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Early to Bed

   Until very recently, I was in the habit of getting up around six in the morning. The idea was to leave the house early enough so that I could arrive at my office by 8 or 8:30 and get an early start to my writing. 

   It didn’t always work out that way. 
   With young children, there is usually something or someone to distract you. Last week, the elder of our two boys came down with a bad cold and was spewing forth from three different orifices. Just when one mess got cleaned up, there was another to attend to. Meanwhile the younger was going stir-crazy after being cooped up day after day and wanted desperately to go out for a walk, even if it was for only ten minutes. If you unlocked the front door, he’d make a go for it and before you know it, he would have climbed down sixth flights of steps to the first floor. Adding to the grief, my wife was exhausted from dealing with the boys and started coming down with a bad cold herself.
   A week passed and everyone was feeling better and our older boy had returned to kindergarten. Hooray! Looking back on the previous seven days, though, I realized I hadn’t got nearly as much writing done as I had hoped.
   Before our second boy came along, I was getting to the office at eight and writing for about three to four hours or until I had class. After he was born, my arrival time varied from day to day. Eight o’clock one day, nine the next. I also found that when I got to work I wasn’t getting quality writing done because, one, there were too many distractions at work (mail, other teachers, lesson preparation, and so on), and, two, the forty to fifty minute commute1 took its toll on me.
   So, I thought long and hard for quite a few months and, after much hesitation, decided that now was the time to change.
   As a writer, I have long been fascinated by how other, much more successful, writers went about their day. Winston Churchill’s routine was the one which most closely resembled mine. Only instead of cigars, I smoked a nargileh, and instead of champagne and high balls, I tended to drink dark rum.
   "Despite all this activity Churchill’s daily routine changed little during these years. He awoke about 7:30 a.m. and remained in bed for a substantial breakfast and reading of mail and all the national newspapers. For the next couple of hours, still in bed, he worked, dictating to his secretaries.
   "At 11:00 a.m., he arose, bathed, and perhaps took a walk around the garden, and took a weak whisky and soda to his study.
   "At 1:00 p.m. he joined guests and family for a three-course lunch. Clementine drank claret, Winston champagne, preferable Pol Roger served at a specific temperature, port brandy and cigars. When lunch ended, about 3:30 p.m. he returned to his study to work, or supervised work on his estate, or played cards or backgammon with Clementine.
   "At 5:00 p.m., after another weak whisky and soda, he went to be[d] for an hour and a half. He said this siesta, a habit gained in Cuba, allowed him to work 1 1/2 days in every 24 hours. At 6:30 p.m. he awoke, bathed again, and dressed for dinner at 8:00 p.m.
   "Dinner was the focal-point and highlight of Churchill’s day. Table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal. Sometimes, depending on the company, drinks and cigars extended the event well past midnight. The guests retired, Churchill returned to his study for another hour or so of work.” For more, go here or here.
   In the 1960s, my hero, Kurt Vonnegut, taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In a letter, dated September 28, 1965 to his wife, who remained in Cape Cod with their six children, he described his daily routine:
 "Dearest Jane,
  "In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken."
   Ernest Hemingway described his routine as follows: "When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through."
 E. B. White: "I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."
   In his interview with The Paris Review, Gabriel García Márquez said this: 
   "I do find it harder to write now than before, both novels and journalism. When I worked for newspapers, I wasn’t very conscious of every word I wrote, whereas now I am. When I was working for El Espectador in Bogotá, I used to do at least three stories a week, two or three editorial notes every day, and I did movie reviews. Then at night, after everyone had gone home, I would stay behind writing my novels. I liked the noise of the Linotype machines, which sounded like rain. If they stopped, and I was left in silence, I wouldn’t be able to work. Now, the output is comparatively small. On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day."
   And then there’s Murakami Haruki. In an interview also with The Paris Review,2 he said:
   "When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity."
   Murakami always seemed a bit to spartan for my tastes, but I could appreciate his method. The man is, after all, wildly prolific. He has not only written thirteen not so short novels, four collections of short stories, numerous works of nonfiction, and several collections of essays, he has also translated more than sixty works, including the complete oeuvre of Raymond Carver. The man is a machine, and even if you don’t like his writing style, you still have to admire how dedicated he is to the art of writing.
   And I wanted some of that mojo. 
   So, as of Monday this week, I have been getting up at four-thirty and planting my arse in front of my MacBook Pro by five in the morning and staying there until eight or so. 
   Four days in, and I am hooked. Am I sleepy? You bet! But, there is no better time to write than early in the morning when there are no distractions, no noises, no needs niggling you except the need to write and write and write. 
   The only downside of waking up at four-thirty is that I am ready to crawl into bed around ten. When you work until past nine-thirty in the evening, as I sometimes do, this can be awkward. I suspect that in another week or so, I will have completely adjusted to the new schedule and will be able to get through the evenings with fewer yawns. (Knock on wood.)
   An unexpected benefit of waking early is that I don’t have much time to drink in the evening. I do enjoy a nice stiff drink, but it has never really been good for my productivity or creativity.
   Anyways, if all goes well, I may take up Murakami’s challenge and start waking up at four to write. (Stay tuned!)
1. It never really occurred to me that my commute was what could be called “long” until a German friend visited me and was astonished by how long it took me to get to work. I use the time to catch up on the news, listen to podcasts, and read, so it’s not as if the ninety minutes I spend on the train every day is a complete waste.
2. The Paris Review's Art of Fiction series is a must read for writers and bibliophiles, alike.

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