Where Writers Write – Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins in his cluttered home office near Oxford University.

“Well, I don’t write only here. My untidy habits drive me to follow the slash-and-burn (or Mad Hatter) principle. Work on a virgin table until the mess becomes unbearable, then move on to a clean table in a clean room — or, on a beautiful summer day like this, one of the five tables dotted around the garden. Trash that table and move on again. Actually, in the case of the massive 8-foot-square, 6-inch-thick, rough-hewn stone table (Purbeck Jurassic limestone), “dotted” is hardly the word.

But there’s more to be said about the mess. There’s a weird sense in which I relish the contrast between the paper compost heap and the order and clarity of what’s inside the laptop computer lurching aslant it. I’m pretty obsessive and a perfectionist about what I write. Each page is read over, several dozens of times, and it changes every time, for the better I hope, by a sort of winnowing process that resembles natural selection — Darwinnowing I suppose we could call it. I find it hard to believe how writers managed in precomputer days. Only my first book, “The Selfish Gene,” was written on a typewriter and every page was a phantasmagoria of crossings out and Scotch-taped inserts. When eventually a clean copy came back from the professional typist, it was as if the sun had come out. The contrast between the Scotch-taped mess and the elegant typescript now comes to mind when I compare the deep litter on my desk to the permanently pristine page on the computer screen.

I was actually writing this very piece at the Jurassic table in the garden when the New York Times photographers arrived. But they obstinately refused to take their camera outside, preferring the chaos of my room.”

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