The Fascinating & Unusual Hobbies of 14 Famous Writers

How hobbies help you strengthen all your skills

Leo Tolstoy played chess. Ayn Rand collected stamps.

Other famous writers liked to take a break from writing to play a round of golf or try a new recipe or paint with watercolors.

These hobbies not only gave them new experiences to write about but also helped them develop skills that made them better writers.

Why Hobbies Made Them Better Writers

Flannery O’Connor noted in her book Mystery and Manners,

I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things. Fiction writing is very seldom a matter of saying things; it is a matter of showing things…
Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look.

Science suggests that O’Connor’s observations are correct. A fascinating 2006 article from Fortune magazine reveals,

Your brain, it turns out, isn’t a fixed mass that shapes your behavior. Your behavior also shapes your brain. If a gardener takes up a serious interest in engineering, for instance, her neurons form new pathways between previously isolated regions.

The article goes on to quote Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School:

It may well be a mistake to do just one thing. If you practice multiple things you actually get better at any one of those things.

Need some inspiration for a new hobby to pick up?

I’ve put together a list of fourteen famous writers and their fascinating (and sometimes unusual) hobbies.

1. Dame Agatha Christie, the archeologist
(1890–1976)

The British murder-mystery writer Agatha Christie had quite an adventurous life. In 1930, she married the prominent archaeologist, Max Mallowan.

She accompanied him as he traveled throughout the Middle East and assisted him on his archeological digs (she cleaned some of the artifacts with her face cream, actually a very smart move as they are now some of the best-preserved ancient ivory artifacts in the world).

These experiences inspired several of her novels: Appointment with Death, Murder in Mesopotamia, Murder on the Orient Express, and Death Comes as the End.

Christie’s short memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live recounted her experiences on an archeological dig in Syria and shared photographs that she took to document her travels.

2. Victor Hugo, the artist
(1802–1885)

Famous for his novels Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, French writer Victor Hugo was also a talented artist, producing over 4,000 drawings during his lifetime.

At first, Hugo treated painting only as a pastime, but he eventually pursued it more seriously, and his paintings were praised by the leading artists of his era. He usually only shared his paintings privately, however, afraid they might overshadow his literary achievements.

Many other famous writers have shared Hugo’s love of drawing. The American poet E. E. Cummings painted every day, producing a body of work that included about 1,600 sketches, drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings.

Other writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, and William Makepeace Thackery illustrated their own work.

3. H. G. Wells, the war gamer
(1866–1946)

In 1913, British science fiction author H. G. Wells published Little Wars, one of the first books (complete with photographs) to codify a set of rules for war gaming. “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be,” Wells remarked.

The writer Colin Middleton Murry visited H. G. Wells at his home and observed one of the war games. Murry wrote, “He [Wells] rushed round frantically, winding up clockwork trains, constructing bridges and fortifications, firing pencils out of toy cannons. It was all quite hysterical — quite unlike any grown-up behaviour I had ever known.”

A photo from H. G. Wells’s book Little Wars (in the public domain) that demonstrates war gaming.

4. Sylvia Plath, the beekeeper
(1932–1963)

In 1962, American writer and poet Sylvia Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes (also a successful writer), decided to take up beekeeping. Plath’s father, Otto, had been an entomologist who specialized in bees. In a letter to her mother in June, Plath announced,

Today, guess what, we became beekeepers! We went to the local meeting last week…We all wore masks and it was thrilling…Mr. Pollard let us have an old hive for nothing which we painted white and green, and today he brought over the swarm of docile Italian hybrid bees we ordered and installed them…I feel very ignorant, but shall try to read up and learn all I can.

Shortly before her tragic death, Plath wrote a series of five poems about bees, inspired by her experiences with beekeeping.

5. Emily Dickinson, the baker
(1830–1866)

Emily Dickinson, another American poet, loved spending time in the kitchen. An accomplished baker, she won second place at the 1856 Amherst Cattle Show for her round loaf of Indian and Rye bread.

Dickinson enjoyed baking treats for her family and friends and would even lower a basket of cakes from her window to neighborhood children in the street below. On the backs of recipes and food wrappers, she scribbled lines of poetry.

6. Leo Tolstoy, the chess player
(1828–1910)

Best known for his sweeping epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was also an avid chess player. He learned how to play as a young boy and carefully recorded many of his games.

His biographer Aylmer Maude, with whom he often played, observed that Tolstoy “had no book-knowledge of it, but had played much and was alert and ingenious.”

7. Jack Kerouac, the fantasy sports enthusiast
(1922–1969)

As a teenager, American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac invented several fantasy sports. He continued playing his fantasy baseball game even as an adult and filled notebooks with detailed statistics and analysis.

A New York Times article explains,

He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players like Wino Love, Warby Pepper, Heinie Twiett, Phegus Cody and Zagg Parker, who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example) or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks).

See more photos of his notebooks here.

Kerouac was himself a talented athlete. He played football while studying at Columbia University and wrote sports articles for the student newspaper.

8. Madeleine L’Engle, the pianist
(1918–2007)

The American writer Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her young adult fiction and Newberry award-winning book A Wrinkle in Time.

Whenever L’Engle found herself struggling with writer’s block, she would play the piano. In an interview, she explained,

Playing the piano is for me a way of getting unstuck. If I’m stuck in life or in what I’m writing, if I can I sit down and play the piano. What it does is break the barrier that comes between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind wants to take over and refuses to let the subconscious mind work, the intuition. So if I can play the piano, that will break the block, and my intuition will be free to give things up to my mind, my intellect. So it’s not just a hobby. It’s a joy.

9. Flannery O’Connor, the aviculturist
(1925–1964)

Known for her Southern Gothic style of writing, Flannery O’Connor was also a dedicated aviculturist. As a young girl, she raised chickens, including one that could walk backward. The six-year-old O’Connor and her unusual pet chicken were featured in a newsreel.

In 1952, she brought her first peacocks and peahens to her farm in Georgia.

O’Connor wrote about her love of peacocks in her 1961 essay “Living with a Peacock.” She declared, “I intend to stand firm and let the peacocks multiply, for I am sure that, in the end, the last word will be theirs.” Peacocks often appeared in her short stories.

10. Mark Twain, the inventor
(1835–1910)

Friends with Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison (even appearing in one of Edison’s films), the American writer Mark Twain tried his hand at inventing as well.

He patented three different inventions: the elastic hook clasp, a scrapbook with self-adhesive pages (Twain was a dedicated scrapbooker), and an educational game called the “memory-builder.” The scrapbook invention was particularly successful and sold over 25,000 copies.

11. P. G. Wodehouse, the golfer
(1881–1975)

The British humorist P. G. Wodehouse loved spending time on the links. He wrote twenty-five short stories about golf, all narrated by a character called The Oldest Member.

Wodehouse once wrote,

Whenever you see me with a furrowed brow you can be sure that what is on my mind is the thought that if only I had taken up golf earlier and devoted my whole time to it instead of fooling about writing stories and things, I might have got my handicap down to under eighteen.

12. J. R. R. Tolkien, the conlang enthusiast
(1892–1973)

J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the beloved fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was a brilliant philologist who studied numerous languages and taught Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. He began constructing languages as a teenager, and this passion continued throughout his entire life.

In 1916, he wrote a letter to his future wife, Edith, telling her that he had been working on his “nonsense fairy language — to its improvement. I often long to work at it and don’t let myself ’cause though I love it so it does seem such a mad hobby!”

One of Tolkien’s constructed languages. Image courtesy Ssolbergj.

And, yet, it was thanks to this hobby that he ended up creating his Middle Earth mythology.

In his 1930 lecture “A Secret Vice,” Tolkien explained, “The making of language and mythology are related functions. Your language construction will breed a mythology.”

13. Ayn Rand, the stamp collector
(1905–1982)

The author of the best-selling novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand spent most of her time writing and promoting her philosophy of Objectivism. However, she was also a passionate stamp collector.

In an article for The Minkus Stamp Journal in 1971, she wrote,

If I feel tired after a whole day of writing, I spend an hour with my stamp albums and it makes me able to resume writing for the rest of the evening. A stamp album is a miraculous brain-restorer.

On April 22, 1999, the United States postal service issued a stamp commemorating Ayn Rand and her literary work. It was a particularly fitting tribute.

14. Beatrix Potter, the mycologist
(1866–1943)

Famous for her children’s stories and beautiful watercolor illustrations, the British writer Beatrix Potter was also keenly interested in the natural sciences, especially botany.

She developed a theory for the germination of fungi and was the first person in Britain and one of the first in the world to understand the symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi.

Unfortunately, because she was a woman and lacked formal scientific training, many scientific societies refused to take her work seriously. Her research was only fully appreciated after her death.

Potter donated her detailed scientific drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library, and mycologists still use them today to identify fungi.

The Takeaway

Julia Cameron observes in her book The Artist’s Way,

In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond…Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well. As artists, we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them — to restock the trout pond, so to speak.

Hobbies are one way to refill that well. They give you a fun way to redeem your free time while helping you get your creative juices flowing.

Best of all, no matter which hobbies you seriously pursue, you are teaching yourself a new set of skills that you will be able to use across every area of your life and especially in your writing.

One of my favorite hobbies is studying foreign languages. What’s yours?


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Nicole Bianchi is a writer, copywriter, and storyteller at nicolebianchi.com. By day, she works with business owners and creatives to help them clarify their websites’ messaging and craft compelling words that resonate with their audience. By night, you’ll probably find her writing a story or reading a good book.

This article was originally published at nicolebianchi.com.