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PRODUCTIVITY

The Creative Process of the Legendary Maya Angelou

No music, no calls, and a bottle of sherry in empty hotel rooms: inside the process of a literary legend.
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Maya Angelou was many things--a waitress, a teacher, an activist, and a playwright, to name a few--but the 86-year-old, who quietly passed in her home this morning, was most renown for her accomplishments as an author. And she was a prolific one at that.

Though she picked up the profession late in life, at 41, she managed to produce six volumes of autobiography and six books of poetry. (The latter catapulted her to the national stage in 1993, when she read “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration.)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which recounts her harrowing upbringing in the segregated South, remains a fixture on high school reading lists and among the most powerful accounts of what it meant to be black (and a woman) in that era. That time wasn’t easy, but with her lyrical voice, at times raw and irreverent, Angelou made the telling of it appear effortless. 

Angelou tried just about everything from Calypso singing to acting and directing. But she was strict about her writing conditions, and notorious for craving alone time to think, so much so that she wrote in near-empty hotel rooms, with no art on the walls to distract her. Here, in no particular order, are a few of those eccentric rules.

Early to rise, early to work. Angelou was an early bird who was known to rise at 5 a.m. As she told The Paris Review, “I leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.”

Always keep a Bible on hand. “The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful,” Angelou told The Paris Review in the same interview. Also on hand were a thesaurus, a dictionary ... 

... And a bottle of sherry. Though she demurred on whether it sparked her creativity, Angelou admitted she might have a sip early, at 6:15 a.m., but usually partook no later than 11 a.m., when she was deep in her work. 

Stay quiet. Not unlike many great thinkers, Angelou needed to hear herself think when she was writing. "You have to get to a very quiet place inside yourself," she advised on Oprah.com. "And that doesn't mean that you can't have noise outside. I know some people who put jazz on, loudly, to write." 

Always work in hotel rooms. At about 5:30 in the morning, she would go there to write, despite owning a rather large house. She kept a room in every town she lived in, too. As she told The Paris Review: "To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses."

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 28, 2014

JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer

Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.




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