The Habits of a Master — Paulo Coelho, Author of The Alchemist

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Paulo Coelho on the Tim Ferriss Show

“A successful writing day is the day that I suffer in the morning, and I have fun in the evening.” -Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho (paulocoelho on Facebook) has long been one of my writing inspirations.

His books, of near universal appeal, span from The Alchemist to the most recent Adultery and have been translated into more than 70 languages.

Few people know that The Alchemist, which has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide, was originally published by a small Brazilian publisher to the tune of… 900 copies. They declined to reprint it. It wasn’t until after his subsequent novel (Brida) that The Alchemist was revived and took off.

I, for one, have always been impressed with consistent writers. Paulo, who averages one book every two years, is staggeringly consistent. As I type this, I am under the pressure of deadlines and often feel as Kurt Vonnegut did: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

My output is erratic at best, and I wondered: how does Paulo write? What is his process? How does he think about it?

I reached out to him, and he was kind enough to reply with the audio I’ve included in the podcast. In it, he provides some gems and answers the following questions (see below), which I posed to him (I provide my own abbreviated answers in brackets)…

If you only have 3 minutes, I recommend this portion on avoiding writer’s block.

Enjoy!

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– When on deadline, what is the first thing you do in the morning? What does your daily schedule look like? Do you take any days off, and what determines if you’ve had a “successful” writing day?

[TIM: 2-3 hours of fasted writing in the morning to Mozart and pu-ehr tea. Success is two shitty pages of drafts.]

– How do you capture ideas that might be helpful in your writing? These days, what software and tools do you use for writing?

[TIM: Evernote, Moleskine notebooks]

– How much of your books do you visualize/outline upfront vs. writing organically piece-by-piece? In other words, how much of the story arc have you decided before you start writing? Let’s take two books as examples — The Alchemist and Aleph. Otherwise, how did your process differ for these two books?

[TIM: Though it changes as I write, I outline everything before starting. I suspect organic writing is more common in fiction.]

– What are the most common mistakes that you see first-time novelists making? Most common weaknesses?

[TIM: N/A]

– Do you base your characters on real people? Why or why not? If not, how do you develop those characters?

[TIM: N/A]

– What are the 2-3 things you personally find most invigorating or helpful when you’re stuck or feel stagnated with writing/ideas? Do you have a team of any type (researchers, etc.) who help you?

[TIM: Rereading Bird by Bird when I doubt/loathe/chastise myself, deadlifting, and doing sprint workouts.]

Paulo offered a few additional notes and resources for further exploration:

As for the sentence in Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

If you want more, here are three podcasts on his writing process:

1) On writing I http://youtu.be/vKBOKLF3Ul8
2) On writing II http://youtu.be/3_TJ4MIGeg8
3) Inspiration http://youtu.be/VWRmbSgS2Yw

For more musings, see Paulo’s Facebook fan page, with almost 30,000,000 fans (!).

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: If you write, what have you found most helpful for the first and last questions? Here they are, and I’d love your thoughts in the comments.

 

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Want to hear another podcast with a successful writer? — Listen to this podcast with Maria Popova. In this episode, she discusses being interesting, creating more time in a day, and how to start a successful blog (stream below or right-click here to download):



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Scroll below for links and show notes…

Enjoy!

Selected Links from the Episode

Show Notes

  • When on deadline, what is the first thing you do in the morning? [8:53]
  • What does your daily schedule look like? [11:11]
  • Do you take any days off? [13:13]
  • What determines if you’ve had a “successful” writing day? [14:12]
  • How do you capture ideas that might be helpful in your writing? [15:35]
  • Why Paulo Coelho wrote The Alchemist [16:53]
  • What software and tools do you use for your writing? [20:51]
  • How much of your books do you visualize or outline upfront versus writing organically piece-by-piece? [23:37]
  • Most common mistakes and weaknesses made by first-time novelists [24:24]
  • Do you base your characters on real people? Why or why not? How do you develop those characters? [30:07]
  • What are the 2-3 things you personally find most invigorating or helpful when you’re stuck or feel stagnated with writing/ideas? [31:50]

Posted on: April 23, 2016.

The Tim Ferriss Show is generally the #1 business podcast on iTunes, and it was selected for iTunes' "Best of 2015." Each episode deconstructs world-class performers from eclectic areas (investing, sports, business, art, etc.) to extract the tactics, tools, and routines you can use. If you want to 10x your productivity, click here.

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30 comments on “The Habits of a Master — Paulo Coelho, Author of The Alchemist

  1. Tim! Thanks so much for this one!
    It changed my life just now. Brought me back to myself.

    The difference between timeless masterpiece and a bestseller. One comes through you, the other from you. – that what it made me realize!

    And also

    One doesn’t write to write a masterpiece.
    One writes to be a better tool for the masterpiece to write itself.
    And Paulo Coelho gets this. He lives that.

    You can’t plan or come up with an idea for the great book.
    You either have a book in you or you have something else in you.
    If your writing (or any art or creativity) doesn’t flow through you there are only two reasons.

    You think too much about something that is not done by our thinking mind.
    Or it’s not your thing to do. You can’t “should” yourself into being a great writer who loves his craft.

    In any case – shut your thinking brain down.
    Live you life like you have no other job (do you really?). Living your life is your mission.

    Create whatever wants to be created thwough you. Don’t should yourself into anything. Create what you want to create. What wants to come out, to shine through you.
    It’s really simple. You make it difficult.

    My favorite quotes from the podcast:
    “Books [the ones you write] are not there to show how intelligent or cultured you are. Books are there to show your heart, to show your soul, to tell your readers, I’m not alone, and you are not alone…”
    “You have to be free to write. You should be free to write things that you feel.”

    Im composing a blog post about it and will finally sit down to record the book that has been in me for quite a while.

    Funny thought:
    If you never had that – You are writing and you feel you got to pee but you can’t until you finish writing down the thought – You have not been in a writing flow yet.

    Thank you!!!
    And im asking myself, how have i not read Aleph yet? I’m from Siberia! Shoulds distracted me!

    Like

  2. Coelho is a fine author. If you could interview any writer, living or dead, who would it be? I’m guessing Hemingway or Vonnegut. I think Franzen would be a great guest if you could get him. David Foster Wallace would have been fascinating. If you want to continue deeper with your studies of the writing process, Wallace’s short essays and interviews are a fascinating place to look. Wallace had a definite cerebral approach to literature that I’m sure resembles your personality type. Yes, it will take you into the realms of the literary esoteric, but that might be where you find your next writing inspiration. I’m sure you’d do a great job of “vulgarizing” what you’d find there…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I 100% agree that Tim must delve into DFW (if he hasn’t already?) A podcast episode where Tim touches slightly on the esoteric philosophical bits of DFW like Wittenstein and other philosophies. Moreso, if Tim believes that the film ‘Idiocracy’ much resembles the current U.S. political clime, then ‘Infinite Jest’ would hold appeal. But on a more basic level, DFW believed in being an all-around nice dude and cultivating gratitude + kindness. He believed that his intelligence and capacity to be the smartest guy in the room are what led him to addiction. He purposefully downplayed these bits in his everyday interactions with others. Tim’s audience (including myself) is always looking to be smarter, more efficient, etc, etc. But we would be wise to listen to DFW’s Kenyon college commencement speech.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes!!!!! Seriously can’t believe this is happening. Two of my all-time favorite authors and thought leaders in the same podcast. This is truly a dream come true.

    Like

  4. Tim, great podcast!

    Made me think that maybe you could try to get John Irving on the podcast. He’s equally consistent in his output, but approaches things from a somewhat different angle; he’s terribly methodical and a super-detailed note-taker and researcher etc. Plus you guys could connect over wrestling!

    Watch TIME’s 5-minute long “John Irving at Home” video on youtube if you’re not familiar with him (or the somewhat longer “John Irving und wie er die Welt sieht”, which is mostly narrated in German with Irving speaking English).

    Like

  5. I self-pub romance novels and usually publish 3-4, 45-70K word, well-reviewed books a year. Unless chaos ensues, like this year (Teen diagnosed with Autism, Two house moves, Going back to run husband’s Neuro-immuno lab) when I still have managed to write/ finish up 3 rough drafts so far in 2016 Even if my revision process has slowed down.

    Productivity is actually easy. Stop editing yourself. Yes, what you are writing sucks, that is what revisions are for. Nora Roberts (incredibly prolific!) said, “I can’t edit a blank page.” I have that running on a loop in my brain. Beyond that for the writer with kids/ family, your best friend is a locked door. They will survive without your input for several hours. If you’re single I suppose the corollary would be an app like Freedom (not affiliated).

    The thing I do to help my writing most happens before my feet hit the floor. I play out the scene I am working on, see all the details, walk through the spaces with the characters. Tune in all my senses. Then I visualize sitting at my desk and pulling all of that with me. If I were writing Non-fiction I suppose it would be the same thing. Maybe standing over the shoulder of someone explaining what they should be doing next in the process.

    And as far as research goes, hell, that is the fun part. The rest is just bleeding on the page.

    Like

  6. Tim, wow, this was a gem of an episode! Such good insights shared from a writing master.

    Simple stuff, but profound. Like live life, enjoy the moment. Don’t think about taking notes for your writing. The important stuff will stay with you. The insignificant bits will be purged.

    That makes so much sense to me.

    Like

  7. The Alchemist is on my all-time list, and I just recently re-read it. I love Coelho’s style and message, and this was a great peek behind the scenes into his personal life and process. Thank you Tim!

    Aram

    Like

  8. I have a very similar routine to you Tim. I make breakfast and a cup of Pu-erh tea. Journal for 10 min Meditate for 20 min then watch some porn for 10-15 min. I then look at my theme of the piece I am writing. I have this theme pasted to the wall atop my monitor. I them start writing for about 1 hour. I them will read a chapter in a classic book such as Alice in Wonderland ect then go back and write another hour. Time then for more tea and an hour walk. I make a note in my journal where I want to go next. I do the same when I am working on my music. I take Sundays off and take 6 weeks a year off for vacation. ( I generally play music on vacation but do not write). I find trying to grind it out 5-6 hours at a time is counter productive for me. I treat it like fishing wait for the ideas with bait ( meditation/porn/classic lit)them reel them in. I write a comic and graphic novels and do latin techno music like YELLO

    Like

  9. So exited about this one will take some time off work tomorrow to listen to my favourite interviewer with my favourite author please please please ask me Which book I gift the most the alchemist my great wife bought me the 25th anniversary one and I was so impressed

    Like

  10. Thank you for this wonderful podcast. Favorite quote was at 00:29:37 – “You should care to share your soul…”.

    1. When I have a deadline the first thing I do in the morning is – walk my dog. have a protein shake. drink strong coffee and sit glued in my chair until I finish a first draft. This practice works well for my blog, and I’m hoping it will work for my first book, which I just started.

    2. When I’m stuck which is pretty much everytime I sit down to write I focus on creating a Bad First Pancake. When I was a kid my dad used to make pancakes on Sunday mornings. Bisquick. He’d mix the batter then butter up the frying pan before pouring on the first pancake. As soon as the bubbles started to form he’d flip it over and then just as swiftly toss it into the trash. One Sunday I asked him why he did that? To which he said, “Rob, you need the bad pancake to season the pan, but you don’t have to eat it.”

    When I look at a blank screen I aim to get that first pancake on there. I may end up throwing it out but, if nothing else, I’ll have seasoned the page with my effort and attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. When Tim reaches out to Paulo, what does he say? It would be interesting to see what a message like that would look like. I have been somewhat hesitant to reach out to people, regrettably, simply not knowing what to say. Any insight would be appreciated.

    Like

  12. Fantastic! I’m downloading this episode for later today.
    1. My morning routine: Wake up > Meditate, 15 min > HIIT Workout, 10 min > Shower > Prepare & eat breakfast > Prepare black coffee > Start writing & keep my butt on the seat until I get to at least 1000 words.
    2. When I feel stuck, I like to read (usu. fiction). I’ve also found writing (article/blog post/journal) on a topic unrelated to the current project works well for me. If nothing else work, I just take a break for a couple of days.

    Like

  13. Fascinating and sincere insights. It does take a load off the shoulders when Paulo Coelho said in essence, there’s only 4 types of stories. To be successful, also realise, that you can keep things really simple like the analogy from Alice in Wonderland. And even a world famous author like Paulo Coelho also does procastinate but he balances that out when he does sit down to write. Lastly, i realise that all the styles of writing is essentially meant to be the dress of the story and the ultimate focus should be on the actual story you are conveying. Thank you

    Like

  14. Thanks for sharing this one Tim! Another inspiring post! We would love to learn so much more from you through a live event here in Amsterdam! it would truly be an honor and an inspiring experience for both us, your fans, and of course for you yourself! Getting that unique Amsterdam experience! Really looking forward to gearing back from you!🙂 Once again thanks for all the Inspiration!

    Like

  15. I have no (current) interest in becoming a writer, but I’m wondering if it would be a good addition to my morning routine.

    After reading Pressfield’s books, I feel like its almost a must for multiple reasons (generating creative energy, therapy, etc.)

    Any non-writers/bloggers feel the same? Tips to get started?

    Like

    • My two cents:

      There is definitely some amount of benefit you can get from writing each morning. It’s a process and an exercise. Getting better is a transferrable skill.

      That being said, you should ask yourself what you various goals are. Depending on those goals, the creative skill that would be best to develop could be writing, but it could also be drawing, learning to play a musical instrument, web design, podcasting, etc.

      Good luck!

      Like

  16. I have found the Artist Way helps with both a successful day and for writers block.

    I make sure I write three whole pages (A4), by hand, normal size with few lists or diagrams (which if I do, are small as not to take up writing space). This brain dump is one of the most profound ways to put aside my noisy thoughts to give way for clearer thinking.

    Note: I do not use this to plan my day. This is conscious thinking and not what I personally use this for.

    Whats great is there is no right or wrong, no pressure apart from I have to write something and I aim to complete in under 45 minutes. I just write… at first I consciously think “I’ll write this”, and “I’ll write that…”, I may reflect on something or write how I feel but then by p3 I’ve written everything I can think of but I keep writing whatever comes up. Generally I start a sentence which I’m convinced is just going to be nonsense but it turns into a gem.

    It’s often by p3 that I write from somewhere deeper, somewhere more profound. An idea hidden by all the noise will generally then present itself in the most wonderful way that I didn’t even know was there.

    I believe writers block is caused by thoughts clouding the source of wisdom. The connection is always there. We just need to get our conscious thinking out the way.

    If you’ve not tried it yet Tim has written all about it on 4hr work week “What My Morning Journal Looks Like”.

    Tim, inspiring podcast – thank you. And for the Artists Way which I swear by (and Tao of Seneca on Audible – life changing).

    Like

    • Thanks so very much for bringing this amazing podcast to u, Tim. What a gift! I loved hearing his dedication to his craft, to make it as a writer against all odds. “I was so committed. It was my dream..and I don’t work…writing is my pleasure.” and other gems. IS there a transcript available at all?

      Like

  17. By far the most useful, inspiring writing advice I’ve heard. Thanks so much for this one, Tim. Not only do I love Mr. Coelho’s work, but I’m also a writer and loved hearing how he writes.

    Like

  18. So simple, so deep.
    An expression of his self, and that’s it.

    What I like about your podcast is that it shows people as people. And as a person, a simple question keeps coming, why not me? That question turns on the dream engine and all your practical advice is the oil that makes it run smoothly and efficiently.

    I am yet to find something that delivers more value per minute than your content.

    Thanks for doing that in your own way, consistent with your beliefs and always with a smile in your face.

    PS: As a Brazilian, it is a bonus to hear Mr. Coelho hahaha

    Um abraço!
    Valeu!

    Like

  19. Hi Tim!
    Thanks for interviewing Paulo Coelho! I’m Brazilian and to hear he speaking English is so cute, one can realize he still has his accent from Rio de Janeiro…
    This year I’ve finished my first graphic novel and my writing process is similar to his, I start I go on for hours, but I do procrastinate a lot. So now that I Paulo Coelho procrastinates too I won’t feel so bad about it.
    Do you like the writer Haruki Murakami? He has a book about writing as well – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – I think you would enjoy that.
    I would like to recommend to you and everyone here Paulo Coelho’s songs. He wrote a lot of lyrics for musician Raul Seixas. YouI can listen to them here: http://www.letras.com.br/#!paulo-coelho

    So, Tim, thanks again for interviewing Paulo and I hope that we can have the opportunity to listen to a full interview with him made by you.

    P.S.: I write a blog about Japanese culture and I like to interview people about their views of Japanese society and culture. Until now, I’ve interviewed a Japanese tattooer that lived in São Paulo, an underground record label owner that lived in Japan, and two visual artists that lived in Japan. The kind of questions I ask is about gender, education, society, moral values… I try to ask things that may help other people know Japan better than superficially. I’m writing all this because I know that Japanese culture has a role in your life and I would like to ask you some questions about that, if possible. Thank you very much.

    Liked by 1 person