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Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: How Some People Get to Write

Where most of us seem to agree:  coffee helps.

Where most of us seem to agree: coffee helps.

During the past week, an item from The New Yorker‘s “Page Turner” blog lit up the writerly Internet. Everywhere I looked, it seemed that people were admiring, sharing, and otherwise recommending Roxana Robinson’s “How I Get to Write,” which details the routine that the author follows to bridge that gap each morning between awakening and reaching the moment when she “start[s] in, tapping at the keyboard.”

But in some venues–a listserv for freelance writers, a Facebook discussion–I noticed that a few people were commenting that Robinson’s routine, while idyllic, sounded highly impractical. Some noted that their partners wouldn’t be as accommodating as Robinson’s husband is to the habit of “avoid[ing] conversation.” Others observed that while Robinson can focus on simply preparing her own morning coffee, many other people have children (and even pets) to feed and prepare for the day. For my part, I was acutely conscious of the absence of any mention of a need to leave the house and commute to a 9-5 job where writing fiction certainly wasn’t part of the position description.

To be sure, Robinson wasn’t necessarily prescribing a routine that the rest of us writers can (or should) follow. At some point, I think, we all realize that we need to find our own paths, even if others’ examples may prove to be illustrative. Personally, I appreciate knowing about others’ paths–sometimes. I’m simply not that interested in “how I write” accounts from those who seem to have few obligations beyond their own pages, or who are blessed with reliably ample chunks of time to structure as they choose more days of the week than not (yes, I’m talking to you, professors who teach one or two workshops each semester, and whose own writing, moreover, is considered part of the research/scholarship component of your college or university appointment).

Much for instructive, for me, is a piece like another one I read this past week. In the latest issue of her weekly FundsforWriters newsletter, C. Hope Clark shared “How I Break Up My Day.” Although she is no longer showing up to a 9-5 office job, Clark isn’t writing fiction full-time, either. Even if our circumstances differ, Clark’s article simply struck me as far more practical and therefore illuminating than Robinson’s.

Both Robinson’s and Clark’s pieces reminded me of my own recent Q&A with author David Abrams. I’ve admired David’s productivity for a long time, so I was eager to ask him this: “David, you have a full-time, nonacademic ‘day job,’ plus family commitments, plus an extraordinary and ever-updated book blog. I’m dying to know a) when you sleep and b) what a typical workday looks like for you.”

David replied:

I do work a 9-to-5, 40-hours-per-week, Monday-through-Friday day job, so by necessity that dictates my writing time. I get up every day at 3:30 and fill the next five hours with as much creative writing, blogging, email, exercise and reading as I possibly can. It’s all fueled with strong cups of coffee, but if you notice some of the posts at The Quivering Pen are a little fuzzy around the edges, the writing not as sharp as it could be, that’s the reason. If I want to get any creative, non-blogging work done in the morning, it has to be the first thing I do, before the tyranny of email distracts me. The only way I can possibly discipline myself to do this is to kill the Internet connection on my computer the night before. I’m a morning writer, so when I come home at 5 o’clock, the evenings are devoted to spending time with my wife, my best friend in the world. We cook dinner, watch TV, and play Wii games. All in all, it’s a good life – even if the day does start well before the crack of dawn.

My friends, h*ll will freeze over before I will start my day at 3:30 a.m. So, again, David’s response doesn’t necessarily solve my own writing challenges. But what I love about it (similar to Clark’s remarks) is its sheer practicality–and potential.

Despite the rebellion I anticipate from my brain and body, I could get up at 3:30. One day, I might transition back to a freelance life for which Hope’s routine might provide useful guidance. But I can’t imagine that my routine will ever resemble Roxana Robinson’s. Which is why, notwithstanding all of those shares and RTs and “likes”, her essay simply doesn’t speak to me.

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11 Responses »

  1. But what if you found yourself awake at 3:30 am anyway? Would you write?

    • Would I write at 3:30 a.m.? Only if my busy brain won’t let me go back to sleep otherwise. Which has happened. Unfortunately.

      But seriously, I’m with Erika here–the mystery isn’t how you find time to write if you are solely a writer and have no children/elderly parents/etc. dependent on your presence during peak work hours. The mystery is how you do it when you have a baby waking you at night, kids who need homework help, a parent who needs to be taken to a doctor’s appointment, and so on. Or if you work FT.

      • You know, I went through a phase in my 20s/early 30s where I might have stayed up UNTIL 3:30 to write. But I usually didn’t have to be anywhere at 9 am (except, by force of discipline back then, the gym); I didn’t have anyone depending on me; and it wasn’t a super-healthy time in my life.

        I don’t think that Robinson’s piece is necessarily about getting the time to write–it’s about getting to a creative place, and I understand that. It’s just that I don’t see her routine as a feasible one for a lot of people, based on what I’ve said, which is largely about the time factor.

        And if I haven’t been sufficiently explicit yet, I’ll also say that I can’t abide instant coffee! Frankly, brewing fresh coffee is part of MY morning routine, and *I* always make sure there’s enough coffee around to brew!

  2. I have to agree; I’m much more interested in how things work for the more typical person who has multiple obligations and distractions.
    Like Clark, I too avoid early mornings, but work late into the night and much of the weekend. So Erika, if you ever do get up at 3:30 a.m. to write, wave to me online – I may be doing one last email or FB check before bed!

  3. I also thought Robinson’s essay, while lovely, sounded impractical. I work a day job too, and well, not all of us are so privileged. (Nor do I imagine her quiet mornings are always quite so idyllic.)

    I like hearing others’ practical approaches to finding time to write – I loved Hope’s piece too.

  4. It’s lucky that I drafted this post a couple of days ahead. Early Tuesday morning, I *was*, in fact, awake at 3:30–dealing with some virus/possible food poisoning. No details necessary. Suffice to say that I was NOT writing. And I’m still home from work today, grateful for my paid sick leave.

    All of which is to say, Michael, that I stick to my original thought: It’s nearly impossible for me to envision waking up willingly at 3:30 to begin writing. That said, sure, Lisa–I’ll keep your offer in mind! And Katie, thanks for your comment. What a lovely blog you have!

  5. Another great share, thanks.

  6. If the teeth brushing, dressing and bed making didn’t bust the fragility of my nighttime thoughts and dreams, then the granola crunching and whistling kettle would certainly do me in!

    I do write, in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep. Otherwise it’s when I carve it out of a full time work day and other obligations. Currently I am working on trying to establish a better routine, but I wont’ be cutting out the morning chats with my husband!

  7. Now retired for just over a week, and still have not managed to do any significant writing. There’s holiday aftermath. And wife’s doctors appointments. Helping out the adult kids. And so on. I’ll get there eventually…

    I used to do the late night thing. Then I got a job with flextime allowing me to start as early as 6:00am. Edison could exist and work on four hours sleep, I can’t. That ended late night, but in exchange I finished up at 2:30. Never got home in the dark this time of year, which I absolutely despise.

    Erwin K. Roberts
    Who is now reading this blog at home

  8. I suspect that accounts of writerly habits, like writerly advice, are rather like the instant coffee you so love (not), Erika: quick fixes, gossip grist, and a source of exasperated nose-wrinkling. There’s Trollope’s clock to Wilde’s comma, and everything in between. Jerrold Mundis had one of the best insights (at least I think it is) on all this: your writing should be a habit, not a hobby. A habit is something we do on a regular basis. Regularity not slapdash. Frequency is an equation: personality divided by opportunity.

    For instance, I don’t know how you find the time for three weekly blogs, Erika. But I’m glad you do.

  9. Really appreciate the comments, everyone. On Twitter, @TaniaHershman pointed me to this great collection of items you might want to see: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/11/20/daily-routines-writers/

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