I craned my neck to the left and gazed out the window: the sky behind me shone a lighter grey, but the roof lines still shadowed in darkness. The sun had not risen.
This was the time I wrote. Before my children awakened and my job as their primary caregiver began. I always felt tired. In this pre-dawn hour, I pulled another blanket up against the chill of autumn. This morning a question twirled in my mind:
How do other writers do this?
I have been fascinated lately by others’ habits of writing. What are their customs? Where do they do it? How do they do it? When do they do it?
I always assumed that for great long books to be written, authors must carve out great swaths of time for capturing inspiration when it comes. But that’s not my life. I have tiny slivers of time: sitting in the dark before my day awakes. Thus, I blog: 1000-ish words at a time, hoping that the practice will capture flecks of inspiration as I go.
I’v been surprised to hear evidence from other authors that this may be enough: it may take these little – not big – chunks of time, and a habit of plain-old sitting down to write – often – to create great works.
Here’s what I’m learning:
In an interview with Dan Blank, author Dani Shapiro mentioned how she actually winces when she hears other writers talk excitedly about this or that writer’s retreat they are going on, expecting to get a huge amount of writing done. She says that in a solitary cabin, with unbroken hours stretched out before them, a writer usually produces less work. While it may seem the perfect time to knuckle-down and write, they may end up doing everything else BUT writing, since they have so much time to kill. The sheer volume of unstructured time can be paralyzing to the creative process.
I’m learning that there is a habit, a mental discipline, that is vitally important to any writer who wants to write something big… like, say, a book. (I can neither confirm nor deny that I’m toying with such a gargantuan idea.)
An article in Writer’s Digest has some interesting evidence to support this. In “Creative Rations,” Catherine J. Campbell writes “Your ability to focus is affected by cyclical fluctuations in neurotransmitter molecules that manage your attention over a 24-hour period. Those fluctuations occur in 90-minute cycles, which is why you often hear the advice of working in 90-minute sessions and then taking a break.”
As far as early risers go, I think Dan Blank takes the cake. In his interview with Mom Writes, he talks about his practice of sitting down at his local Starbucks at 5:30 a.m. every morning, 364 days a year (I imagine he takes Christmas off). This is the time he sets apart to work on his creative projects, aside from his regular day job of helping creative professional realize their dreams. He is currently working on his second book, and is gathering a huge groundswell of support behind it, as he posts pictures of himself writing every morning on his Instagram page. Go Dan!
I don’t have hours and hours. I’ve actually tried to get up at 5 a.m. to write, but I ended up just welcoming a sore throat. I found sleep had a reason. To keep me healthy! But my brain and my throat seem to agree with a 6 a.m. wake-up, giving me roughly an hour before baby wakes and nurses, and the get-the-kids-ready-for-school-dance begins.
Shameful confession: I usually take up the first part of that time on my computer, NOT writing. It’s super humbling how distractable I am online: Email, Facebook, Amazon, all the wonderful things that are NOT writing. Sheesh. Come on, self control! Let’s focus on what we love!
But beating myself up gets me nowhere. So, to augment the discipline (or sometimes lack thereof) of writing, I have scheduled for myself mornings to listen to podcasts with my notebook open, scribbling down notes, learning about writing and blogging. It’s putting myself through a type of DIY writing school. I absolutely love those days.
Here are a few gems that have given me permission to think about what I do, and what I want to do, more clearly, and more legitimately.
- Work: This is what Dani Shapiro calls her writing. The time she sets aside every morning to write she calls, “Getting some work done.” This one word legitimizes her pursuit to herself, and to anyone else she tells about it. It’s more difficult to question, “Why on earth would you work?” than, “Why on earth would you write?” It’s all in the semantics. Because the best way to trick your brain into thinking that it’s doing something important, or at least to silence the inner critic, is to give it an inarguable name: like work.
- Craft vs. Platform: Since I am writing with the goal of sharing my work, I have both of these. Knowing their names has helped me tremendously to delineate one type of essential work in my writing from another, when I get overwhelmed. I learned these terms from Dan Blank, and his weekly newsletters (Hint, if you want something to help your writing, start by signing up for this!) Craft is the creative thing inside of me that needs to be written. Whereas platform is the stage on which it’s shared with an audience: social media, collaboration with other bloggers, and any other means of getting the word out about my “work.” (See what I did there?) It can be confusing and frustrating trying to balance both of these on a thin slice of sleep and a crack of time in my day. So Dan made it easy. He advised, “Craft always comes first.” It should be the most fulfilling part of the process anyway, right? I don’t write because I desperately need to be famous, and I just happened to write. No. I write because there is something in me that wants to be expressed, clarified, and shared. But it cannot be shared unless it is first expressed. Thus, craft always comes first.
Having both the language and the understanding of these concepts has given me a clearer road map in my writing. I know that writing is terribly important to me, and will be a lifelong pursuit of mine. This much I know.
But as the sun rises higher and the sky brightens, I hear the sounds of little girls bumping around in their room beside mine, and the yowl of a hungry baby boy on the bedside monitor. This is the reality of my days right now. But I know it wont always be so. My children and my blog both still feel so young, and so full of potential. It fills me up, and wears me out to tend to both, day after day. But you know what? There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. And that’s the truth.