“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Day 56: Gargoyles in Love, or The Search for the Perfect Schedule, Part III

Monday morning I started my day writing about the gargoyles of Notre-Dame de Paris.  I was so happy and excited I wanted to yodel.
This photo was taken by my talented student, Nika Horvathova, whose photo-shoot of Paris on one of our days there with the other students was so good she was later invited to exhibit her work at St. Lawrence University's Brush Art Gallery.
This week I am test-driving the advice of another writer, Ellen Sussman, the author of the novel, French Lessons.  She wrote a piece in Poets and Writers about finding the perfect schedule for writing, and when I read it I said, "c'est moi."  Thank you, Ellen Sussman.

I had always known that the best time for me to write is early morning, coffee in hand.  Depending on what's on for the day, I set the alarm accordingly.  Ellen Sussman writes from 9-12.  Her goal is 1,000 words a day.  That's not quite four pages of regular typing, double-spaced.  Not daunting, really, and quite do-able.  If you write like this every day, you could have a draft of a book in three months.

It's not just the time you put in, you see, but how fast you go, which is another way of saying how intuitively.  I didn't understand this for a very long time.

A few years ago I met Jennifer Egan, who told me that her writing method is to fill seven legal pages by hand every morning, after she gets her kids off to school.  I think she writes by hand because she knows if she types, she'll tweak endlessly.  She just keeps going, she said, carrying the story forward, not caring, in the beginning, about the prose.  She forgives herself for bad writing and is brave and trusting and takes the story where it takes her without knowing in advance where it's going.  She has a first draft of a new book in months.

I could tell, from the way she smiled as she told me this, that what she loves most is the mystery, the not-knowing.  It's not the goal of publication that motivates her but entry into that place in her unconscious where the story dreams itself and leads her from dark cave into sunlight, a little at a time.  She has faith in her own process and follows where it leads her, even if she writes some spectacularly bad sentences on the way.

I knew when she told me this that a method like this would set me free.  I knew that I was over-thinking my writing, just like I was over-thinking everything else in my life just then.  I had written like this before, but then I changed, and I couldn't remember when, or why.  I knew that I had a deep well of imagery and oddity to work with, but something was making me too careful to jump in.  

My method then was to write for however long I had in the morning --a half hour, an hour, two--until the paragraph or pages were perfect.  I would be giddy when those words satisfied me, but inevitably, the next day, I would second-guess everything.  

I knew that this kind of perfectionism isn't supposed to come in until later, but it was just so hard to leave a writing session knowing how profoundly those sentences had sucked.  And so I tweaked endlessly.  But if beautiful sentences don't dig deep enough to hit bedrock, if they don't tell the truth and reveal the absolute oddity that is in each of us, if they don't go deep enough into the dark but linger near the surface, it's like putting a lot of makeup on a corpse.

When you make yourself keep moving forward, you make intuitive leaps.  You go to places that scare you and surprise you.  You take risks.

Back to the Ellen Sussman method.  What she does, first, is meditate.  I have been doing this too, every single day, since August, and she's absolutely right that when you start your day that way, going from dream to meditation to the page, you tap into your voice without monkey mind.  

To stay in the zone she uses a program called freedom.com that disconnects her from the internet for as many minutes as she needs.

I was reluctant to try this at first.  Why would I want to pay money ($10) to have less service than I have in our remote rural area where the internet is not reliable as it is?  What if I could never get back on the internet again?  And let's get this straight: I'm going to pay not to use google?  What if I need to know something crucial about Paris, or India, or dogs?  

And wouldn't it mean, if I signed up for freedom.com, that I was a junkie?  Well, yes.  Ellen Sussman sounds a lot like me, and I think if we met, we would be friends. If she goes to Google to find out something about Paris for her book, the next thing she knows she's planning her dream vacation.  That is exactly the kind of thing I do. And then my writing time is up, and I have to go.

So now I can't get on internet during the minutes I decide, in advance, I'm going to write.  Now I remember what it was like to live the continuous dream that is the story before we all got wi-fi, before multi-tasking while writing--while doing anything and everything--became the new normal.  

Having extra time to write would not put me in the zone.  I repeat: having extra time to write would not help me as much as being mindful and focused when I write, for however long I have.

Cutting off from the internet was actually the easy part.  The most radical (for me) of her suggestions: work in 45-minute units.  Here's the thing: I have a lifelong history of working until I drop.  I have two modes: on, and off.  If I don't exhaust myself, I've often thought, I haven't accomplished all I could.  But, she insists, we'll be more productive and we'll write better if we take a 15-minute break for each hour that we work--whatever the work. There is research to back up this claim, but I'd have to get on the internet to find it, so I'll leave that to you to do, if you don't believe it.

I know, I know, I know.  Time is short, and this morning you woke up early, and how can you justify taking a break so soon?  But I made myself stop, even though I was more deeply "in the zone" than I'd been in weeks, because I wanted to give her method a try.  On Monday, I tidied up on my studio on these breaks and made tea.  Yesterday I meditated again, and stretched.  And I came back fresh to each new 45-minute writing unit, as she had promised I would.

The dirty little secret about time is that you can have all day to write something, but if you aren't in the zone, it won't work.  Two of the best things I ever wrote I wrote quickly, in a white heat, in a room-full of people who were writing fast too, my students in one case, and fellow conference goers in another.  The first piece took me ten or fifteen minutes to write.  Months later, I found these scribbles in a notebook when I was supposed to be writing a conference paper and I thought, hey, I could really do something with this.  I edited it a little, sent it out, and won a national contest for it, then got to read it on National Public Radio.  Then it was reprinted in Harper's.  The second piece I wrote in ten minutes and hardly changed it at all and it got taken by the first journal I sent it to.  And I still like both those pieces and am so grateful I was able to write them.

What I learned from these examples is that time is not really our friend or the enemy when it comes to writing something that comes from the center.  You just have to access that clear channel.  But the best way I know to gain access to that clear channel is to sit yourself down and write every single day, even if it's only for a few minutes, and even if it's with a group of people who are writing too.  And you have to just move forward and not over-think it, at least for that raw, exhilarating first draft.

I like Ellen Sussman's method, and I would love to hear back from any readers who try it.  And please, if you disconnect from the internet, I hope you will return to this corner when you've finished your work to say hey. 


  1. Great post. I'll try this. I was going 90 minutes of work,and by then I'm kind of tired. More productive breaks might mean more productive writing/creating. I wish I had known years earlier that often in the beginning sentences suck, connections are vague, so the meaning is oblique. But it's just the STUFF trying to get OUT, to be put DOWN on paper. Like it is just wanting to reveal itself to me.I love the process now, but it was very hard to get here. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge.

  2. Catching up on the blog Natalia! This one resonates so strongly with me, and I just posted something in a similar vein for my "Practice Thursday" post today: http://brendalynnmiller.blogspot.com/2012/02/practice-thursdaythe-yoga-of-writing.html
    I'd love to have more of a conversation about this. I've been resisting "Freedom" (what an INTERESTING name for this gadget), but I know it's my next step.
    Also love the Purple Heart post. Carry on!