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The Clockwork Muse: On Writing and Routines

Submitting yourself in a self-disciplined manner to temporal routines certainly undermines the common Romantic image of the bohemian writer who forgoes structure in order to accommodate essentially unscheduled outbursts of creative energy. A careful examination of actual writers’ work habits, however, strongly suggests that such an image is by and large a myth. Very few writers actually sit down to write only when they feel particularly inspired… — from The Clockwork Muse, p. 4

As of June 1, I have officially moved my primary creative focus from worldbuilding back to drafting (and there were a thousand tiny cheers!). Things are going well so far, but since this isn’t my first time through this process, I know that they won’t always go well. Although the process of writing a dissertation and a novel are different in many respects (not least for me the fact that I’m actually excited about my novel at least — conservatively — 80% of the time), there’s one big element they have in common. Long, complicated projects, the doing of which require you the writer to spend a lot of time sitting in a room staring at a notepad or computer screen and pleading for ideas to come.

Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse frames itself as a book for academic writers, and I first heard its name in a graduate course. Zerubavel is a sociologist whose work primarily touches on “everyday life.” His most recent book, Ancestors and Relatives, looks at the social construction of genealogy and family relationships (which you will realize, if you know anything about me, is a book that I eagerly anticipated and devoured with great glee), but he’s also written several books on the social construction of time. With that in mind, it’s probably not a big surprise that he wrote a book for other academics on how organizing one’s time can help one to be more productive with the writing of large projects.

The biggest piece of Zerubavel’s argument, as suggested by his title, is deceptively simple: find a time in your schedule that you can devote to writing, and stick with it. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and it’s probably not a new idea for anyone who’s ever gone through graduate school: among the dissertating set, it’s almost standard to hear people saying that “Monday and Wednesday mornings/evenings between 4 and 6/weekdays until noon are my sacred writing time.” That said, even as a long-time adherent to the “blocking out the time” strategy, I still found some things in this little book that seemed both interesting and new.

The bits that resonated most with me fell into a few main categories:

  1. Writer, (take the time to) know thyself. Over and over again, Zerubavel points out that in the early stages of embarking on a big project, it’s important to figure out the optimal conditions that will allow you to get writing done. Using examples from both academic writers and novelists, people with day jobs and those without, he points out that most “professional writers” have designated places and times where they write. I hadn’t heard most of these examples before, and they’re pretty fascinating, like the story that Maya Angelou always kept a hotel room reserved in whatever city she lived in, so that she could go there and write without fear of being interrupted by concerns at home. He points out that it’ll probably take some trial and error to figure out things like how long your optimal writing session is and what times of day work best for you. For me, for instance, I’m starting to learn that attempting to get serious drafting work done in a session of less than an hour is not going to leave me feeling very satisfied: it takes me at least 30-40 minutes to really get rolling on what I’m doing, so if I have to stop after an hour I’ll usually just have gotten on a roll and will be very frustrated. A session of between 2-3 hours usually strikes the right balance for me of productive and sustainable. Another suggestion I’m planning to try in the next few weeks is to actually track how your writing sessions go for a week or so, to get a sense of what works best for you. If I were to do that for my week so far, it might look something like this:
    1. Monday (my designated “Writing Day” each week): Worked from ~9:30-3 PM, with breaks. Hit a low energy point after lunch at about 1:30 but really wanted to finish the scene I was working on, so kept at it and found my momentum again.
    2. Tuesday: Short session after many errands, from 2:30 to 4ish. Higher-energy than I would have expected for that time in the afternoon. Only about half an hour of actually adding words to the draft, but worked through a difficult section and started a new chapter, so I’ll go easy on myself.
    3. Wednesday: Planned to start at 9, distracted and didn’t really hit a flow until close to 10 (very thorough at checking email in the meantime though!) Stopped at 11:30 to do other things feeling like I could have done more.
  2. Think about your project in terms of “A-list,” “B-list,” and “C-list” tasks. This is something I’ve just started in the last week or so, and it’s working quite well so far. Basically, the idea is that even if you’ve got time blocked out as “writing time,” that may not guarantee that you’re in the right head space to write. If you’re distracted or cranky or sleepy, think about other writing-related tasks that you could do to still keep yourself in the right head space and see if inspiration might strike. For instance, I’m learning that things like reviewing the previous day’s writing or doing some (limited) research/world-buildy pondering in the first half hour of a session is a good way to wake myself up.
  3. Remember that there will probably be another draft after this one. This is advice I’ve gotten from writing teachers, too; one of my Writing Salon teachers actually had us do an exercise where we wrote “I am writing a fun, messy first draft” over and over like Bart Simpson at the chalkboard. But maybe because I’m in newly-begun second draft mode, Zerubavel’s way of explaining it resonated with me more:

“Having to write an entire dissertation or book several times certainly sounds much more anxiety-provoking than having to do it only once. Yet it is precisely the fact that you can actually write it more than just once that helps relieve much of the pressure as well as reduce much of the anxiety normally involved in having to write it at all. After all, with the exception of the very final draft… within each draft you can ‘let go’ and write in a much more relaxed manner knowing that it is not your last chance and that you have at least one more opportunity to improve later on what you are currently writing” (47).

This point is a particular relief for me when it comes to things like word choice or detailed description. I am attempting to write a cleaner draft than I did the first time around — and so far, it seems to be working — but I realize that it doesn’t do me any good to obsess for ten minutes over the proper verb to describe how a strange creature moves down a hill (“It’s not ‘lumber’… it’s not ‘trudge’… or ‘plod’… hmm, maybe ‘plod?'”). I put in a placeholder, mark it as such by highlighting it, and tell myself I’ll finalize in the next draft.

I know many writers who are averse to the idea of anything that feels like a “self-help” book; they think that writing ought to be intuitive. But even if you’re not usually inclined to read books on writing, if you’re an aspiring novelist, I’d pick this one up. It might help.

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