3 Life Lessons From John Grisham’s Writing Habits | Hacker Noon

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While researching for my articles, I came across John Grisham‘s fascinating debut as a writer. Grisham became the master of legal thriller books, with many of his works adapted as movies: The Client, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, The Pelican Brief, A Time To Kill, The Firm, etc. 

Grisham never developed an interest in writing until he was practicing as a lawyer. One day in the courthouse, he heard a tormenting testimony of a twelve-year-old girl. 

I seriously doubt I would ever have written the first story had I not been a lawyer. I never dreamed of being a writer. I wrote only after witnessing a trial. 

John Grisham’s biography page

I had a story. It was a courtroom drama. I was doing a lot of courtroom work. I was a very young lawyer. I was sort of consumed with this story. And one night, I just said, ‘Okay. I’m going to try to capture it, see what I can do with words.’ And that’s what happened.  – Achievement interview

The story that sparked an inspiration was a young girl’s testimony against a man who had raped her and left her for dead.  

For three years, Grisham woke up at 5 am, get to his office, and write his first book, A Time To Kill.  

I would wake up at 5:00, and I’d be at my office by 5:30. That was the only quiet time of the day. Because Renee and I were having babies and life — I was in the legislature in Mississippi. I was, you know, my law office was busy. It was never profitable, but you know, it was still busy. A lot of clients who couldn’t pay. From 5:00 until 8:30, or 9:00, that was the only quiet time of the day. And I’d go to the office and make some strong coffee and sit down and start writing. And there were times I would put it down for a month. And I didn’t really want to go pick it up again. And I would say- I’m tired. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to sleep. Just why am I doing this? I used to walk in a bookstore and see all those tens of thousands of beautiful books, and I would say, “Who wants to hear from me?” you know, what have I got to say? How can I add to that? And, you know, I just– I finished it. After three years. And lucky enough to get it published. – Interview with Bill Moyers 

Twenty-eight publishers rejected his manuscript before a small, unknown publisher agreed to publish the book in 1988 in 5000 copies. As the publisher didn’t have financial resources to promote the novel, Grisham bought 1000 copies of his book and advertised it to friends and booksellers. 

This humble beginning would have stopped other aspiring writers. Not Grisham. The day after he finished A Time To Kill, he started writing another novel about a young attorney who got a seemingly perfect law firm job. The Firm, his second book, became a bestseller and a movie adaptation. Since then, Grisham has dedicated full-time to writing, and he writes about a book per year

There are so many nuances that strike me in this life story. 

First, the immense darkness coming out of that innocent young girl’s report. Knowing that what happened to that girl could happen to anyone, your mother, your wife, your daughter. To rage against the law of justice and to feel so helpless, so small against evil. So Grisham escaped in fantasy, where he could control the punishment, asking himself what if…? As writer Olga Tokarczuk remarks, “When one can’t speak, one should write.” 

Second, the kaizen or making marginal gains repeatedly (Grisham mentions that he didn’t write for a month at times). It is so comfortable to procrastinate and postpone to never-coming tomorrow. But writing a page today, another page tomorrow will compound eventually into a book.   

Then, the Buddhist nonattachment or the Stoic dichotomy of control. Unfazed by dozens of publishers’ rejections, Grisham worked on his second novel. Practicing non-attachment is not giving up on dreams, aspirations, or desires but merely realizing that it would be wise to drop the attachment to our thoughts on the outcome. 

Sure, we all may want success in our aspirations, but it is wisdom in accepting that some things are in our control while others are not. We would gain more if we focused our time, attention, and efforts on variables we can control. Could Grisham influence the publishers’ decision to accept to reject to publish his manuscript? No. He could only control his attitude regarding writing, and so, he wrote another book. 

My name became a brand, and I’d love to say that was the plan from the start. But the only plan was to keep writing books. – Guardian interview

Lastly, an idea that I touched on in another article: we do not stumble upon a passion but we actively develop a passion instead. 

The equation of career success is a spiral as we learn to enjoy the process of getting better and better. We start with the belief that what we are doing is worthwhile and achievable. The more we learn, the better we become. The better we become, the more we enjoy the process and the increased recognition of peers. The more we enjoy the process, the more we learn and get confident in our new skills.  

When did you know you were going to be a writer? I never made the decision; it wasn’t a childhood dream. It started as a secret hobby – then, halfway through A Time to Kill, I remember thinking it would be nice to publish it: I could make a few bucks and take the pressure off. It was the success of The Firm that allowed me to start writing full time. A little hobby turned into a vocation. – Financial Times interview

According to this interview, Grisham’s writing routine looks like this: 

  • He starts a new book every January 1, writing five days per week between 7 am, and 10 am. Grisham aims to have a rough manuscript by March and a complete manuscript by July. It might look that Grisham spends merely fifteen hours writing, but, in another interview, he mentioned that he does an immense amount of research for his book, with almost no time spent reading fiction books. This routine allows Grisham to take half a year off, with time to recharge, find new ideas and outline his next books. That is how Grisham manages to stay creative decades after his first bestselling novel.
  • He works in a separate building with no phones, faxes, or internet access. In his words: “I don’t want the distraction. I don’t work online. I keep it offline.” 
  • Grisham has a strict writing ritual: he starts each day at the same time, works on the same computer, drinks the same type of coffee out of the same cup.
  •  “Write a page every day. That’s about 200 words, or 1,000 words a week. Do that for two years, and you’ll have a novel that’s long enough.” Again, the exponential art of kaizen or how compounding small gains translates into a body of works. 

There is no guarantee of success. We might become blinded by survivorship bias and see only the tales of those who had a breakthrough. Nevertheless, adopting a stoic mindset, employing consistent habits, learning to enjoy improving in our craft could bring meaningful insights into our efforts. In the words of great Virginia:

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. -Virginia Woolf 

Naturally, in Woolf’s quote, replace “write” with any verb(s) of the endeavor(s) you might pursue. 

Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/life-lessons-from-john-grishams-writing-habits/

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