Writing like Maya Angelou: Cassie Sheets attempts to cultivate the routines of famous authors

Writing like Maya Angelou: Cassie Sheets attempts to cultivate the routines of famous authors
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An undisciplined writer attempts to find a steady routine by following the routines of well-known authors, no matter how ridiculous they may be.


Writing Like Maya Angelou

After a recovering from writing like Jack Kerouac, Maya Angelou’s rational and focused routine was appealing. It was also appealing to emulate the process of a writer I enjoyed reading rather than one that made me cringe. According to a Paris Review interview, Angelou wrote in the morning. In each town she lived or stayed in, she rented a hotel room and in a made-up bed with “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible” nearby. The Bible served as a reminder of how beautiful the English language could be, and she would read it as she worked to inspire a sense of rhythm.

In the afternoon, she would go out and shop, and “pretend to be normal.”

"I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that."

In the evening or at night, she revised.

"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."

While my past attempts at emulating writer’s routines have been riddled with failure, Angelou’s routine worked fairly well for me. I did cut the bottle of sherry down to a couple of glasses after the first day, because I learned the hard way if you’re not used to drinking a bottle you are probably going to get horrible acid reflux and feel like you are going to die. You’re also probably going to shovel down a really large bowl of pasta without any sauce, because the idea of sauce makes you kind of sick, but once you manage to keep down that pasta the rest of the day will go better.

While lying on my made-up bed, trying not to vomit, I thought about Sontag and Kerouac, who wrote in the morning and at night respectively, versus Angelou, who wrote in the morning but edited at night. Over the few days I practiced her process, I noticed how effective it was to bookend my days with writing. By making writing the first thing I thought about when I woke up (okay, second after what kind of cereal to eat for breakfast) and the last thing I thought of before I went to sleep, it left my afternoons clear for relaxation and reflection. I also started dreaming more about my characters when I edited at night, which I think was really helpful, except for the one creepy sex dream I had about a character who, later in the dream, tried to kill me. (I blue-penciled that character right out of my story in a later draft, so I guess we know who won that battle in the end.)

Pretending “to be normal” was another part of Angelou’s process that worked for me. When I’m in the middle of a project, I tend to shut myself up in my room and off from the people I care about. Making some time during the day to have dinner with a friend made me feel much less alone, even when I was actually alone in the evening while working on edits. Mimicking Angelou’s routine was a balanced and rewarding experience, and I’ll use what I learned from her process in my own future routine.

Cassie Sheets is a student at Columbia College Chicago where she wastes twenty grand a year trying to learn how to write.

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