Michael Chabon and altered writing routines

I used to wake up around 7am, grope my way downstairs, fumble with the light switch, and immediately set a kettle on the stove for coffee. I am not a morning person. I use a French press to make coffee, which arguably is not a non-morning-person’s coffee-making routine. (It requires a bit of patience for the water to boil and for the coffee to steep in the press and can result in a big mess if one presses the plunger down too quickly. There’s vigilance required, unlike when using a drip coffee maker, and vigilance is not something that people who need caffeine in order to see straight in the morning have in great supply. But I digress.) Anyway, while my coffee was steeping, I would toss a frozen bagel into the toaster oven. When it was toasted, the coffee was done. I carried my bagel and cream cheese and mug of steaming coffee upstairs, and sat down at my computer. While I ate, I surfed and read the news. When my plate was empty and coffee gone, I opened Word documents and began writing. Sometimes I wrote for several, blissful, caffeine-fueled hours. Sometimes I took a break to shower and get dressed, then cranked out more words. By late morning or early afternoon, I was ready to do something else, be it work, or school, or gym. My routine was, at least most of the time, an extremely satisfying and productive one.

That was all Before Baby. After my son was born my routine — writing and otherwise — has been all but decimated. For example: I began this post while he took an unexpectedly long mid-morning nap yesterday. I hoped to finish it during his second nap of the day, but he decided not to take a second nap of the day, and here I am finishing my post more than 24 hours later. Any writing time comes when I am least expecting it, and cannot be relied upon or predicted.

It was comforting to read on Jacket Copy this week author Michael Chabon’s honest description of how he struggles to maintain his writing routine while also being present for the best parts of the day with his children:

…my natural rhythm is to work at night, stay up late and to sleep late. I can get more writing done between midnight and 1 o’clock in the morning than at any other hour of the day.
Unfortunately, that schedule does not work at all well in a family with small children. If I sleep late, then I miss out on what I think is the nicest, most pleasurable time of the day, of an ordinary, everyday routine. In the morning — my kids are generally in a pretty good mood when they wake up, you know, we make breakfast. I hate missing out on that, so I get up. So that means I can’t really stay up as late as I might like. Or else I don’t get enough sleep. I struggle with the schedule. And I’ve been struggling with it for years.

I have always wondered how Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman, who is also a writer, manage to get anything written — they have four kids. And yet both are quite prolific. Chabon admits in the interview that he sometimes stays up too late, choosing to lose sleep in order to write. And he sometimes has to leave home altogether — a few days away to bang out as many words as he can at the time of day he works best. His wife, he says, does a better job of working efficiently during the hours the kids are in school.

I’m always fascinated by how different writers approach the work of writing, but it’s also interesting to consider the result of upending one’s writing routine, purposefully or no. Writing teachers and books on writing usually advise: Find a writing routine that works for you, and stick to it.

I wonder if some better advice might be: Learn to write at any time of day, even those you think might not be your best. Train yourself to be flexible. That’s life, after all, which is always threatening to interrupt even the most-adhered-to routine. And it’s not just having kids — it’s work, school, a significant other perhaps, or just a desire to get away from the computer for a few hours and enjoy some nice weather.

I’ve learned (and am still learning) the following over the past months of struggling to write in a new/unpredictable routine:

–  It’s less about what time of day works for your writing routine than it is about training your brain to think about writing and work creatively at times that it might not normally function that way. For me, this is the hardest part. When I had my early morning writing routine going, it wasn’t that I couldn’t write later in the day, but I found that the distractions of the day tended to intrude more; slow me down and trip me up. This is still the toughest thing for me to overcome, post-baby. In the 10-15 minutes before I started this post I ran through a long list of things I needed to get done while Aaron slept, mentally considered which ones could be put off (the dishes? a shower?), and then hustled through the things that absolutely had to get done (laundry). In the moment before I began writing I was still thinking about whether I had everything ready to go in my bag for when Aaron woke up and we went outside. I had to shut off all this kind of thinking to settle in and write. Some days the writing pushes itself to the front, and it’s easy. Some days, I can barely write a sentence before all those mental to-do lists reassert themselves.

–  Comparisons are creativity killers. I used to, on days when writing was frustratingly elusive, consider other writers’ situations, compare them to my own, and beat myself up over my lack of productivity. Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman were examples I thought about often. If this couple could be so prolific with four kids, why couldn’t I get a paragraph written with just one child to distract me? It’s easy to fall into this kind of thinking (especially if one is sleep-deprived and/or in a bad mood), but man, is it not helpful. Chabon’s interview is a reminder that it’s hard for everyone, even Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, to balance writing with other aspects of their lives. It’s important to keep perspective.

– Use some non-writing time to prepare for writing time, whenever it eventually presents itself. In the car, in the shower, and yes, I admit it, sometimes when I’m playing with my son, I have thought about pieces of writing and what I will do with them next. I have dreamed up new pieces of writing. In busy times, when it seems like I will never get to write again, this practice can serve as a reminder that I’m not writing, yes, but it is a way of making the most of my time in front of the computer when a writing session does eventually happen. Sometimes I keep a notebook nearby so that I can jot down ideas — I have a horrible memory — and that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, even when I haven’t written a full sentence for days.

–  Remember that you will have to re-learn all of these above regularly. It’s so easy to get caught up in the fact that there’s so much to do, or you haven’t had much sleep, or that you’ve only written for a half an hour this whole week, or that other writerly people you know seem to be banging out story after story, or a novel, or blogging more often than seems humanly possible, etc., etc., etc. The big picture is still there, it’s just a matter of stepping back to take in the full view.

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One thought on “Michael Chabon and altered writing routines

  1. I think Ayelet and Michael trade off writing times (like one is with the kids while the other writes)…and they also make annual trips to MacDowell, where they apply/are accepted each year (okay, not every year for Ayelet, but Michael gets to go to MacDowell every year) and then while at residency, I think they slam out major chunks of their novels.

    And yes, still, I admire their ability to be so prolific amidst family distractions. Another professor of mine cannot write while any member of her family is awake, so she writes in the dead of night and allows herself only a very few hours of sleep each night (I don’t know how she does it).

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