I met a good friend from my Yahoo! days for lunch yesterday. As always, we ate at a ramen restaurant on Castro Street in Mountain View. She’s made big plans for 2017: quitting her job, moving back to Asia with family, buying a house…when asked what my New Year’s big plan was, I said, half-jokingly, that I would like to go to bed before 11:30pm.
I had said the same thing last year, and probably the year before that. But so far this simple resolution is still a mirage. Motherhood is certainly demanding, but I have myself to blame too. After putting my two kids to bed every night, I do have some time for myself. But there’s always a lot to take care of, if not doing housework, paying bills, replying to emails, then it’s something else. Sometimes I like to watch a bit TV while cycling on my stationary bike, usually documentaries, some of my favorites shows including Anthony Boundain’s series and other travel/cooking programs (Last night I watched an episode of CNN’s “The Eighties.”)
Before I know it, it’s midnight. Then 1 am after I get myself ready for bed and read a book for ten or fifteen minutes.
I cannot seem to break this pattern. It would be fine if I could sleep in a bit in the morning, but, of course, I need to rise early to get my kids ready for school (I’ve yet mastered the skills to make them listen). Sometimes my writing suffers due to my sleep deprivation.
Although my 2017 New Year’s resolution is about getting more sleep, it’s ultimately about establishing a writing routine and sticking to it.
I wrote a piece for Ploughshares, a literary magazine, several years ago about such a topic and I’d like to share it here as it’s still very much relevant. My current writing projects include a new novel, a nonfiction book and several short stories, so discipline is definitely vital for me.
I was awakened at 3:36 a.m. by my daughter’s crying. I went to her room and lay down beside her, as I always do when she wakes up in the middle of the night. Half an hour later she fell sleep, while I was wide awake. I thought about Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which I just finished reading and liked, and about the book that had been percolating in my mind for months yet hadn’t been started because I hadn’t figured out a satisfactory opening. I also thought about my agent’s email concerning the difficulty of translation, my best friend’s upcoming wedding and my aunt’s declining health. When I finally drifted off, dawn was breaking. At 7 a.m. my daughter got up. So did I, from a fragmented and nonsense dream, feeling as though I had a terrible hangover. The whole next day, I felt miserable because I hadn’t written a word.
Such a day has been typical since I became a parent. Some nights, after I put my daughter back to sleep, I went to my study to write, but most of the time I was too tired–or should I say too lazy?–to get up. My story probably sounds familiar to writers with small children. More than once, I heard sighs and complaints from writer friends who, like me, are new parents.
But I mustn’t blabber about interrupted sleep and reduced productivity. This post is about the importance of establishing a writing routine. We always have millions of excuses for not having the time or energy to write–writing undeniably requires physical and mental strength–but, in truth, as soon as we sit at our desk at a familiar time we always feel better. A writing routine is comforting. It makes us more efficient and helps us stick to our task.
I used to have a routine. Wake at 6 a.m., have a cup of green tea, write until 8:30 a.m., shower, dress, have a quick breakfast, then leave for work (the job that paid my bills) at 9 a.m. In the evening, if I didn’t have to work late, I wrote for an hour or two then read before going to bed. I didn’t realize how crucial such a routine was for my writing until my daughter arrived. Suddenly, my well-planned schedule was messed up. I lost my discipline. After all, lying in bed and letting the mind wander take less effort than getting up to write.
Many writers have routines. Hemingway got up at dawn and worked until he had exhausted all he had to say for that day. Toni Morrison is also an early riser, a habit first formed when she had small children, and writes best in early mornings. An insurance agent during the day, Kafka wrote from 11 p.m. until the small hours. When Steinbeck was writing his “To a God Unknown,” he habitually wrote 3,000 words each morning.
Consider Haruki Murakami’s typical working day: “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1,500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation.”
When it comes to discipline, I must mention my friend John Joss. For many years, as a devoted father of three children, he wrote daily from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., before heading to his day job. I asked him if it was hard to do and he replied, “If you take writing seriously, you must do it.” He also admitted that once the routine was formed, he looked forward to rising early to write. The routine helped him avoid writer’s block, of which he said, “Start writing on your project now. Put down the first thought or idea that comes to mind, however seemingly simplistic or inappropriate. Nothing is crueler to a writer than the tyranny of the blank page or screen. Once you have set something down, anything, you have broken the block and can proceed.”
Building a writing routine is easier said than done. If you have a regular job and small children, the challenge is even more daunting. What if you have nothing to say when facing your computer or a blank page at 4 a.m.? Should you go back to sleep or wait for the Muse? You have probably heard Jack London’s advice: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” As encouraged as you may be by those famous writers’ dedication, it makes no sense to impose their schedules on yourself. The best way is to find a routine that suits you best. Try different hours of the day until you find a feasible, though not necessarily most convenient, time. Of course, if you can write any time you have available, you’re fortunate.
P.S. The featured photo is that of my two cats, Leo and Kasper, twin brothers, who love to snuggle and purr, and who are serious about their sleeping.