“Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight.”—Avi Steinberg, “Is Writing Torture?”
Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.
“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
I’ve systematically built these principles into the way I write. For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.
Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran. This generated mental and emotional renewal, but also turned out to be a time in which some of my best ideas came to me, unbidden. Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.
… in her new book, “Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing,” Margaret Atwood poses three questions to herself and other novelists: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? And where does it come from?
Mr. McEwan answered them in quick succession: “I think you could only do it for yourself under the assumption that if you like it, someone else might like it, too. Why do it? I think it’s impossible not to. Not to write seems to me to be a gross rebuke of the gift of consciousness. Where does it come from? You have to dig fairly deeply and relax your control of it … [Fiction] is a random, associative business, just the white noise of daydreaming thought.”
In my study, I set the mug next to my writing chair, across the room from my desk. My computer is at my desk, connected to the internet by a short thick blue cable. I unplug the cable and carry the laptop to my writing chair, where the blue cable does not reach. I sit down, free from the endless electronic niggling of the internet. My computer is now empty of anyone’s thoughts but my own.
Sometimes I read a bit, to enter into a sensibility that’s useful for whatever I’m working on. I read “The Journals of John Cheever” while I wrote “This Is My Daughter.” I read “Anna Karenina” while I wrote “Sweetwater.” I read “The Hours” while I wrote “Cost.” I read “Atonement” while I was writing “Sparta.” I came to know those books very well. I could open them anywhere and know the passage. I broke the spine of Atonement, though I only read one section of it, over and over.
I read a page or two, then close the book.
This is the moment. On a good day I’m now where I need to be, still in that deep dreaming place, where I can listen.
“I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”—Philip Roth
“In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.”—Jeffrey Eugenides (read the whole thing here)
“The desire to matter as much as we once did to our mother is at the broken heart of all narcissistic endeavour, whether it’s writing novels, tweeting or carrying the right kind of handbag. Writing fiction is the symptom of many psychological distortions – a terror of mortality among them – the most poignant of which is a longing for perfect recognition, perfect understanding. This is the illusion hovering at the end of every painstakingly edited line. There was a time when Franzen’s mother imitated his “wuh” sound, mimicked his O-shaped gape, as if it was a work of genius, as if it mattered to the culture. The secret motivation of even the most gifted writer may be to enjoy this again – this is our blueprint for the experience of mattering – and “writer’s block” is perhaps a fancy way of describing the moments in which this seems impossible.”—Talitha Stevenson
“It is now 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying that the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there will never be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost.”—George Orwell, 1949 notebook entry (via)
“One of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease. And that disease—I’ve seen other people get it, too—it’s the disease of thinking that having a great idea is really ninety percent of the work. And if you just tell people, ‘Here’s this great idea,’ then of course they can go off and make it happen. The problem with that is that there’s a tremendous amount of craftsmanship between having a great idea and having a great product.”—Steve Jobs (via david)
Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”
I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”
Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”
“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.”— William James, Habit