A writer’s daily habit

The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine contains a motivating piece by Bay Area novelist Ellen Sussman about her daily writing practices. (Alas, not available online.) I’m always intrigued by the different ways in which writers approach their work — some people write at night, some in the morning, some can’t eat while writing, some must snack all the way through a writing session. Ahem. Some write longhand, some type on a computer. (One of my favorite descriptions of writing process is that of Truman Capote, who wrote lying down, sipping coffee or sherry, depending on the time of day) I was at a Litquake panel on the art of the novel last month in which author Bharati Mukherjee said she writes a first draft of her novel on a laptop, closes the file and does not refer to or open it again while she writes a second draft. She does the same thing for a third draft, essentially writing the novel from scratch three times! She did not, she said, recommend that method.

Anyway, Ellen Sussman’s piece was straightforward and made me realize, in addition to giving me some new ideas about how to structure my writing days around a 3-year-old and household chores,  that I need some writerly confidence. First and foremost, Sussman recommended this:

Repeat after me: ‘I’m a writer. It’s my job. It’s what I do.’
If you embrace that statement, then you can begin to develop the practice of writing. You go to work everyday. You sit your butt in a chair … and you put in your hours just like everyone else who goes to work.

I know this, of course, but I haven’t been doing it, or acting like writing is my job, which I very much would like it to be. Even if you have a full-time job and a houseful of kids, Sussman writes, you have to commit, even if it’s only to one hour a day. “It’s your other job — your writing job — and you can’t neglect it. Do it. You’re a writer.”

Sussman goes on to describe her writing days (5-6 days a week, every week). She sets working hours (9am-noon) and a word count minimum (1,000). If she doesn’t hit her minimum, she goes back to her desk after lunch. She meditates for 5-10 minutes before she begins and blocks the Internet with Mac Freedom for the 3 hours she’s supposed to be writing.

She divides her time into units of one hour each. For the first 45 minutes of each hour:

You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the 45-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a 15-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work.

Sussman says she waters her garden or puts in a load of laundry, for example. She doesn’t check email or make calls or do other writing-related work. After the 15 minutes are up, when she’s back at her desk for the next unit of time, she sees that her unconscious mind has been working over her material and she’s full of new ideas. The 15-minute breaks allow for physical rest from the computer, too, and a way to get through your writing when you have a tough day (only 30 more minutes and I get a break!)

Because of this schedule, Sussman writes in her article, “If I have to rewrite a hundred pages of the novel, I know that I can do it in a month. I don’t despair as I would if I wrote a couple of pages one day and a couple of pages a week later.” So efficient! She says her writing practice allows her to take risks, since if it doesn’t work out, “I sit my butt down the very next day and start over.”

Do you have a writing schedule? What do you do to keep the rest of your life at bay while you getting your writing done?

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7 thoughts on “A writer’s daily habit

  1. This is so inspiring! Especially reading about Sussman’s discipline. I write in the mornings, because it is the quietest part of the day. Well–let me be more detailed: the first 3-4 hours of my day (if I wake up at 10am, this means mid-day and not morning writing time). I can’t eat. Or the magic ends. I like Sussman’s wordcount minimum–and the mandate to return to the writing in the afternoon if that minimum isn’t met (as well as her 15 minute breaks, which aren’t quite so possible in a café). I think I will follow her mandate for a bit. maybe not the 1K wordcount. More like 500, which is more my pace. Thank you!

    • 500 words is more my pace too. I agree that the discipline of returning if you don’t hit your wordcount is a great idea and I can see how it would help keep me from slipping… Also, I hope to someday utter the words “if I wake up at 10am” again in my life. Sigh.

  2. Wow, she sounds way more disciplined than me, lol. But that’s something I’m still working to develop. Word count quotas don’t work for me — they make me focus in entirely the wrong place — but I do like to set working hours. I think it can take a while to embrace the idea, and then to find your best schedule. Good luck with it!

  3. This post makes me want to renew my subscription to Poets & Writers. And I also really want to read Sussman’s French Lessons. My schedule has been erratic lately since I’m between projects, but when I was writing, I would come to the Grotto 9-5, spend the first hour or two online to get that out my system, then turn on Mac Freedom for the rest of the day. I did this just two days a week, though, and maybe a third at home. It never felt like enough. Someday, though, the kids will be in school and I’ll be able to work five days a week. Until then, I want to enjoy the time I have with them while they’re still little and just do what writing I can.

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