anyone had ever accomplished before on planet Earth. The magic of putting clothes on!

Joan Didion

I really wanted to give Joan Didion’s schedule the old college try. Everyone loves Joan Didion! Her sentences! Her sunglasses! The only problem was that Didion’s schedule was basically just drinking alcohol and editing for an hour before dinner, and if I drink even a half glass of wine I fall over sideways. Regardless, I kept picking days I would do this, but then accidentally doing things like buying last-minute tickets to Into the Woods that conflicted with my editing hour. “Hmm,” I said, the truth dawning on me. “Maybe I am not a famous writer because I have no resolve.”

I decided to give it one more try. I spent the whole day writing, but when the hour to drink and edit rolled around, I just couldn’t do it. For one thing, I had spent the day writing pitches for an advertorial series I’m working on, and I had already sent them in — I had nothing to edit. For another, I didn’t want to open an entire bottle of Veuve Clicquot to drink one glass alone. I decided that I didn’t need alcohol to judge my own writing harshly. I can do that sober, brother!

And then, like every female writer in New York, having tried and failed to become Joan Didion, I was done with my schedule experiment.


I imagine most writers, as well as most creative people of any kind, are at least slightly dissatisfied with the work they’re making and suspect that they could be producing something at least a little bit more meaningful. It’s easy to think that if one’s days were structured differently, one’s work would be better for it.

But I’ve come to believe that the schedule a writer sets for herself is not the magical key to creating good work. (The magical key is getting an MFA. Wink.) The schedules that worked best for me — de Beauvoir, Patti Smith, Miranda July — allowed me to write for a good amount of hours and then not feel guilty when I stopped. They weirdly involved, more often than not, putting pants on. (Something to note.) They allowed me to see friends, watch movies, and to feel inspired. As well as allowing me time to do laundry and maybe, just maybe brush my teeth. Of course, the amount of work I got done varied depending on how tired I was feeling or how insane my ex-boyfriend had made me; but what was important was that, for at least three hours every day, I put myself in front of a page and tried to fill it.

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