Writing Routines

Barack Obama’s Writing Routine: “Because nothing is more terrifying than the blank page.”

Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017, and is the author of three memoirs, Dreams from My FatherThe Audacity of Hope and A Promised Land.

This is a really important piece of business that I’ve tried to transmit to my girls and anybody who asks me about writing. You just have to get started. You just put something down. Because nothing is more terrifying than the blank page.

Obama, the Best-Selling Author, on Reading, Writing and Radical Empathy | The New York Times

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Before Barack Obama was voted the most powerful person in the world, he was a man of words. Growing up as a teenager in Hawaii, he devoured the works of African-American writers like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Later on, he would expand his reading list, from classics by Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes to books on philosophy, poetry, history, biographies, memoirs, as well as novels like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.

In an interview with The New York Times, Obama recounted that he would “hear about a book, and then I’d read that book, and if it referenced another book, I’d track that one down.” Oftentimes though, the future president had to settle with “what was in the used-book bin because I was on a pretty tight budget.”

In 1988, after enrolling in Harvard Law School, Obama was voted the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, which subsequently led to national media attention and a publishing contract. Although his first book initially started out as a manuscript on race relations, it evolved into a personal memoir.

During the writing process of the book, Obama struggled to finish and had to go to Bali for several months with Michelle “to find a peaceful sanctuary where there were no phones,” according to his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. The retreat worked. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance was published on July 18, 1995.

Over two decades later, as Obama was getting ready to leave the Oval Office, and with two more books under his belt – his second memoir The Audacity of Hope, and the children’s book Of Thee I Sing – the 44th president started working on his next memoir, A Promised Land.

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Barack Obama’s daily writing routine

When he was still in office, Obama gained the reputation of being a night owl. After having dinner with his family and putting the kids to bed at about 8.30pm, he would retreat to his upstairs office in the Treaty Room to work for a few more hours.

According to The New York Times, Obama would spend that time to read, write, and plan, but also to decompress – he often watched ESPN and played Words With Friends during this time.

For me, these were often the quietest and most productive hours of the day, a time when I could catch up on work and prepare myself for whatever was coming next, poring over the stacks of material my staff secretary sent up to the residence for my review.

A Promised Land | Barack Obama

The preference for uninterrupted late night hours followed him into his post-presidency routine. For A Promised Land, Obama worked primarily between 10pm and 2am, starting out by writing the first drafts longhand on yellow legal pads (always using a black Uni-ball Vision Elite rollerball pen) then typing it into his computer as a first edit.

In subsequent interviews, Obama admitted that the writing process for the book was painful and there were long periods of when he had to just “grind it out.” Still, he got it done at the end. Four years after leaving the Oval Office, A Promised Land was published and quickly became the “best-selling presidential memoir in modern times” according to ABC News.

I began the book shortly after the end of my presidency when I was on an actual holiday with Michelle. I’m old fashioned, so I found yellow legal pads, bought some pens I liked — I was very particular about the pens — and by the end of the trip, I had a clear outline of the book in my head. Sitting down to actually write it was a different story, which I’m sure you’ve figured out, seeing as that trip with Michelle was almost four years ago. But, eventually, I found my flow, especially during the summer when we had a deadline to hit.

Interview With Barack Obama on A Promised Land | PopSugar

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