Last week New York Times editorialist David Brooks held forth on the daily habits of famous writers, the implication being that if you want to be a famous writer (or even an infamous writer), you would be well advised to establish a regular schedule that devotes a set period to the work. Or, if you prefer, to The Work.
Plumbing the depths of Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Brooks reports that Maya Angelou arose each morning at 5:30, had coffee at 6:00, and then would set off at 6:30 to a hotel room she rented as a kind of office. There she would write from 7:00 a.m. to 12:30 or 2:00 p.m.
Anthony Trollope, on the other hand, would set a goal of 2,500 words a day, to be accomplished at the rate of 250 words every 15 minutes.
The examples are a little extreme. But the fact is, if you want to become a Writer with a Capital W, the number-one thing you have to do is apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. And you can’t do that when you’re trying to accommodate other people’s schedules or working around all the “I’d better get this done first” demands you set for yourself.
Some years ago, my department at Arizona State University, at the time called American Studies, brought a speaker to harangue us — sorry, make that “advise” — about strategies to help crank out the articles and books required to achieve tenure and, once tenured, to manage promotion to full professor.
He urged us to carve out a small window of time three times a week in which all we would do is work on the writing project. We did not have to write. We could research. We could plan. We could outline. We could think. But whatever it was, it had to be related to the project at hand.
The time didn’t have to be long: even fifteen or twenty minutes. A half an hour would be good. An hour at most. Over time, you might extend it to a couple of hours. But don’t overdo it, he said. In any event, limit the time to a specific period, scheduled for a limited number of days per week.
This strategy has several advantages:
1. It allows you to keep the spouse and the kids at bay. If they know that at a certain time you’ll be at their beck and call (again!), they’re more likely to leave you alone for the time you’ve set aside.
2. Three hours a week, while not much, is three hours more than you would work on your project otherwise.
3. You can work up from a half-hour or an hour to an hour or two, giving yourself six or more hours a week — again, time you wouldn’t otherwise spend on writing.
4. Working regularly on creative work primes the creative pump. Weirdly, when you work a short time on a creative project, set it aside, and come back to it, you find yourself coming up with all sorts of new ideas. As Brooks puts it, “order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.”
All of it is easier said than done, especially if you’re self-employed.
Obviously, if you have a regular job, you can find regular times in which to work: 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., before you have to get the kids out of the sack and yourself ready to go; or 10:30 to 11:30 p.m., after the kiddies are put to bed and the dishes are washed.
By contrast, when you’re self-employed work comes in irregularly and deadlines can be erratic. Sometimes you need to put in 14+ hours a day to get the job done. New tasks come in, clients get squirrely, new business must be hustled, meetings must be met. When on earth do you find time to do your own thing?
Well, you don’t find it. You have to make it. Got a 14-hour day? Either add another hour or two for your writing schemes, or make Tuesday a 16-hour day so as to break free an hour or two on Wednesday.
Personally, I tend to prioritize my creative work over my clients’ work. At some point, I decided I get to have some time of my own to do what I want to do. Selfish, yes. But creativity demands a certain degree of ego.
Up at 5:30: answer the e-mail.
6:00 to 6:30 or 7:30: write. Or at least think through the project.
6:30 or 7:30: Walk one to two miles, with dogs if weather permits.
7:30 to 8:30: Breakfast, coffee, read paper.
8:30 to around 2:00 p.m.: work.
2:00 to 3:00 p.m.: Prepare and enjoy full dinner-type meal.
3:00 to 4:00 p.m.: Siesta time! Rest and regroup. Take time to think about creative work, characterization, action, or organization and approach to nonfiction or editing projects in hand.
4:00 p.m. to 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.: Work. Answer e-mail.
10:00 or 11:00 p.m.: Walk dogs, if it was too hot to take them out in the morning.
What it boils down to? If you wanna be a Writer, you’ve gotta work. If you’re gonna work, you need to make time to work.
(And, once you’re ready, we’d love to talk to you about editing your work. Just contact us.)