“For me writing is like breathing,” the poet Pablo Neruda told the Paris Review in 1971. “I could not live without breathing and I could not live without writing.” For me, writing is less like breathing and more like flatulence. It comes in bursts and adheres to no schedule, and if I try to force it, bad things come about.
Neruda’s quote has always made me envious to the point of agita. I am cursed with a far different disposition. If my respiratory system worked with the zeal and commitment to which I approach writing, I would have suffocated long ago.
Thankfully, I am not alone. For every Pablo Neruda, there are dozens of farters like me. This is purely anecdotal, but all the writers I know express similar frustrations. Writing is not an autonomic function of the subconscious brain. When the time comes to put words on the page, it is work.
If you go to any Q&A with an author, someone is bound to ask, “What’s your work routine like?” The question is desperate and hopeful—I should know, because I’ve asked it before. Imagine that you’ve spent years trying to build a cabinet with no success. One day, you go see a woman who has built a great cabinet give a speech. Of course you’re going to ask her how she managed to build that damn cabinet afterward.
Writers are obsessed with routines. With the exception of religion and perhaps grooming, no pursuit is as closely joined to the idea of the Holy Routine as much as writing is. It’s why writers’ routines have become an entire genre of web content. Frustrated scribes can easily find hundreds of lists online detailing the various schedules of their successful and productive counterparts, all laid out neatly like an instruction manual. The subtext of these compilations is always the same: You need a routine, so why not try one of these?
Recently, I found a work routine that looked similar to my own. It wasn’t in any of those aforementioned lists. No, it was published by the politics website Axios, in the form of a scoop about Donald Trump’s “shrinking schedule.” The president, according to the report, “has ‘Executive Time’ in the Oval Office every day from 8 AM to 11 AM, but the reality is he spends that time in his residence, watching TV, making phone calls and tweeting.”
I too indulge in “Executive Time.” Upon waking, I putz around the internet, gab with friends on GChat, and put off writing until the last possible moment. It’s not much of a routine, and, in this regard, I am no better than the large, angry septuagenarian in the White House. Given that this realization coincided with the new year, it resonated. Severely.
I have attempted to fix my routine before, but nothing has ever stuck. To remedy this, I had to try something different. For one week, I would spend each day following a different writer’s routine. Now, I know that in changing it up every day I would no longer be participating in a routine, per se, but my rationalization was that this would be akin to a workout schedule, where you do different exercises each day—getting a little stronger, faster, and more flexible with each session. Even if none of these became my permanent routine, I’d still have a solid week’s worth of writing to show for it.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Day 1: Haruki Murakami
According to those aforementioned lists of writers’ routines, the vast majority of successful writers wake up early and work first thing in the morning. This only makes me more self-conscious about my slow starts in the morning—my shameful Executive Time.
By starting this experiment with the routine of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, I intended to attack the issue head-on. Here’s how he has described his schedule to the Paris Review:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4 AM and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9 PM.
I wanted to carpe diem and all that, but 4 AM is early. I’m even daunted by 7 Am wake-ps, for which I have to set staggered alarms—one at 6:30, one at 6:45, etc. My wife (understandably) despises the escalating movements of my iPhone’s morning orchestra, and she would certainly murder me (again, understandably) if I set a series of alarms that started at 3:30 in the morning. I had to make by with just one attempt.
When I awoke, the sun was shining. I don’t remember silencing my phone at 4 AM, but my nocturnal self must have quickly nipped that minor interruption in the bud. It was ten ’til 8, meaning I was already four hours behind Mr. Murakami’s schedule. At this rate I’d never write my Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
I tried to write, but given I was more or less on my normal routine, I kept falling into the same traps of scrolling through Twitter and watching basketball highlights on YouTube. With little to show for the five hours I had spent posted at my laptop, I went for a ten-kilometer run.
In his memoir about running, Murakami wrote, “What exactly do I think about when I'm running? I don't have a clue.”
I, on the other hand, know exactly what I think about when I’m running: I think about how great it’d be if I stopped running. Still, I forced myself to complete the ten kilometers, which felt pretty good. Sadly, this elevated mood was only temporary. When I returned home, I reviewed the fruits of my work from earlier in the morning. It wasn’t much.
WORDS WRITTEN: 286
BASKETBALL HIGHLIGHT VIDEOS WATCHED: 8
Day 2: Franz Kafka
If I’m allergic to mornings, would I benefit from taking the opposite tack? Franz Kafka was an exception to the rule that writers work early in the day, but this wasn’t by choice. Because he had a full-time job at an insurance company, Kafka couldn’t start writing until around 11 PM. He would then work "depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o'clock, once even till six in the morning."
I managed to get a full night’s sleep after my failed Murakami routine and, knowing I wouldn’t be writing again until late the next evening, didn’t set an alarm. I was able to enjoy my “Executive Time” guilt-free, and, in trying to keep up with insurance adjuster Franz Kafka, I made sure that my day was dull and uneventful. It was a joy.
When 11 PM rolled around, however, I was already spent. The psychic toll of just being awake had worn me down, and staring at the white expanse of an empty screen lulled me into a yawning stupor. Unable to write more than a handful of sentences (many of which didn’t even have verbs), I gave up and went to bed a little after midnight. Were I to awake the next morning transformed into a gigantic insect, it would be a fate richly deserved.
WORDS WRITTEN: 95
Day 3: Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou kept a strict schedule, but what I found most intriguing was how she created an environment conducive to the work of writing:
I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there… I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.
It doesn’t make sense to be constantly paying for hotel rooms on a freelance writer’s salary. Of the motels near me, only one offered a daily rate below $90. Before calling to inquire, I consulted its Yelp page. “Meth, Mayhem, and Murder,” the lone review read. “They have a manager who will turn a blind eye to anything and everything… even a woman being stabbed to death!”
While this motel would surely provide me with lots of exciting material, I instead opted to recreate Maya Angelou’s hotel experience in my own home. It wasn’t hard finding a room that closely recreates the one she describes; a place where nothing is on the walls and my beliefs can be suspended. That sounds a lot like a bathroom to me.
I was able to write for a solid three hours while sitting on the toilet. The location was convenient for obvious reasons, and I would have happily kept plucking along had my legs not fallen asleep. My dog is prone to bouts of paranoia and suspicion whenever I spend considerable time in the bathroom, and her whining proved to be a distraction. However, this was easily rectified by leaving the door open a crack.
Finally, some success.
WORDS WRITTEN: 1,015
Day 4: Honoré de Balzac
Balzac was a grade-A weirdo. He would go to bed around 6 PM, “like the chickens,” and awake at 1 in the morning to start writing. Given my trouble adhering to Franz Kafka’s schedule, I wouldn’t be following Balzac’s to a T. Instead, I was more interested by his caffeine habit. According to legend, Balzac drank some 50 cups of coffee a day.
It makes sense then that Balzac is known for the quantity of his work rather than its quality. But, as Stalin would say, quantity has a quality all its own. After three days of middling output, I was eager to get juiced to the gills and vomit out a shitload of words, even if it meant I might die of caffeine poisoning (as Balzac was rumored to have perished).
I woke up and immediately chugged two shots of Nespresso. I then downed the contents of a French press and headed to a cafe that provides free mug refills. I was able to dive right into my work, thanks to the ethically traded and locally roasted crank coursing through my system.
Coffee’s other effects soon took hold, however, and my leg’s involuntary and violent shaking earned the attention of my neighbors at the cafe (as well as some nearby seismologists, I’m sure). This, combined with my frequent trips to the restroom, made me a disruptive presence.
Paranoid that someone would steal my laptop, I toted it with me for every visit to the bathroom. My clunker of a computer takes a long time to reboot, even if it’s just in sleep mode, and the repeated excursions to the toilet slowed both it and me down. I wanted to scream.
By this time I had already drunk three cups of coffee (not including my morning Nespresso and French press) and was teetering on an almighty edge. To cool myself off I walked around the block, and when I returned found a man had taken my seat. Who the hell does this asshole think he is? As I plotted the details of the “caffeine defense” I would use during my upcoming murder trial, I calmed down and convinced myself I could work just as effectively at home.
Naturally I crashed as soon as I walked through the front door. I spent the rest of the day whimpering in bed with the shades drawn. Balzac was a real psycho.
WORDS WRITTEN: 1,230 (of which only 300 or so made sense)
COFFEE DRUNK: Five cups, two espressos
Day 5: Don DeLillo
I think Don DeLillo is America’s greatest living novelist, but I wasn’t overly inspired by his routine:
I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle—it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent—you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes… A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of [Jorge Luis] Borges.
I don’t own a typewriter. To make up for this, I wrote on my computer and made sure not to delete anything I had typed, no matter how tempting. Hitting the backspace key is more muscle memory than anything else, and the restraint required to avoid doing it drove me mad. When I got stuck, which I did almost immediately, I stared at a picture of Borges. Nothing happened. I searched for other photos of him. Still nothing. This sent me down a rabbit hole in which I was consumed for hours, and I somehow ended up on the IMDb goofs section for Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise.
Following DeLillo’s schedule didn’t help me write, but I did learn something. "When the Trilambs have been forced to strip to their underwear by the Alpha Betas, Lewis is seen wearing a pair of white Y-Front briefs, yet when they arrive back at the Hotel Coral Essex after hitchhiking for five hours, he is now wearing longer and less revealing shorts, with no explanation for the change.”
WORDS WRITTEN: 410
Day 6: Natalie Goldberg
The author Natalie Goldberg has written extensively about the act of writing, and her books are full of neat tricks and tips. In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg suggests using a prop to send your consciousness to a foreign state:
”[O]ne small prop can often tip your mind into another place. When I sit down to write, often I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. If I'm in a cafe that has a 'No Smoking' sign, then my cigarette is unlit. I don't actually smoke anyway, so it doesn't matter. The cigarette is a prop to help me dream into another world. It wouldn't work so well if I ordinarily smoked. You need to do something you don't usually do."
I live in California where cigarettes cost approximately three hundred dollars, so I was hesitant to buy an entire pack just to test out Goldberg’s trick. Instead, I borrowed a friend’s electronic cigarette and let it dangle from my lips at the cafe. I looked like an idiot. When the stress of looking like an idiot got to be too much, I walked outside and huffed on the e-cig until I felt like fainting.
I was not transported to another world. I was not even transported to flavor country. I had to lie down.
WORDS WRITTEN: 680
Day 7: William Gibson
The sci-fi novelist William Gibson’s schedule is so sensible, it doesn’t really feel like much of a routine:
When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my email and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.
I’ve never done pilates before, but I signed up for an “Abs and Booty Burn” class at a nearby studio. The instructor wore a wireless microphone like she was giving a TED Talk, even though there were only five of us working out in close quarters. The reformer machine was a complex tangle of cords, ropes, wheels, and handles—I can see why a science-fiction writer would like it.
I was able to get some work done afterward, even though my booty was burning mightily.
WORDS WRITTEN: 1,228
Day 8: Hunter S. Thompson
When the time came to end my week of following others’ routines, I didn’t think I could do it. By imitating these writers, I didn’t feel responsible for my own failures. Haruki Murakami was to blame, not me. In an effort to extend this projection, I found one more writer’s schedule to ape.
Hunter S. Thompson is responsible for perhaps the most infamous (if embellished) routine in history. According to his biographer E. Jean Carroll, Thompson’s day started at 3 PM with a glass of Chivas Regal, and he kept things going with nonstop cocaine use and a little acid thrown in for good measure:
I chose this one on purpose because I knew it would be impossible to follow. Hell, there’s no way he followed it, either. Even so, his routine did teach me something. No matter how much cocaine he snorted or how many hot tub Dove bars he ate, Hunter Thompson always found time to write. I know that much is true, because the work is out there to be read.
Rather than indulge in a bender, I decided to follow whatever routine I wanted, so long as it gave me time to write. That’s why I scheduled another pilates class and readied my bathroom for an intense post-butt-burn writing session.
Follow Nick Greene on Twitter.