Continuing my review of the original posts on this site—today’s is an interesting coincidence, as I’ve spent some time in Mastermind groups lately, dealing with this issue. Authors, particularly new authors, seem to feel that their muse must be constantly fed and watered with a diet rich in variety, experiences, travel, and that living a boring life will smother their muse.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The conventional view of creatives is often that of Bohemians, living on the edge of society and obeying no laws other than those imposed by their muse. Creatives are seen as flaky and unreliable, poor and spiritually free. They live in clusters, supporting and encouraging each other, but seem to spend a lot of time drinking at the local bar and whiling away their hours in contemplation of their next artistic endeavor.
Of course, I’m laughing as I write this because the truth is almost the exact opposite.
Did you think that you were enhancing your creativity by embracing chaos and change and welcoming an unpredictable life?
In fact, the predictable, very-nearly-boring life is the perfect life for a writer.
Why a steady life is best.
Everyone has a built-in limit on how many executive decisions they can handle in a day before they start mentally unravelling.
You’ve likely experienced that draining state more than once.
Think of those days when there’s no milk for breakfast and you must figure out what breakfast to serve instead, or come up with an alternative to milk for your coffee and the kids’ cereal.
When it’s garbage day and you forgot to put it out and now must circle back because you already forgot last week, and now you’re going to be late for work, so how can you shave ten minutes off your route to work?
When someone calls in sick at work and now you have to cover their stuff as well as yours and suddenly, you’re juggling priorities like a clown (and no one is entertained). Even before you reach lunch, you’re already yearning to go home and dive under the covers and sleep for a month. Screw writing for the day–it’s just not happening.
Even an ordinary, run-of-the-mill day, by the time you get to the end of it, can be exhausting, because you’ve used up all your decision-making juice by then and have no capacity left to motivate yourself to get up and write. Mindless TV is far more appealing.
This is why writing first thing in the morning works best for the vast majority of writers. Your executive decision-making fuel is topped up.
Writing is pure decision-making
Writing is a series of one decision after another, and every decision requires thought. The very next set of words you write require decisions. The choice of words, where you break for paragraphs, should you put in some scene-setting now? What about the opening hook? The end of the scene hook? How do you transition to the next paragraph? The next scene? How many scenes in this chapter?
Then there’s plotting: 100% pure decision making!
You can see how trying to write when you’ve drained the tank for that day is a useless exercise.
Like all muscles, your capacity for decisions can be increased with regular workouts that push the limits a little further each time.
Once you’ve been writing long enough (in other words, sticking to a regular schedule), then you may find that you can write every night even after a crappy day, because your brain still has capacity left to deal with the challenges of writing. Writers who say they prefer to write at night have usually been writing at night for a very long time and are used to the mental workload.
That’s an encouraging thought.
If the only window of time for you to write is when the owl is calling, then every night you push yourself to write is adding to your mental capacity to cope with highly creative activities at that time of night. The longer you do it, the easier it will get.
Why a schedule works for everyone
Given that there’s only so much deciding you can do in a day, then it makes sense that eliminating as many decisions as possible gives you capacity to spare, right?
Enter the schedule.
Schedules take the guess work and need for decisions out of the picture. If the schedule you build for yourself says you should be writing after dinner, then you don’t have to brainstorm each day about when you can fit writing into the day’s schedule. It has already been decided.
Schedules, when you stick to them, become habits.
Habits = autopilot.
You stop thinking about should-you/shouldn’t-you and just do it (to quote that company).
There’s evidence that sticking with a routine quiets the stress and gives your mind a chance to think about your writing, instead. If regular-as-clockwork routines (no matter how weird) worked for greats like Charles Dickens, W.H. Auden and Anthony Trollope, it’s worth considering building your own.
Dickens’ daily routine was …invariable. His eldest son recalled that “no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.” He rose at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch with his family, during which he often seemed to be in a trance, eating mechanically and barely speaking a word before hurrying back to his desk.*
Auden is quoted as saying: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”
He was also a workhorse: Auden rose shortly after 6:00 A.M., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 A.M., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. (He was dismissive of night owls: “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”) Auden usually resumed his work after lunch and continued into the late afternoon. Cocktail hour began at 6:30 sharp, with the poet mixing himself and any guests several strong vodka martinis. Then dinner was served, with copious amounts of wine, followed by more wine and conversation. Auden went to bed early, never later than 11:00 and, as he grew older, closer to 9:30.*
Anthony Trollope had the perfect life for a creative nailed. He was prolific, despite holding a day job for most of his life!
It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30 A.M.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then, he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours…
If he completed a novel before his three hours were up, Trollope would take out a fresh sheet of paper and immediately begin the next one. In his industrious habits he was no doubt influenced by his mother, Frances Trollope, an immensely popular author in her own right. She did not begin writing until the age of fifty-three, and then only because she desperately needed money to support her six children and ailing husband. In order to squeeze the necessary writing time out of the day while still acting as the primary caregiver to her family, Mrs. Trollope sat down at her desk each day at 4:00 A.M. and completed her writing in time to serve breakfast.*
[*All from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey]
It wasn’t just the classic writers who followed a routine. The pulp writers of the early and mid 20th century were demons about maintaining a routine.
Gruber also got to know the most prolific author of all time. His name was Frederick Faust, but you know him by his famous pen name, Max Brand. When Gruber met him, they were in Hollywood working at Warner Bros. Studios. Faust had, by that time, written and published approximately forty-five million words.
Gruber asked Faust how on earth he did it. Faust asked Gruber if he could write fourteen pages in one day. Gruber said he’d certainly done so (fourteen pages is about 4,000 words), but had also gone two or three weeks without writing a line.
That was the secret, Faust said. He wrote fourteen pages a day, every day, “come rain or shine, come mood or no.”
That works out to one and a half million words a year.
[How to Write Pulp Fiction by James Scott Bell]
Even Barack Obama rotates through the same three outfits day after day to minimize little decisions and save his decision-making for the stuff that counts.
A writing schedule and a daily routine have the added advantage of allowing you to monitor your own progress.
You’ll know very quickly if you’re no longer on track to finish the first draft by the end of the month, because the sense of mild guilt you get because you haven’t written when you promised yourself you would keeps you honest.
Without a routine, you could easily look around a month later and realize you haven’t been near your keyboard in weeks…and my, where did the time go?
There is no downside
Even when you have a routine and that routine goes off the rails (which it absolutely will, sooner or later), you can still reschedule (mini-schedules and recovery and other tactics all work).
The disruption to a routine, depending on its nature, can give you a different perspective on something that you’ve grown used to.
For example, my husband was, for a while, on disability insurance and at home. Just that small difference in my daily routine caused me to rethink how I start and finish my days. We had been hibernating in the house, surrounded by more than three feet of snow (which, oddly, we are also currently doing as I review this post). From this change I got more than one idea for a story about couples who detach from everyday life and head off for weeks and months at a time…and what if no one noticed they hadn’t returned…?
Disruptions provide unexpected associations of disconnected ideas–the very heart of creativity…but you do have to have a routine in place, for the routine to be disrupted and your perception to be jolted.
Your productivity will soar
With a schedule, you will reach your writing goals. You’ll stress less. And you’ll sleep better.
Leave the Bohemian life to the dilettantes and those who like the idea of dying from chronic disease. Write, instead.