Writing Routines

Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, widely regarded for her seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry.

Will I write a sentence that will just float off the page? Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it’s right, it’s easy. It’s the other way round, too. If it’s slovenly written, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.

Maya Angelou: How I Write | The Daily Beast

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Maya Angelou started her writing career later in life than most people. The author-poet was around 30 years old when she moved to New York, at the urging of novelist John Oliver Killens, to concentrate on her writing. It was in New York that Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met authors like John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield, and published her first work.

But before her writing career took off, Angelou bounced around in several professions. She was a cook, she was a streetcar conductor, she was a waitress, she was a singer, she was a dancer, she was an editor, she was a teacher, she was a civil rights organiser, and she was an actress.

In her mind, it was those past professions that helped later in her writing career. “If I had not studied Latin in school, I wouldn’t have found it as easy to comprehend the structure of language,” she once told Harvard Business Review. “Had I not danced, I might never have really listened to music and known I could compose something.”

Maya Angelou’s daily writing routine

For her daily writing routine, Angelou was well-known for keeping a hotel room where she did all her work each day. She would rent a room for a few months at a time and arrive there each morning, ready to work at 6.30am armed with a Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, a Bible, a yellow pad, and pens. “To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses,” she told The Paris Review.

On the purpose of the Bible in her writing routine, Angelou explained that she read it to “just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.” She’ll also have a glass of sherry at around 11am each day, although she has admitted in the past she might have at 6.15am, as soon as she arrived at the hotel room.

She’ll write until 12.30-1.30pm, after which she’ll go home, take a shower and go out to shop for groceries for, oftentimes, a hosted dinner party at her house.

I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them—fifty acceptable pages—it’s not too bad.

Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119 | The Paris Review

When asked about the dreaded writer’s block, Angelou explained that she doesn’t call it that. “I don’t call it a block,” she told HBR. “I’m careful about the words I use, because I know that my brain will remember and tell them back to me. There are times when I sit on the hotel bed with a deck of cards and play solitaire to give my ‘little mind’ something to do.”

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