Emory Report
April 9, 2007
Volume 59, Number 26

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April 9, 2007
On writing habits and habitats

Amy benson brown directs the manuscript development program in the office of the provost.

Every now and then I’d notice the sun rising. The deep pink edge of the horizon was a kind of visual bell, signaling the end of another writing session. After saving that morning’s work on the computer, I’d grab my coffee and leave my study to start the day’s routine — getting the kids off to school and myself off to campus. Twenty-four hours of meetings, editing, soccer games, meals and a bit of sleep would fly by before I would sit down again before a blank screen in the dark.

I’d shuffle in each morning in my bathrobe, sure that this was an insane exercise and that nothing would come that day. But like the sun each morning, something regularly appeared on the screen. And some of it surprised and intrigued me. Drafting that particular book was a heady experience. As in love as I was then with that project, it was only half creative passion that got me up each day before dawn to write. The other, probably more essential part, was the mundane and underrated force of habit.

We may have to be inspired to begin to write something — an article, a poem, a book. But we don’t have to be inspired to finish it. Just relentless. This rather unsexy fact is the secret of a productive and relatively happy writing life.

Being relentless does not mean chaining yourself to your desk. Overly long writing sessions, as research on productivity shows, can lead to exhaustion, disenchantment — even depression.

Being relentless does mean coming back to your writing at a designated and recurring hour. No matter what you are feeling. Or who has the flu at your house. Or — anything. It’s non-negotiable.

Being relentless means sliding into that chair at the time you have chosen, until showing up for your writing is as much of a habit as brushing your teeth after breakfast or checking e-mail when you get to work.

Unlike the current best-selling video and book “The Secret,” this secret does not require positive thinking, an unshakeable faith in your vision — or even cheerfulness, really. Doubt is just fine. In fact, fear, loss and neurosis give most of us our best material!

This secret, in short, is not about belief. It’s about an action repeated with regularity across time. The faith required here is faith in the process. And that faith allows the lucky a glimpse of the infinite complexity of language and the miraculous collisions of words, of dead and living literary traditions. To me, that’s always worth the price of admission.

And the price here can be steep, in terms of space, time and people. Virginia Woolf long ago recommended a room of one’s own for any woman who would write fiction, and indeed, a space dedicated to writing is tremendously helpful to anyone who would write anything.

The novelist Gloria Naylor, I’ve heard, even kept at one point different desks for different projects — one for academic writing and one for fiction. A single desk works for me, but only when it occupies a room with a door I can close. I’ve tried other arrangements only to find children, my spouse and both dogs regularly popping up. A closed door tends to discourage the other creatures who share your space from intruding on your writing time. Once it is an unshakeable habit for you, it becomes a routine for those you live with too. And if that isn’t enough, try threats. You see now where the relentless part comes in.

Being relentless, however, does not mean that you must write at the same time in the same space for the rest of your life, though some do. Erik Larson, author of “Devil and the White City” and other wonderful tales, has long written early each morning. But many of us find that as seasons change, new semesters begin or projects conclude, the muse needs to go with the flow. After a year or so of pre-dawn writing on the project I mentioned earlier, for example, I had a full draft. Revising and editing turned out to be something I could do better in afternoon hours, as I received feedback.

A scholar who studies the writing process of academics, Robert Boice, suggests adjusting your habitual time for writing each semester, as the rest of your schedule fluctuates. And, of course, for even the most habitual writer, crises will burst through the closed door. Bones break; water heaters explode; babysitters take vacations. Despite such periodic upheavals, I always find that when I am in the habit of sitting down at a certain hour each day to write, I get much more done than when I wait for time and inspiration.
Inspiration, after all, is fleeting; habit endures.

The Office of the Provost is hosting a May 3 discussion for faculty on “Writing With Ease: How to Avoid Writer’s Block, Increase Productivity and Enjoy the Process.” For more information e-mail abrow01@emory.edu or egallu@emory.edu.