When Should I Write?
by Eric M. Witchey
At a recent conference, I mentioned a number of brain-based techniques I use for production. Several people asked me the perennial question, “When should I write?” I wish I had the answer to that question. I wish it were an easy answer. What I know is that there are two kinds of people… Since there are two kinds of people, there are also two kinds of writers. I know careful, thoughtful writers and intuitive, insightful writers. Of course, I also know that any time I talk about two kinds of anything, I’m getting it wrong and tossing out an entire world of insights that might be useful.
Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, works from an exclusively cognitive or intuitive position. The most hard-core researching, obsessive, analytic writer still has moments where “it came to me that….” The most touchy-feely, woo-woo, let the muse flow through them, channeling characters writer also has moments when they look at their own prose and make conscious decisions about how to revise based on experience or principle. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.
The cold, hard facts are that no two people are exactly alike and no two stories require exactly the same mix of cognitive and intuitive attention. This morning, I wrote a short story in less than an hour. Last week, I wrote a short story of the same length (only 1500 words). It took me twelve hours, including a lot of research, analysis, and revision. Writing fiction always requires a mix of analytic and intuitive skills.
Have you ever notice that doctors tend to miss the fact that all bodies are built differently? Each of us has different thresholds for pain, sensitivity to light, fears, and anxieties. Did you ever wonder how anybody gets good healthcare since all treatments are designed to provide relief and improvement to the average patient as determined in clinical trials?
Doctors are lucky. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to trust them to know what they’re doing. Readers will not tolerate a story based on statistical averages. Each of us is different, and each of us must modify our writing processes and practices to fit our own body, mind, and lifestyle. If we don’t, our work will not be tolerated by our readers.
Certainly, we can modify our lifestyles to support our writing habits, but that’s a life management class. In this blog entry, I want to make sure of two things. First, I want to make sure that writers empower the person who knows their psychology and physiology best. I want them to put that person is in charge of how and when they write. So, you, and only you, must evaluate your performance and make adjustments as needed.
While we can engage in cognitive and intuitive workouts to build both sets of skills and improve the communication between the parts of the brain that engage during the different modes of work, we each still have to bow to our own, personal work styles, experience, and developmental quirks. Since no two of us are the same, nobody can really tell us exactly how the mix should work for any one of us. The only person that can make that determination for a writer is that writer.
Is analytic work easier for you in the morning, the evening, or the afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it. Is intuitive work easier for you in the morning, evening, or afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it.
We can take some guidance from study statistics that report physiological averages.
The averages say that intuitive work is easiest in the first 90 minutes after we wake up. If you need that time to write but fill 90 minutes with a shower, making breakfast, making coffee and reading the paper, you’ve lost that optimum time forever that day. If that’s your creative time, you need to ask yourself what you can do to take advantage of your best creative brain state right after sleeping. You may even ask yourself when (and if) you can take naps during the day in order to restart that brain state.
The averages say that our cognitive skills are strongest in early and late afternoon. Mine simply are not. I’m stupid as hell in the afternoon (except when I’m teaching because then I’m hyped on adrenaline and caffeine). Should you be doing your plot analysis at 2pm? Should you be doing your editing after 1pm? I can’t answer for other writers. I can only say that experimentation will help them decide what will work best for them.
The averages say that our repetitive task skills are least interfered with by other influences in the evening. Uh, that might be a great time for spell checking, eh?
I can’t answer the question, “When should I write?” I can tell people when I write and why. My personal physiology and schedule work something like this on a perfect fiction writing day:
- AM 6:00 to 9:30: Protein (one egg), vitamins, speed writing warm-up (imagination exercise and technique practice). I then engage in composition for current projects.
- 9:30: meditation. Email check and respond. Shower
- 10:00: small snack. Often, it’s a handful of nuts.
- 10:10-12:00: Some composition. Some revision.
- PM 12:00-12:30: Lunch (protein). I eat light and avoid carbs at lunch unless I plan to stop working. If I snack, I snack on jerky or nuts because protein allows me to stay alert. Carbohydrates put me to sleep. Different people respond differently.
- 12:30-2:30: Email check and respond. Revisions.
- 2:30: Nap or Exercise if I can. The time for this varies throughout the year based on my needs.
- 3:00-5 or 6: Revisions and/or technical writing/course development/article writing.
- 5 or 6: Relax, prep dinner, eat.
- 6:00 to bedtime: Household activities, reading, movies.
- 10:30 or 11:00: sleep.
I manage my writing to match the fact that my brain is at its most creative early in the day. Even after a nap, I don’t get a full reset of my creative powers. The later in the day it gets, the more I move toward revision and analysis type tasks. Good food and a good night’s sleep are a critical part of my time management. Naps and meditation are part of my productivity process. Loading my brain with writerly thoughts and happy thoughts before bed is important to me. I often skim through silly web sites like I Can Has Cheezburger just before sleep. Exercise is important, even if it’s only a walk to the post office, and only injury keeps me from it. I know these things about myself, so I plan my day based on my experiences with my own mind and body. Only you can know yourself well enough to plan your writing day.
Remember that I said I wanted to make sure of two thing? The second thing is that I want to make sure that you, my dear writer friend, take time to seriously answer the question, “When should I write?”