Writers have a reputation of being… a bit different. We carry notepads and pens with us at all times, we eavesdrop on people’s conversations in the hope of finding inspiration for a story and don’t even look at our internet history. Honestly, I googled best places to hide a body for research in my novel, I swear!
Even within writing circles some writers are a bit more… different than others. Peter Jackson the Screenwriter and Director of the Lord of the Rings films hates wearing shoes and socks while working. Franz Karka would exercise in front of his window naked before he sat down to write. According to rumour Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code would hang himself upside down, like a bat, in order to beat Writer’s Block. In this post we’ll be examining writers who have completed significant achievements for their work.
5) Charles Dickens climbs into a train wreck to save a manuscript.
In 1865 Charles Dickens was involved in a train accident that later became known as The Staplehurst Rail Crash. Dickens boarded the train from Folkstone to London and whilst traveling, continued work on the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. Due to an administration error workmen on the line, who were replacing rails on a viaduct, were unaware that a train was approaching. The driver of the locomotive was unable to stop in time and the train derailed above a river with many of the carriages falling into the water below.
By chance, the carriage Dickens was in was one of the few carriages not to be fully derailed. Dickens escaped the train by climbing through the window and unlocking the carriage door before leading his traveling companions to safety. He helped the wounded by offering them his flask of brandy and by offering them water which he served in his hat. Dickens later said he could remember the wounded dying in his arms. Before help could arrive Dickens remembered his manuscript still onboard the train. He climbed back up to the viaduct and entered the derailed carriage to retrieve it.
Dickens wouldn’t speak for two weeks after the crash and understandably was always nervous when traveling by train. Interestingly Dicken’s travelling companion was his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother. Dickens managed to avoid attending the inquest which meant he was able to keep their relationship secret from the Victorian public. The Staplehurst Rail Crash served as the inspiration for the short story The Signalman in which the main character has visions of himself dying in a train accident. Dickens acknowledged the accident in the post script of Our Mutual Friend .
“On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr and Mrs Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr and Mrs Lammle at breakfast) were on the South-Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage — nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn — to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt. […] I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book: — THE END.”
Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens
4) The Writer of Cast Away stranded himself on a desert island.
Cast Away was a critically successful film released in the year 2000 that revolved around a Fedex employee, portrayed by Tom Hanks, surviving a plane crash and living on an uninhabited island for four years. It’s most famous for creating the character of Wilson the beach volleyball.
You may have heard of immersive actors before, actors that do months or sometimes years worth of preparation for a role but are you aware of immersive writers? The screenwriter of the film, William Broyles, Jr. isolated himself on an island to make the script more realistic. During Broyles’ stay he was not allowed to contact civilisation (unless it was an emergency) and was forced to use the island’s resources to survive. He drank water from the surfaces of leaves, crafted tools such as spears and hammers and ate raw fish to survive.
One day, Broyles discovered that a volleyball had washed up on the beach. Broyles decided to keep it as a pet and the character Wilson was born. After the release of the film the original Wilson the volleyball was sold for $18,500.
3) Hans Fallada wrote an anti- Nazi novel while locked inside a Nazi controlled prison.
Hans Fallada was a writer who suffered with alcoholism and drug addiction. At the outbreak of World War Two Fallada found himself in Germany and under the scrutiny of the Nazis. Instead of fleeing, Fallada decided to defy the Nazi regime and complete his writing in Germany. He was arrested and in-prisoned but before his execution Fallada made a deal with his captors. He promised to write Anti-Semitic novels for their propaganda if they agreed to keep him alive.
Instead of completing his promise Fallada wrote The Drinker a semi-autobiographical novel depicting addiction, crime and homosexuality. Obviously, this wasn’t what the Nazi’s wanted and they ordered him to produce something else. This time Fallada wrote a collection of children’s stories. Inside this collection was a secret book, mocking the Nazis. The secret novel In Meinem Fremden Land was written upside down and back to front in-between the lines of the children’s stories.
Fallada was released at the end of the war, the Nazis unaware of what he had written. The book was discovered three years after Fallada’s death from morphine overdose. Needless to say it was deemed a masterpiece.
2) Jean – Dominique Bauby wrote a novel using one eyelid.
Jean-Dominique Bauby was a writer at Elle a French fashion magazine in 1995 when he suffered a stroke that left him in a twenty day coma. When he awoke, it was discovered that he had locked-in syndrome. Bauby was unable to move his body save for one eyelid but he was fully conscious. Effectively, he was trapped inside his own body.
Rather than letting himself die Bauby decided to write a novel retelling his life story both before and after his stroke. In order to write his book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Bauby had the alphabet read aloud to him and blinked at the letter he wanted to use. Using this method the novel was written in two years. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was published in 1997 and became a instant bestseller but Bauby passed away before learning of its success.
1 Ernest Vincent Wright writes a 50,000 word novel without the Letter E
The letter E is the most common letter in the English language. Yet the novel Gadsby written in 1939 by Ernest Vincent Wright doesn’t use the letter at all in the text (apart from the front cover and in the introduction). Before the completion of this novel no body thought that such a task would be possible or at least not possible to write a story that had a beginning, middle an end and be grammatically correct. Wright proved them wrong.
It took Wright six months to write Gadsby, a short amount of time considering the challenge. To ensure he didn’t accidentally use the letter E Write wrote Gadsby on a typewriter with the E key tied down. One of the most challenging issues Wright faced was the fact he was unable to use the most common word in the English language, the. He was also unable to end any word with -ed. Wright had to find alternative words to use, for example instead of writing ‘Christmas turkey’ Wright used the phrase “thanksgiving national bird” and instead of “Wedding cake’ Wright said ‘an astonishing loaf of culinary art.’
Why did Wright create Gadsby? To prove that he could. You may be thinking that spending six months to prove a point is insane… and you would be right. Here is a quote from Wright on the process of writing Gadsby.
“People as a rule will not stop to realize what a task such an attempt actually is. As I wrote along, in long-hand at first, a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen, looking down constantly for a chance to drop off into some word; for all the world like seabirds perched, watching for a passing fish! But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper, they slid onto the floor, walking sadly away, arm in arm; but shouting back: “You certainly must have a hodge-podge of a yarn there without *us*! Why, man! We are in every story ever written *hundreds of thousands of times! This is the first time we ever were shut out!..”
– Ernest Vincent Wright
Sadly for Wright there was a fire at the publishing house where most of the copies of Gadsby were held, meaning there were less copies to be reviewed by the press. Wright died a few months after the publication and his book went widely unnoticed until it was rediscovered in recent years.
What do you think of these writers and their achievements? Would you like to take on a project like Gadsby? Leave your answers down below and I’ll see you next time.