Study Hacks Blog

On Vampires and Method Writing

October 13th, 2022 · 10 comments

In my last dispatch, I reported on how the fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson writes in a “supervillain lair” built twenty feet underground near his otherwise unremarkable home in suburban Utah. According to an article published last weekend in The Guardian, Sanderson is not, as it turns out, the first author to use extreme measures to generate fantastical inspiration.

In 1894, an Irish actor who was struggling to write a novel in his spare time traveled with his wife and young son to the remote Aberdeenshire coast of northeast Scotland. They stayed in The Kilmarnock Arms, an oak-paneled hotel in the center of Port Erroll, a small fishing village located near a desolate sandy beach. Most days, the actor would make the twenty-minute walk to Slains Castle (pictured above), a ruined 16th century fort situated dramatically on a seaside cliff. He was seeking inspiration for a character he was attempting to bring to life in his manuscript—a count who was hiding a horrific secret. The actor’s name was Bram Stoker, and the fictional count, of course, was to be called Dracula.

In London, Stoker had been acting alongside Henry Irving, a stage star of the era who was famous for his early embrace of what would later be known as method acting. Stoker decided to apply Irving’s approach to his novel writing. As detailed by The Guardian:

“According to his wife, Florence, everyone – including the hotel staff, and the locals – was frightened of [Stoker]. He ‘seemed to get obsessed by the spirit of the thing,’ she later said. He ‘would sit for hours, like a great bat, perched on the rocks of the shore, or wander alone up and down the sand hills thinking it all out’.”

Stoker returned to Aberdeenshire at least a dozen times in the years that followed, sometimes staying at the the Kilmarnock Arms and sometimes taking a cottage. “For Stoker, Aberdeenshire stood in for Transylvania,” explains a local historian quoted in the article. And he translated that inspiration into a memorable gothic tale.

I tell this story not because I think a method approach, in which you inhabit your characters and their behaviors, is the best way to write fiction. (If this were true, a lot more authors would take a swing at romance novels.) But instead because it’s an extreme example of a more general point that I’ve been emphasizing recently: when it comes to cognitive work, setting makes a difference.

Putting professors into stark and spacious modern offices is functional. But is it as conducive to deep thought as the fire-warmed study of the Oxford Don? Setting up your laptop on your kitchen table might technically give you access to everything you need to do your job. But will your mind end up in the same state produced by commuting to the marble-lobbied skyscraper in the city center?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the next big innovations in knowledge work will be less about technology and tools, and more about better understanding the psychology that goes into wringing value out of thought matter.

10 thoughts on “On Vampires and Method Writing

  1. For two years, I lived in pre-fabricated concrete housing blocks built during the Soviet Union.
    On the face of it, that doesn’t sound very romantic or creative – in fact, some people would call it ugly: https://andreasmoser.blog/2013/03/03/savanoriu-prospektas-winter-evening/ – , but for me, these were the most productive environments. Especially in winter, when it was terribly cold and dark and I couldn’t loiter around the parks for hours.

    Maybe we all have to try different settings until we find the one that is most conducive to our work habit.
    But maybe there is an objective reason why more good literature comes out of Eastern Europe than from ever-sunny islands.

    1. Alex z says:

      Right. The objective reason is to eek out of humanity any usefulness it can offer at minimal cost. A perfectly controlled environment for human as a product

  2. TMO says:

    ah man, Academic Goth has a utility! Hoorah!

  3. Drew says:

    Question: How would you find such a space if you lived in NYC or another large city?
    I like Dr. Newport’s tips, but struggle to find these spaces in a major urban environment (and a lot of knowledge workers live in these environments).
    My best setting so far has been a WeWork but I could do better.

    1. Brad says:

      Drew, I think you can make your own space. Cal talked about a reader who built a “cabin” in the living room of their apartment. Another reader converted a small closet in their apartment into a deep work sanctuary. I would also look for places in your city that fit the vibe you’re looking for.

    2. Micha says:

      In the podcast Cal sometimes recommends desks in a public library or a museum. That might not be as extreme as a castle, but it works for the general point. Other ideas could be a cafe, the roof of a building, a park.

  4. Definitivamente el entorno físico influye en los estados de concentración, pero entiendo que es el estado mental el que termina por establecer la base del rendimiento y productividad. Es decir, la ideal sería tener un entorno físico que se adapte a nuestras necesidades de trabajo, pero si no se tiene, se debe compensar con el fortalecimiento del estado psicológico, que este en su momento resulte optimo para producir valor. Esto de manera significativa, es un todo un reto o uno de los retos más importantes para los trabajadores del conocimiento.
    Anthony Ramírez

  5. Definitely the physical environment influences the states of concentration, but I understand that it is the mental state that ends up establishing the basis for performance and productivity. That is to say, the ideal would be to have a physical environment that adapts to our work needs, but if it does not, it must be compensated with the strengthening of the psychological state, which in turn is optimal to produce value. This is a significant challenge or one of the most important challenges for knowledge workers.
    Anthony Ramirez

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