This is no. 82 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Maya Angelou rented herself a hotel room and went off to it every morning at six-thirty. Susan Sontag forbade herself from reading until the evening. Kafka wrote all night. Capote wrote laying down all day. Virginia Woolf wrote standing up. Gertrude Stein wrote outside, in the countryside, preferably while looking at a cow. Alice Munro wrote when her children napped. Robert Lowell worked in bed with a bottle of milk. Auden used speed. Didion needed an hour before dinner with a drink to go over the day’s work. Ntozake Shange wrote with Perrier and a glass of wine at a cafe during off-hours.
I have one friend who washes her hands before she sits down to write. Another friend gets up at the crack of dawn. A third friend works by word-count quotas and keeps a sticky note next to her so she can note the incremental increases: five hundred words here, two hundred words there.
I have no daily habits or routines, other than coffee and walking the dog. For years I’ve tried. There was a period of time in graduate school when I wrote from ten to one on either side of the clock, but that became less feasible once I had a partner. For long stretches I’ll make myself write a few pages right when I wake up, a version of the “morning pages” in Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way, a pseudo spiritual guide to sorting out your creativity problems that’s popular among writers and artists I know—but then I’ll stop. At the beginning of this year, I wrote a note to myself declaring the intention to start with my own writing first (as opposed to e-mail or contract work) and to begin with five minutes of meditation for focus. I do not do this. If I were to look back over my notebooks from the last five years, I’d find failed attempt after failed attempt to make myself a schedule, to develop a program, to devise some infrastructure for the nebulous work of materializing thoughts and arranging them in words.
Many writers I know are strange and obsessive about the notion of keeping a schedule, even and especially when they don’t. I am one of those. I imagine it will make writing easier, because for me at least writing feels not just technically difficult but spiritually difficult. It feels as extractive as it is expressive. Routine, I suspect, would alleviate this, or at least get me more inured to it. It would make me more productive, maybe. It would make my labor more legible as labor, not only to the world but to myself. Sitting at a desk at appointed hours, like the rest of the desk-bound workforce—in other words cosplaying work as others perform it—might mitigate the suspicion that my chosen vocation, which involves spending a lot of time motionlessly staring into space, is too loose and diaphanous to be real work. Elizabeth Gilbert keeps a “militaristic” schedule, waking up at four-thirty and writing all morning, on the theory that you can’t choose when the muse shows up; if you show up you’ve done your part. This sounds right and totally soothing to me.
I’ve never managed it. Something about my personality refuses it and insists I work in spurts, at random hours, crashing deadlines and taking ill-advised breaks and wasting just so much time. And of course there is no right way to have a writing schedule; of course brilliant writers have written at all hours and according to all manner of quirky or mundane habits; of course the only thing anyone cares about in the end is whether you wrote and whether it’s any good. But it’s continued to bother and fascinate me, this question of managing writing by tightly managing time. But then last night I happened to read (for work, at 11:45 PM) the latest book by Eileen Myles, which is a slim volume that’s sort of about being a writer and a lot about having an apartment, and Myles wrote something that broke over me like a huge wave of relief: “Literature is wasted time.”
It really takes so much time to become a writer and you have to be able to roll in time itself, that was my experience, it seems to me, like a dog likes to roll in dead fish at the beach. Or a dog (my dog) stands in the shit of a stable underneath the body of a horse (trembling) and feels awe. Cause there’s so much shit and there’s so much horse.
Reading this was startling and clarifying. The Schedule, or whatever I’m imagining when I comb the archives of Daily Routines (an excellent blog, if you’re into snooping the day planners of dead writers—which clearly I am), makes time and writing very tidy. Writing isn’t very tidy, which my inner time-anarchist seems to have always known. Writing—or the writing that feels good coming out of my hands—is much more like trembling, like awe, or even like shit. It bears the mark of abundance, a so-muchness of time, thought, sensation; you can roll around in it. It gets to feel like forever.
Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas.Thumbnail: Daniele Levis Pelusi