You know these masterpieces. But do you know how they were written?
1. SCREAMING AT DAUGHTERS AND VARIOUS OTHER AMANUENSES // PARADISE LOST BY JOHN MILTON, 1667
From 1656 to 1667, every day until it was complete, the blind Milton needed to (in his words) “be milked” of what would become his magnum opus. The scene of Milton’s daughters taking his dictation has inspired several paintings.
2. PHONOGRAPHIC DICTATION // THE AMERICAN CLAIMANT BY MARK TWAIN, 1892
Twain dictated his novel onto one of the earliest iterations of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, claiming to be the first to do so. (The wax-cylinder recordings have been lost.)
3. BLUE NOTEBOOKS // A MOVEABLE FEAST BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY, 1920s
Hemingway wrote of 1920s Paris, “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener...and luck were all you needed.” And no, despite marketing claims, he didn’t use a Moleskine.
4. EBERHARD FABER BLACKWING 602 PENCIL // EAST OF EDEN BY JOHN STEINBECK, 1952
Discontinued in 1998, it’s maybe the most beloved pencil ever. Reproductions are available, but you can still find original 602s on eBay ($50 per pencil).
5. IBM ELECTRIC MODEL 3 // ROOTS BY ALEX HALEY, 1976
“I don’t know how many tears I shed over my typewriter,” Haley said of writing his seminal work. After the book’s success, he finally had enough money for a dream purchase: “The fanciest dictation machine and IBM typewriter I could find. It even erases my mistakes.”
6. SAILOR FOUNTAIN PEN AND GENKŌ YŌSHI // HEAR THE WIND SING BY HARUKI MURAKAMI, 1979
“When I thought about sitting down...and starting to write, I realized that I didn’t even own a decent fountain pen,” Murakami wrote. Enter this Japanese manuscript paper and $5 pen: “A small capital investment on my part.”
7. ROYAL KMM TYPEWRITER // THE WHITE ALBUM by JOAN DIDION, 1979
Didion, on her airplane packing list: “Notice the typewriter...the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”
8. WORDSTAR 4.0 // A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE: GAME OF THRONES BY GEORGE R.R. MARTIN, 1996
Martin still uses the WordStar. He loves its minimalism, since he hates features like autocorrect. (“If I wanted a capital, I would have typed a capital—I know how to work the shift key,” he’s said.)
9. WATERMAN FOUNTAIN PEN // DREAMCATCHER BY STEPHEN KING, 2001
In the author’s note to Dreamcatcher, King wrote: “This book was written with the world’s finest word processor, a Waterman cartridge fountain pen. To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven’t been in years. One rarely finds such opportunities in the 21st century, and they are to be savored.”
All illustrations by Shannon May.