As you know from my interview with Shawn Smucker, he’s a novelist with ambitious goals—on track to write ten books in ten years. He’s written three of his own books—two novels and a memoir. His fourth will be released in 2019.
To make a living, he works as a cowriter and ghostwriter. Several years ago he was hit with the realization that he could live his whole life writing books for others and never write his own.
With that, he made the switch to writing his own things first every day. It might just be for an hour, but if he commits to writing his own projects first, he knows it’s going to happen.
Shawn’s wakeup call can serve as our own, calling for us to prioritize our own writing. If we don’t, other things will swallow our time and energy and we’ll have nothing left.
But when we do prioritize our writing—when we put our own work first—we start to achieve our writing goals and build our body of work.
We can bring our best, most creative selves to our own projects by prioritizing in four different ways.
1. Write Your Own Things First Every Day
Shawn prioritizes his own writing by literally doing it first—waking up early to commit a few minutes or a few hours to his work-in-progress. His secret is to follow a routine.
Shawn’s routine has been to get up early, but instead of diving directly into the work-for-hire, he sits down and writes for an hour or so on his personal projects.
We can set up a routine, too: Get up early and write for 20 minutes or an hour on our own projects before proceeding with the rest of the day—ensuring that our work progresses.
Famous Writers’ Morning Routines
We’ll be in good company with this commitment to rising early to get to the work. In an interview for The Paris Review in 1958, Ernest Hemingway said:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.
The Telegraph reported that several famous authors rose early to write, including WH Auden, Beethoven, and Victor Hugo. They all liked to wake at 6am. Kurt Vonnegut and Maya Angelou rose even earlier. “Murakami, Voltaire and John Milton all set their alarms at 4am.”
So did Barbara Kingsolver. James Clear shared an excerpt of her explaining about the years when her kids were young. Back then, she said she rose early. “Too early,” in fact.
Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency.
One way to prioritize your writing, then, is to give it the first hours of every day, rising early to do so. Get up, get to your desk, and start dumping those words out of your head. If it feels like a emergency, maybe that’s because it is.
2. Carve Out Time to Binge Write
Maybe early mornings and routines don’t work for you, at least not right now while you’re dealing with a broken arm or while you’re serving as a caregiver for aging parents. When every day seems disrupted by the next demand or emergency, routines may seem unattainable and you may need more sleep to get through the day.
Binge Writing to Make Progress
Try a different way to prioritize your work: by carving out a chunk of time to binge write.
Bec Evans, cofounder of Prolifiko, “the world’s digital coach,” concedes that binge writing overall is “less productive, leads to fewer ideas, more procrastination and even depression.”
But they surveyed writers on how they go about their work, and 36 percent of writers said “they wrote nothing for weeks, then had an intense period of writing. That’s the reality of their lives—bingeing is the only way they find time to write, feel productive and make progress on their projects.”
Write in a Way that Works for You
Evans quoted author and binge-writer Cheryl Strayed talking about male authors having background support as they developed routines to write.
“[Y]ou would look deeper and see that this man would be in his office and his wife would be bringing him lunch and then he’d have lunch. I would be – ‘that is just not my life, no one is catering my life.’ I mean I was bringing lunch to other people, I was a waitress.”
Strayed learnt to accept her binge writing and encourages others to do the same. Her advice is that with writing, as with everything in life, you have to do it in a way that works for you.
Personal Writing Retreat
Earlier this year I scheduled a personal writing retreat. Two big projects were staring me down—work I wanted to get done. But I struggled to focus and to fully engage with it creatively. The retreat ensured I would have that time, if I used it wisely.
Every morning I took a long walk, then came back and immersed myself in the project, writing for hours with no interruptions or distractions. Finding and committing a chunk of time was a way to put my own writing first. I prioritized my work by devoting an entire week to it, actually scheduling a word-binge. I got the work done.
This can be done on a smaller scale with time blocks of an afternoon at a library or morning in a cafe. However long it is, I encourage you to carve out time to binge write.
3. Fill Found Time with Your Writing
From time to time, slivers of time open up in my day. Sometimes a chunk of time. When that white space appears on my calendar, sometimes I’m tempted to clean or mess around on social media. How about you?
Why not demonstrate our determination to put our own writing first by filling that time with words?
As soon as your appointment is cancelled, your plane is delayed, or a meeting lets out early, pull out your calendar and block off the newly found hour or afternoon. In that block, label it with the task you’ll tackle that puts your writing first. Finish a chapter or find a quote. Meet a goal, even if it’s small.
Preserving and labeling that chunk of time with the intended goal—written in big black ink or typed into the square of a digital calendar—can keep you from frittering it away.
4. Devote Your Energy to Your Work
You’ve probably noticed that you’re more creative and productive at particular times of day. As much as possible, devote at least some of that creative, productive energy to your own writing.
Save High-Energy Hours for Creative Work
Maybe you can check email at a slower time, when you’re dragging, so you can give your best hours to your most creative work.
This gets more complicated when your energy is limited.
You may face a chronic illness or disability or injury that creates challenges for your writing. To put your writing first may mean finding the few minutes or hours in a day when you have physical or mental energy to focus and then resolving to write during that narrow window of time.
Or you may want to find creative ways to work within your restrictions. If sitting for hours at a keyboard isn’t possible, maybe you find an app that allows you to use voice-to-text technology. Or you could record your drafts and send them to a program for transcription. That way, you work around some of your limitations and direct your energy and mental energy to speaking your work into life.
Laura Hillenbrand’s Chronic Illness
Laura Hillenbrand wrote her books Seabiscuit and Unbroken while “besieged by chronic fatigue syndrome.” According to an article in Stanford Medicine, since 1987, she’s “endured vertigo and exhaustion so severe that for many years she was incapacitated and housebound.”
Not long after her diagnosis, she contacted a magazine editor to see if she could write something for them. They assigned her an article and gave no specific deadline. Hillenbrand did phone interviews from bed, and explained, “Because looking at the page made the room shimmy crazily around me, I could write only a paragraph or two a day…It took me six weeks to write fifteen hundred words.”
Believe it or not, for as sick as Laura Hillenbrand had been, that was progress.
Later she dove into her research for Seabiscuit. For an article in The New Yorker, she wrote:
If I looked down at my work, the room spun, so I perched my laptop on a stack of books in my office, and [her boyfriend] Borden jerry-rigged a device that held documents vertically. When I was too tired to sit at my desk, I set the laptop up on my bed. When I was too dizzy to read, I lay down and wrote with my eyes closed. Living in my subjects’ bodies, I forgot about my own.
Even with limits, we can put our own writing first. With creativity and intention, we can prioritize our work and make progress.
You Don’t Need All Day
You may recall the story I told of Andre Dubus III, which I heard on The Creative Nonfiction Podcast with Brendon O’Meara. He wanted to write a novel, but his kids were young, they had a tiny apartment, he had two jobs—teaching as an adjunct professor followed by carpentry work. When would he have time to write?
He woke at 5:00 a.m., drove to a graveyard not far from his house, parked there, and wrote longhand in a notebook. After about 17 minutes, he had to go to work for the day at first one job, then another, and on the way home he’d stop at that same graveyard and write for another 17 minutes.
After three years of daily writing sessions that added up to 34 minutes a day, he filled 22 notebooks. And those notebooks contained the beginning, middle, and end of The House of Sand and Fog, the novel that made him known.
“So at the height of our young, struggling family life, I was able to write an entire novel,” he said. “Anyone can do it. You don’t need all day.”
Exactly. You don’t need all day. You just need to figure out ways to put your own writing first.
One way or another, through routines or binge-writing, in slivers or blocks of time, with however much or little energy you have, put your own writing first.
Put something on the calendar right now. Set that time apart for your work, your words, your story, your project.
- Interview with Shawn Smucker (Ep 171)
- The Paris Review issue with Ernest Hemingway’s “The Art of Fiction” interview
- “Want to Be a Successful Writer? Rise Early,” The Telegraph
- “The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers,” James Clear
- “Binge Writing – reclaim your route to writing productivity,” Bec Evans for Prolifiko
- “Leaving frailty behind: A conversation with Laura Hillenbrand,” Stanford Medicine
- “A Sudden Illness,” The New Yorker
- Ep 113: An Easy Solution for the Writer with Big Goals and Little Time (using voice-to-text apps)
- The Creative Nonfiction Podcast with Brendon O’Meara, interview with Andre Dubus III
- Ann’s Patreon account
- All podcast episodes
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