The truth behind the famous novels written in a creative frenzy

We’ve all heard the story: creative genius sits down at his (or her) typewriter, preferably hopped up on some drugs, and cranks out a piéce de resistance. Such moments seem to defy logic. We’ve all been taught that it takes years of hard work and a dollop of creativity to produce something great. Sometimes the legend trumps truth. Other times, it’s true, just not quite how we imagine it.

‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac (1957)

The quintessential novel born of a drug-fueled frenzy of writing. The legend has it that On the Road was the product of three weeks’s worth of nonstop typing on a 120-food scroll as Kerouac was hopped up on coffee and Benzedrine. Just how artistic geniuses roll, y’all.

That’s the stuff of legend. Like most legends, there’s more fiction than truth.

What is closer to the truth is that he had written multiple drafts before and after the storied frenzy. He had scribbled things down as he travelled across the country with his beatnik friend, Neal Cassady, but he never quite got it together until these three weeks. He went on fiddling with the story afterwards, coming up with 6 more drafts after a series of rejections bruised his confidence. When he finally got an agent and then finally got a publisher almost 5 years later, On the Road underwent heavy editing at the behest of Viking Press, which had some serious reservations about the story. In fact, we don’t even know whether the ending of the published On the Road is anything like Kerouac’s original version, as the end of the famous scroll has been lost. The legend sounds cooler, doesn’t it?

In a way, the legend of the spontaneous burst of creativity was of Kerouac’s own making. As reported by NPR:

Kerouac’s brother-in-law and executor, John Sampas, says the three-week story is a kind of self-created myth. “Three weeks” is what Kerouac answered when talk-show host Steve Allen asked how long it took to write On the Road.

“And so this gave the impression that Jack just spontaneously wrote this book in three weeks,” Sampas says. “I think what Jack should’ve said was, ‘I typed it up in three weeks.‘”


‘Dirty Snow’ by George Simenon (1947)

Simenon is the genuine article when it comes to writing prodigies. After dropping out of school at 15 — since y’know, it’s such a drag — the French-Belgian teen took a job at a local newspaper. He wrote 150 articles by the year’s end. Boom.

Then he wanted to make more money, so he wrote potboilers. To be exact, he wrote 150 novels and short stories under 17 pen names. These books full advantage of his personal knowledge of drunks and prostitutes, being a drunk and a frequent patron himself. He upgraded to detective novels, creating the famed Inspector Maigret series. By the 1950s, this guy was one of the top-earning writers in the world. Ba-ba boom.

One day, he woke up, probably with a hangover and an ashtray full of cigarettes, and said, “Shit. I should go legit.” He called these “straight novels” romans durs, or “hard novels.” Herein Dirty Snow was born.

In Dirty Snow, we meet Frank Friedmaier the 19-year-old son of a brothel owner who has just killed his first man. He lives in an unnamed city occupied by Nazis, but you know that lil’ Frank here has it all figured out, dontcha? Yep, the world’s getting darker and Frank’s walking deeper into the darkness.

Hans Koning, an author who lived through Nazi occupation, said that Dirty Snow was “one of the very few novels to come out of German-occupied France that gets it exactly right.” NPR calls it “dismal perfection.” Some consider it in the same leagues as Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Fydor Dostoevsky’s *Crime and Punishment *without the tedious philosophy-babble and with more real grit. Ba-ba-ba BOOM.

We don’t know exactly how long it took Simenon to write Dirty Snow, but it’s safe to say that he followed his usual routine. As in spending about a week and half spinning out a book and then saying “Peace out” for five weeks:

The Belgian-French novelist worked in intense bursts of literary activity, each lasting two or three weeks, separated by weeks or months of no writing at all.

Even during his productive weeks, Simenon didn’t write for very long each day. His typical schedule was to wake at 6:00 A.M., procure coffee, and write from 6:30 to 9:30. Then he would go for a long walk, eat lunch at 12:30, and take a one-hour nap. In the afternoon he spent time with his children and took another walk before dinner, television, and bed at 10:00 P.M.

— Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (p. 231)

When he wasn’t writing, Simeonon was competing with Wilt Chamberlain for the world title in “Most Lays.” The author had a prodigious sexual appetite and boasted of having slept with 10,000 women. His second wife put the estimate at a more modest 1,200. This is one of those cases where the story sounds better than reality. These sessions only lasted 2 minutes and he kept his clothes on. Lame.


‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess (1962)

Most of the writing streaks you hear about are drug-fueled, usually by either alcohol or amphetamines. In Anthony Burgess’s case, it was a brain tumor. Or, rather, the fear of the brain tumor.

In late 1959, the budding author collapsed suddenly while he was serving in the British Colonial Service in Malaysia. He was soon discharged and diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. Concerned about his wife’s financial security, Burgess wrote novels at a breakneck pace to provide for her after his death. By the end of 1962, he had written and published seven novels, including A Clockwork Orange.

it turns out that doctors had misdiagnosed him. Burgess ultimately died of cancer in 1993 after decades of prolific writing.

After returning from Leningrad in 1961, Burgess plowed on to write a novel of pointless violence, amorality, and drugs. He even invents a dense slang language in which Alex, the feckless hooligan protagonist, tells the story. (Nadsar, the slang-language in question, was loosely based on Russian.) In the space of a few months, Burgess created a short novel of a claustrophobic dystopia of the highest order.

Even though the contemporaneous reception was mixed — TIME called it “a nasty little shocker” — it has become an unquestionable classic of human depravity. The Guardian, The Modern Library, and more have featured A Clockwork Orange on their top-100 lists. The famous Stanley Kubrick move adaption has immortalized the book, making it synonymous to teen violence and drug-fueled depravity in our collective consciousness.


‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand (1943)

Although Ayn Rand’s case isn’t as clearly swift as Simenon’s and Burgess’s or as storied as Kerouac’s, she merits mention here for her sprint to the finish line.

After struggling with the first one-third of The Fountainhead and missing numerous deadlines for five years, Ayn Rand visited the doctor. She complained of chronic fatigue as the culprit for her lack of productivity. Who could blame her? The Fountainhead must’ve been tedious work. He had a great solution for her: Benzedrine, otherwise known as speed in our modern parlance. Benzedrine was coming into common use in the late 1930s and early 1940s, being supplied to WWII combat troops. The prescription had its intended effect. Ayn Rand blazed through the remainder of The Fountainhead in less than a year. That’s over 500 pages, y’all. We can thank (or curse) that doctor for Rand getting out of that slump and finishing that thing.

The completion of The Fountainhead was indeed a glorious and drugged up kick to the finish line:

[O]ver the next twelve months, fueled by Benzedrine pills, she averaged a chapter a week. Her writing routine during this period was grueling: she wrote day and night, sometimes neglecting to go to bed for days (she took naps on the couch in her clothes instead). At one point she worked for thirty hours straight, pausing only to eat the meals prepared by her husband or to read him a new passage and discuss bits of dialogue. Even when she got stuck, Rand stayed at her desk.

— Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (p. 202)

The Fountainhead’s problems weren’t at an end. 12 publishers rejected it. Once published, it was greeted by generally poor reviews panning its “lack of sympathetic characters.” (Not to mention the leaden description and dialogue.) It eventually won acclaim as a tour de force championing Rand’s brand of individualism. Now it makes a regular appearance on Top-100 lists, including the Modern Library’s. Love it or hate it, you have to admit that the novel brings out strong feelings in people.

Alas, Ayn Rand’s moonlighting as a speed demon wasn’t to last. Even though she continued her use of Benzedrine, her output remained uneven. Her intense mood swings (which might or might not have been exacerbated by her use of Benzedrine) and her writing slowed to a snail’s pace.It took her 13 or 14 years to complete what would become her masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged.