Five Famous Writers Who Stood Up To Write

Anne Lamott — the author of, among other books, Bird by Bird — once tweeted about the writing process: “How to write: Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.” Lamott is one of our favorites around here; few authors have captured better the feelings and thoughts of a writer as they’re going about their craft. And her quip about putting your butt in the chair has an important antecedent: It was the legendary poet and wit Dorothy Parker who said, “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” (Parker was also famous for the line: “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”)

But what about those of us who get our best thoughts standing up, not sitting down? Well there’s important models for us too, writers who chose to do their writing while on their feet. Here are five writers who took their butts out of their chairs to get their work done:

1) Ernest Hemingway

That’s right: the Papa himself wrote standing up. By some accounts, he borrowed this from his editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins. A Movable Feast was written at a stand-up desk in his home in Havana. As one account has it:

“In Ernest’s room there was a large desk covered with stacks of letters, magazines, and newspaper clippings, a small sack of carnivores’ teeth, two unwound clocks, shoehorns, an unfilled pen in an onyx holder, a wood carved zebra, warthog, rhino and lion in single file, and a wide-assortment of souvenirs, mementos and good luck charms. He never worked at the desk. Instead, he used a stand up work place he had fashioned out of a bookcase near his bed. His portable typewriter was snugged in there and papers were spread along the top of the bookcase on either side of it. He used a reading board for longhand writing.”

The Paris Review also reported: “A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu — the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”

2) Winston Churchill

It would have been enough for Churchill to have a full life in politics — but he was also the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” Many of those descriptions were written while upright. This wasn’t a side pursuit for Churchill either: over the course of a full and varied career, he also found the time to write 43 books in addition to hundreds of speeches. As he once said about writing, “It was great fun writing a book. One lived with it. It became a companion.”

3) Virginia Woolf

“A must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” came from Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own.” She might have added: money, a room…and a standing desk. For a significant part of her life, Woolf wrote her novels while at “a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand to her work.” Her sister painted standing up, and “This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.”

4) Lewis Carroll

The author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass wrote standing up with purple pens (as Maria Popova notes at Brain Pickings, “During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.”). As Carroll’s biographer observer, “Standing at the upright desk he always used while writing, he managed to breathe life and laughter onto the dry leaves.”

5) Charles Dickens

This was the view of Charles Dickens’ study according to one visitor: “books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable easy chairs.” Yep, the author of so many classics — including A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield — opted to be upright rather than sit for his writing.


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