Concocting a Writing Routine
Last month I read Haruki Murakami’s new book, Novelist as a Vocation. In a chapter called “So What Should I Write About?” he gives advice about observing the world around you, gathering details about people and places. And he says this: “You gather these bits, affix a simple label (place, time, situation) and mentally file them away in your personal chest of drawers. It is possible, of course, to jot them down on a notepad or something of the sort, but I prefer to trust my mind.” HE PREFERS TO TRUST HIS MIND. A bit later in the same chapter he says, “Come to think of it, there have been very few situations when I wished I had a notepad on me. Something truly important is not that easy to forget once you’ve entrusted it to your memory.”
Well, gosh. The number of times I have thought of some brilliant tidbit to add to a book, or a mindblowing new book idea, only to forget it in the 48 seconds it takes to find a pencil, is…well it’s a high number. One I should keep track of on a piece of paper.
He is talking specifically here about remembering details about people or places, and it’s true that I don’t take notes on, like, human people in front of me who are interesting, because that would be socially bizarre, but it’s also clear that Murakami is generally anti-portable-notepad. I bring index cards in my pockets, have a notebook in every bag, in my car, in every drawer, by my bed, and still sometimes write notes on the back of my hand. And he just…doesn’t have to.
Ok, I thought, why doesn’t he have to? What makes Murakami so remembery? And Falatko so forgetful? He must have some kind of super brain, I thought. And then I thought: I bet he’s not on Twitter (ok, I checked, I think he is on there, but extremely inactive). Then I wondered what his daily routine is like.
This is his routine: he wakes up at 4 am. He writes for 5 or 6 hours. Then he runs a 10k or swims 1500 meters (or both), listens to music or reads, and goes to bed by 9 pm.
Googling for his daily routine also led me to this great post where writer Mel Burke spent five days testing out five different authors’ writing routines. By the end of the week, she was pretty fried, but I couldn’t help noticing how much writing she got done.
And I looked at my own day and realized that I, a writer, do not have a writing routine. You’d think, after reading all of’s Daily Rituals books and numerous writer’s memoirs and obsessing over all of the notebooks that posts about, that I would have more of an established routine. Instead I looked at my own day and realized it could best be described as loosey-goosey. Closer to Eric Satie’s satirical daily routine than to Murakami’s actual one.
I got writing done, but I worried it was like a weird version of Michael Pollan’s how-to-eat precept. I was like: Do the work, make it deep, but not too much.
Then I realized the problem was that I was looking at other people’s routines instead of seeing what already existed as my own. I love reading writing-craft books so I can break off useful pieces and try them, and yet I was looking at other people’s daily creative routines and feeling inadequate because mine wasn’t exactly like any of theirs. I forgot that I’m allowed to make it my own.
There are so many societal myths about writers writing in a passionate creative flow, in solitude, ignoring everything in service of creativity. I know those notions are myths, but there’s a part of me that thinks that that’s the true way to get writing done.
Why was I comparing my routine to Murakami’s? We have very different lives. Maybe the only thing we have in common is that we’re both writers.
As soon as I stopped comparing my day to other writers on an hour-by-hour basis, I realized that, in fact, I have a heck of a writing routine. I’ll share it with you, but you have to promise not to feel bad if yours is nothing like mine. I’ll note also that I’m a morning person, and I’ve always been a morning person, and I think it’s important to know what time of day you work best. I don’t think you need to become a morning person if you’re not already one.
So: I get up around 4:30 and drink coffee and do morning pages. I exercise (usually a 6:00 spin class). (Moving first thing does two things for me: 1. I truly think it helps my brain, and 2. I’ve already done a hard thing when I eventually sit down at my desk.) The period when I get back from exercise is this important yet maddening block of time. I could, theoretically, go straight to my desk. That might prioritize my creativity in a life-affirming way. But that’s not what works, ultimately. Instead I empty the dishwasher. I greet the children and make sure they have what they need to get out the door for school. I clean the coffee pot, walk the dog, shower, and eat breakfast.1 Sometimes I stretch. Sometimes I meditate. Then – and it’s between 8:30 and 10:00 at this point – I go to my writing shed and start writing. I work for anywhere from one to three hours on writing, both fiction and essays for this newsletter. After lunch I work more on administrative tasks (anything from website maintenance to bill paying to birthday present purchasing). I get more writing done if I can, and I do work-related reading. At 5:00 I make my to-do list for the next day, and make sure I close out the email and messages tabs on my desktop computer, so if I need to type something up the next morning, I’m not distracted by incoming messages until I’m ready.
I know enough about my life to know this routine will change. It has changed drastically over the years, and I’m sure it will change more. That’s fine.
Still: there is Haruki Murakami, remembering things without taking notes. I look at his writing routine and it looks like a made-up example of what a day of creative deep work looks like, the kind that would lead to inspiration and remembering things. I’m following through on the goal idea I was batting around at the end of last year — my writing goal for 2023 is to get the words down. Quantity and volume. I know that it’s only by writing as much as I can, that I’ll become a better writer. So one change I have in mind is to increase my deep work sessions and get in the flow more.
A routine, even something you’re calling a daily routine, doesn’t have to happen every day. Murakami’s up-at-4-write-for-six-hours routine only happens when he’s actively working on a novel. His days look a bit different when he’s between novels. Know that you need some kind of routine to get writing work done, but don’t get too down if your day goes differently.
My writing routine was delayed several hours yesterday due to having to chip ice off all our steps and walkways. Cosmo helped. I did the writing work I could, but it was less than I had planned on.
It’s so easy to look at words like routine and rituals and think that the facts of your day need to be special, prescribed, orderly, and interesting. About the only thing they really do have to be is intentional. Maybe you also have a few hours in your day when you need to clean the kitchen and make dinner, when you need to pay bills and organize tax documents. The routine and ritual comes out of looking at your to-do list and making sure there is some time in there, even if it’s small, for creativity. And then: how does that feel? Was it enough? Did you write until you were getting tired and having trouble coming up with more? Or did you wish you had set aside more time? Adjust accordingly. And tell me in the comments if you have any kind of creative routine!
One problem before I really examined all this was that I had gotten into the habit of eating breakfast at my desk and checking my email, and once I started replying to email and reading articles online, it was hard to uncouple from the internet and get deep into writing. So now I eat breakfast at the dining room table and read the newspaper or a book instead, so I don’t get pulled into that email checking loop.
I read somewhere once that checking email activates the part of your brain that is good at compartmentalizing and organizing (that part that tells you which emails to delete, which to file in a folder, which you’ll need to reply to later), and that those compartmentalizing and organizing parts are not the parts that let you access creative flow easily. Part of it is that you might see some email that sticks its barb into you and makes you think about how you’ll have to respond, but even if there aren’t any urgent emails, the act of seeing these little messages that you have to organize in some manner gets your brain out of the mode of coming up with plot points, character traits, and story ideas.
Behind the Paywall
Coming soon! Letters with How About This
This week is the kickoff of a three-week letter-exchange project withof . We’re calling it On Process and Place. Specifically, how does where we were raised, and where we live now, influence our creative work? We’re both white English-speaking Gen Xers, but Mark has always lived in smaller towns, and I’ve always lived in what are technically small cities, but might more rightly be called suburbs. Mark lives in Atlantic Canada, I was raised in New Jersey and now live in Maine (both on the East Coast of the United States). Mark’s first letter went up today, all about the local television shows he watched as a kid. I’m already jealous about Switchback!
Thoughts and Links
I graduated from high school in 1989, and I spent the summer after graduation riding around Martha's Vineyard in the passenger seat of my friend Naomi's red Datsun pickup truck, listening to cassettes of Lincoln by They Might Be Giants and 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul on repeat (also singing along to Closer to Fine whenever it came on the radio). I'm glad 3 Feet High and Rising will finally be available on streaming platforms this year.
Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) showed up on this We Are Teachers list of 26 Famous Children’s Books Every Kid Should Read. Ok!
I don't think "cancel birthdays, normalize cake" was the precise point of this Holisticism podcast episode, but that's what I'm remembering. I’m all for getting rid of having parties because we’re supposed to, and instead celebrating every glorious thing we want to. With cake.
Books I read recently and loved
Disclosure: book links in this newsletter are affiliate links to Bookshop.org, a site which supports independent bookshops.
Big Dreams, Small Fish by Paula Cohen is a gem.
I’m loving the ritual of reading the daily page in Patti Smith’s new book. She says she intended to design it like her Instagram, and being off social media, I’m appreciating this extremely curated approach to consuming thoughts and images. I support more books like this!
Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau is a fun romp of a book about a straight-laced babysitter who accidentally becomes friends with a rock star and an actress one summer. Plus my favorite literary babysat kid since Such a Fun Age.
I just read Overcoming Underearning and Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanny, and they rocked my world (I listened to them as audiobooks, though I don’t recommend the audio of Overcoming Underearning; it’s full of exercises and journaling prompts). I should probably write a whole post about money at some point, but I’m not there yet. These two books are helping to shift my money mindset though.
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