A Writer’s Routine

Each writer has a routine, because the act of writing demands a place and time. Sitting down to work requires separating from the actual world and entering the world of the story, and routine aids the transition. This routine can be as varied as, say, where and when one sits down to work, or what one chooses to wear. Richard Russo has said he prefers writing in his local coffee shop. Camille Paglia cannot write without first donning a white T-shirt and a pair of clean white socks. Stuart Dybek often writes to music. Joyce Carol Oates has, for decades, written between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., a schedule she has rarely deviated from and which has over the years produced the sheaves of pages she for which she is well known. Michael Chabon has said his best work is done at night, sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. Whatever the surroundings or schedule, writers need constancy; it supplies the structure that holds the unknown. In my non-writing life, I dislike routine and prefer variety in my days. Yet when it comes to fiction, I need routine. So with apologies to Marcel Proust, I’ll just say that for a long time, I’ve gotten up early. Most days my alarm is set at five a.m., because my best writing is done at daybreak.

I began writing early when my daughter was an infant. In those days, she went to sleep at eight o’clock and I would too, falling exhausted into bed. The next morning, while she was still sleeping, I’d sit down to work. In his book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler advocates the early shift for writers because of its proximity to the unconscious. That’s where all the connections are, he argues, and recommends waking and going directly to the work—no internet, no radio, no newspaper—and using an auto-timed coffee pot to brew the coffee in advance. For me, the morning’s work often starts just before sleep, as I’m going over a problem with a character or imagining a scene. As the conscious world slips away, the fictional one becomes more vivid, and problems that are intractable by day are solved once the real driver in the brain, the unconscious, can get to it.

I like writing early, but not only for proximity to the unconscious. An hour’s work on the early shift can equal three done at a later time of day. I remember being advised in graduate school to give the best part of my day to the work, and rising does just that, and gives the work the best hours I have.

At five a.m., just ahead of the winter solstice the stars are still visible, even with light pollution and a waxing gibbous moon in the western sky. Orion is pinned to the south and alongside it, Sirius blinks greenish blue. As Mr. Butler instructs, I have the coffee ready. There’s no auto-timed pot, but the cone and kettle have been readied the night before and the brewing goes quickly. The only sound in the house is the chordal hum of the appliances, and outside, the interstate runs like a distant river, commuters heading to San Francisco as I’m sitting down to work.

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