Dr. Maya Angelou died on Wednesday at the age of 86. A renowned poet, author, and civil rights activist, she was known for her heartfelt memoirs, essays, and poems, and had won several Grammy awards for her spoken albums.
Many writers have their own rituals, but by all accounts, Dr. Angelou’s style was unique. She was widely known for her love of sherry, telling George Plimpton in a 1990 interview that a glass of the fortified wine was an integral part of her writing process.
“I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry,” Dr. Angelou said. (She told The Daily Beast in a 2013 interview that she had given up her daily sherry habit two years earlier).
She also regularly wrote in a hotel room, even when she lived in a house. As of 2013, she still kept a hotel room in her hometown, which she paid for by the month. And she insisted on keeping the sheets unchanged, and taking all the art off the walls.
Dr. Angelou described her writing process in the Plimpton interview:
I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner — proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, OK.” I remember that and I start to write.
You could always tell Dr. Angelou had been writing because she played with her hair. As a result, she started to tie it back while she was writing. Dr. Angelou explained her hair ties to The Daily Beast:
Well, I was married a few times, and one of my husbands was jealous of me writing. When I write, I tend to twist my hair. Something for my small mind to do, I guess. When my husband would come into the room, he’d accuse me, and say, “You’ve been writing!” As if it was a bad thing. He could tell because of my hair, so I learned to hide my hair with a turban of some sort.
Dr. Angelou dispensed some great advice in her writing, speeches, and interviews over the years. You can read some of her most memorable quotations here.
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