If you’re a writer, you hear a lot of advice on how to craft a consistent writing routine.
“Get up at four in the morning and write for two hours.”
“When everyone’s gone to bed, pour yourself a glass of wine or whiskey and write into the deep of the night.”
“Treat writing like a day job: write from 9-6 every day.”
After reading Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, it’s clear there’s no universal, ideal time to write. Some writers work late at night into the wee hours of the morning. Others prefer to be up before the dawn while everyone is still asleep. Others, like Jane Austen, wrote during the day while the family bustled around the house. The one constant: these renowned writers found times and work habits that worked for them. They carved their writing routines with their individual natures in mind.
While I worked through Daily Rituals, it was a relief to read through all the different routines. It was comforting to know I didn’t have to stick to a “golden time” to get my best work done. I am a chameleon writer. Depending on what’s going on in my life, I can write in the early morning or late at night. But, it has to be one or the other. I can’t write at night and early in the morning without hitting burnout. Since I work a 9:00-5:00 job, I’ve found it’s easier if I wake up early and get my writing done while I’m fresh. By 5:30 p.m., I’m too drained to rally for a late-night writing session.
So, at this stage in my writing life, I’m a dedicated early bird. It was helpful to read the writing routines of other early birds – I enjoyed their quirks and tips, and offered me a sense of solidarity in my routine. When I wake up in the dark, brew a cup of hot tea, and rub my eyes with weariness, I know many greats have come before me. So, if you’re also a lark who rises with the sun to get to work, you’re in good company. Here are seven celebrated authors with early bird writing routines.
Maya Angelou rose at 5:30 a.m. to have coffee with her husband before heading off to a hotel room to start writing by 7:00 a.m. She preferred the stark, drab aesthetics of hotel rooms.
“I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous.”
When 2 p.m. rolled around, Angelou would head home, read over what she’d written, and then “try to put it out of my mind.” She’d enjoy dinner and a drink with her husband, and “[m]aybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.”
One of my favorite quotes from O’Connor is, “Routine is a condition of survival.” This is particularly poignant in light of her lupus diagnosis in 1951. The bold fiction writer rose everyday at 6:00 a.m., had breakfast and coffee with her mother, attended 7:00 a.m. mass, and began writing around 9:00 a.m.
She wrote from nine until noon everyday, and by the afternoon, usually producing just three pages, her energy was spent. Lupus caused her to experience fatigue, mental fog, and flu like symptoms, so her afternoons were spent on hobbies (like raising her famous peacocks), visitors, and painting. In the evening, she’d read recite prayers or read theology which she said, “makes my writing bolder.” She was in bed by 9:00 p.m. and was “always glad to get there.”
I first learned of Trollope’s meticulous writing routine in Stephen King’s (another early bird) On Writing. King uses Trollope as an example of what you can produce when you do the work and sit down to write every day. Trollope produced forty-seven novels and sixteen books of nonfiction while also maintaining his job as a civil servant at the General Post Office. While employed at the Post Office, he invented the iconic British post box (pillar box), which are still in use all over Britain today.
So how did Trollope manage to produce 63 books, nurture a career he enjoyed, and ideate an invention that fundamentally changed the British postal service? Routine.
The novelist began writing every day at 5:30 a.m., and in his practice, he allowed himself “no mercy.” He paid his groom an extra five pounds per year to show up early with coffee, and the groom never wavered. “I do not know that I ought not to feel that I owe more to him than to any one else for the success I have had,” Trollope wrote in his autobiography.
By beginning his practice at 5:30 in the morning, Trollope could write for three hours, producing about ten pages before breakfast.
“All those I think who have lived as literary men,— working daily as literary labourers,— will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.” If Trollope finished a project before his morning hours were up, he’d place a period on the last sentence, pull the sheet of paper from the typewriter, put the finished manuscript aside, and begin a new novel, working until his three hours were up.
Simone de Beauvoir
Like Trollope, Beauvoir was an every day early bird writer. She got to work by 10 a.m. and worked until lunch around 1 p.m. Her morning routine was so habitual that it was often uncomfortable for her to take a vacation. One of her lovers, the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, said of her routine: “There was the presence only of essentials. It was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work.”
As a married man with a young daughter, Cheever treated writing somewhat like a job. In the morning while other men were heading to the office, Cheever put on a suit, took the elevator down to his apartment building’s basement. He would then strip down to his boxers and compose until lunch, when he would ride the elevator back up to his apartment.
Cheever battled alcoholism most of his adult life, and his writing sessions grew shorter and shorter as his addiction grew worse. “The hour between five and six is my best,” he wrote in his journal. “It is dark. A few birds sing. I feel contented and loving. My discontents begin at seven, when light fills the room. I am unready for the day—unready to face it soberly, that is.”
If Edith Sitwell was writing today, I hope she'd ignore all the productivity and sleep hygiene advice flooding the web that warns: never work in bed! Sitwell wrote in bed, starting between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m.
When she was in “flow,” she might stay in bed and work until the afternoon until she was spent and “all I can do is lie on my bed with my mouth open.” I feel you, Edith.
And there you have it, you earlybird writers. Bask in the solidarity of these great larks! And of course, there are many more larks than just these seven writers. After reading Currey’s book, it’s clear that many writers were most productive in the early hours of the day. I attribute this to brain science and the science of “when,” but more on that in a later blog post.
There are also many writers who flourished by writing at night or by treating their literary work like a 9-5 career. Stay tuned for my next post on night owl writers!
So what’s the common thread? These great writers were devoted to a writing routine and schedule that worked for them, sometimes to the point of obsession (I’m looking at you, Trollope!).
What does your writing schedule look like? Have you experimented with different times during the day or night? Tell me your stories in the comments.
Mason Currey (2013-04-23). Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.