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On the Rhythms of Writing and Fucking Off

A few months ago, a good budding writer asked me for advice about writing. I gave her what I hope was good advice — but I had a recent revelation about how I write, one that I feel like an idiot about not catching on to earlier, and I want to share it with her, and with the rest of the class.

My revelation was this: In order to write, I need a large block of uninterrupted time. Several hours at least. I can’t have a writing schedule where I write for two hours every day — I’ll get fuck-all done.

Here’s why. It apparently takes me a long time to rev up my writing engine. I can’t just sit down with guns a-blazing — I have to ease into it, start the gears turning slowly. In a typical writing day, I start off just mucking about on the computer for a while: doing email, updating my Website, submitting finished pieces to publishers, that sort of thing. (I often get a fair amount of writing-related business done in this time, but it’s almost never the actual writing part.) Once I’m settled into that groove, I start reworking drafts, polishing and rewriting pieces where the basic churning-out of ideas has already been done. (Blogging usually happens in this phase as well.) Only then can I start the actual churning out, the Godawful hard work of dredging through that black wordless place in my head, dragging out the stuff that might be good and trying to wrestle it into coherent sentences. It’s like I’m tricking myself into writing, sneaking up on my brain and gradually turning up the gas. (Like a lot of writers, I don’t really enjoy writing all that much. I enjoy having written — but the actual writing part usually kind of sucks. I’d give it up, but not writing sucks even more.)

So the bottom line is, I’ll get twice as much done in one eight-hour block than I ever will in eight one-hour blocks — and most of that will get done in the last five hours. But apparently I need those first three hours to get me to the place where the last five will get me anywhere.

It’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to recognize this and accept it. I think I saw it as amateurish, prima donna behavior. I’ve never had much patience with writers and artists who sit around moaning about their muse and their writer’s block — it always seemed like the mark of a dilettante — and complaining that I can’t work in short bursts always seemed like that sort of “princess and the pea” crap. (I always hated that story…)

But I’m beginning to accept that I was being too hard on myself. After all, I’m not using the vagaries of my muse as an excuse for not writing. I’m not whining about how I need large blocks of time to write while I sit around in bars or cafes trying to impress chicks. I actually *am* setting aside large blocks of time to write. I’m structuring my job and my social life around my stupid Goddamn muse, who only shows up when I’ve been dicking around on the computer for a couple of hours (and who also, I might point out, tends to get really excited and gushy when it’s two in the morning and I have to get up at eight). I’m beginning to realize that it’s not “princess and the pea” behavior if I’m getting work done and meeting deadlines.

So that’s my revelation. But my advice to other writers and artists actually isn’t, “Be sure to set aside large blocks of time for your creative work.” My advice is, “Pay attention to the rhythms of your work, and respect them.” You may be the exact opposite of me — you might only be able to work for a couple hours at a stretch before you burn out. Or maybe it doesn’t matter when you work, but it does matter where: I like to work at home, where I can putter around like a butterfly in between burst of output, but maybe you need a separate place, completely free of distractions and devoted solely to your work. Whatever it is, respect it. Figure out what it is — and then structure your life to make it happen.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m sitting over here in Hawaii nodding in agreement. (Hey, why do you think I moved to Hawaii, anyhow? It’s not for the weather — that’s hubby’s reason, and actually, it rains here a LOT.) It’s for the unparalleled chance to get big heaping gobs of writing done.
    Actually, I’ve been reluctant to get out and meet people here because (aside from my natural introversion) I’ll be damned if I’ll give up all this wonderful unstructured writing time!
    For now I can tell the folks here that I’m still “unpacking,” but that will wear old in a few more weeks, and then I’ll have to resort to telling the truth: “Because I’m a WRITER, that’s why!!!” And then they will solemnly shake their heads….
    –Bill

  2. says

    Yeah, this is the article I was looking for. Thanks for posting something this honest.
    Reading through this again, along with my comment from last April, I am struck by how much I have accomplished in the interim. This helps, since I’m going through one of my rare but powerful bouts with self-doubt. I don’t feel like I’m producing enough right now. Focus comes hard at the moment. Worse, there’s the irrational fear that if I lighten up on myself, I won’t ever get back to work.
    I must have had writing in mind when I wrote this last week:
    If we fully understood how much trouble it would be to accomplish something worthwhile, we’d probably never start.
    – Bill Brent, 12/24/2006

  3. Hayley says

    hey, is it okay if i work like a writer but i’m actually a beauracrat (who is also a bad speller)? because this really applies to me ;)

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