I remember Nancy Wheeler, played by Natalie Dyer on Stranger Things Season 3, saying to her boyfriend (Charlie Hutton) as they went off to pursue a lead to a story that the editor of the Hawkins, Indiana newspaper told her not to pursue. “I only ask for forgiveness, but never permission.”
My wife has said something similar to me for years now. “Never ask permission, but beg for forgiveness.”
I realize that the saying is a super-hetero-white male-privilege thing to say coming from me, but there are a lot of things that I do need permission to do, and there are plenty that I don’t. Writing when it’s a good time for me to do so is one of those things.
So while reading Cal Newport’s write about about John Grisham’s work schedule:
Grisham primarily writes his novels during the winter months on his farm in Oxford, Mississippi. During this period he works five days a week, starting at 7 am and typically ending by 10 am.
Grisham writes in a period outbuilding on his property that used to house an antebellum summer kitchen. He and his wife refurbished the kitchen to maintain its period details (with the main exception being that they added electricity and air conditioning). Crucially, as Grisham explains: “[the building has] no phone, faxes, or internet. I don’t want the distraction. I don’t work online. I keep it offline.”
Grisham maintains strict rituals for his writing. He starts work on a novel on the same day each year, and starts writing each day at the same time. He works on the same computer. He drinks the same type of coffee out of the same cup. “My office routine rarely varies,” he explains. “It’s pretty structured.”
Grisham starts a new novel on January 1st and is usually done with the bulk of the writing by the end of March. He aims to be completely done with the manuscript by July. This leaves a nice half year period to recharge and work on new ideas.
What I like about Grisham’s deep work habits — beyond the obvious romanticism of writing in a refurbished period farmhouse outbuilding — is that the novels that support his astoundingly successful and lucrative writing career require only 15 hours a week, 6 months out of the year.
Then this led to the website Writing Routines—it’s like Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals but for writers—and upon subscribing to their newsletter (I no longer check RSS feeds and only subscribe to website’s newsletters to get the most interesting stuff in a daily or weekly email) and it sent me this pdf of important routines.
It started with Grisham’s routine, then went to Nathan Englander: “Turn off your cell-phone. Put in ear plugs. You’ve got to unplug.”
Then Edit by Hand: “Write on a yellow legal pad, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer…I continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard copy drafts from the computer.” – Susan Sontag.
Exercise, from famous Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut: “I wake at 5:30, I work until 8, eat breakfast at home, work until 10 and walk a few blocks into town, do errands, swim.” Then he goes and teaches.
“I pull down the blinds, I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of 20 songs over and over and don’t heart them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and thinking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience.” – Michael Lewis.
And I realize that I must be insane with the waking up at 4am to write for an hour and a half, getting Squibbish off to school and going and doing a new job that until June I had no background in. Then coming home and doing dinner and bed time and having a pregnant wife, and given my symptoms that makes paying attention to anything at all after 8pm a nightmare. So, fuck it—I need at least seven hours of sleep a night and I change my pattern. I adapt to the above routines of all these writers.
I get 10 hours a week of writing or 3 pages a day. I do it from 8 to 10am, then I get after the work for my day job. Sure, sometimes there’s so much going on that I don’t get that two hours of writing, or I don’t hit that 3 page mark. What matters is that I sit down and I do it every day. If I get 3 pages of writing done a day, Monday through Friday, for six months that’s about 390 pages from winter through July 4th weekend.
Then I tried it out. In two months, or fifty-one business days, I wrote 55 pages of a novella. Meaning if I keep that up from January through July, I could have a first draft of a novel in four months.
That’s some math I can get behind, and get some sleep. I’m going to need it.