should you be working harder?How hard do you work at your writing? Should you be working harder? Do you have the discipline it takes to sit down and write every day – to mete out the pages, the hours, the ideas and the creative decisions it takes to write the great American novel? the hilarious screenplay or meaningful play you envision?

Sorry, that was judgey, huh? I let my inner voice write this post. That’s my dictator who thinks it’s her job to get me to work by belittling me… constantly.  Most of the advice on the Internet, sings her tune, revs up my little drill sergeant.  Was your inner voice sinking, sounding alarms and drawing up new stricter plans? Tomorrow I’m going to get up, get going and be writing by 4am… 6am? At any rate, it doesn’t take much for our guilt and angst to kick in and for us to feel like failures because we don’t live up to some work standard in our mind’s eye. It doesn’t take much to get our inner name-caller to kick into high gear.

What’s your artificial work standard? Is it 9 to 5? Is it three hours of writing before breakfast? These ideas of what’s the “right” amount of work required to be a “good” person or a good writer can keep us from writing at all. No one wants to feel like a bad person, right?

should you be working harder?

I’ve just been reading an amazing little book called: Daily Rituals by Mason Curry. And in it, he describes the work and play habits of 161 artists, writers, scientists, architects and more.

76 are early risers – about half

They are writing or working shortly after waking. Often with very little conversation or interaction before they begin their work for the day. They exhibit diligence. Many have rules in their heads about how many hours they must work or how many words they must write before they quit for the day.

Literary luminaries were done with their writing before noon each day.

  • Somerset Maugham
  • WilliamYeats
  • Honore de Balzac
  • John Updike
  • Willa Cather
  • Victor Hugo
  • Saul Bellow
  • Stephen King had a daily word quota – which he meets 7 days a week including holidays, on vacation, and his birthday – but he’s typically done by 11:00 or 11:30 am. After that he likes to catch a Red Sox game. He has slowed down of late – since his car accident and semi-retirement.

Once they’ve written – they’re heroes. Here’s what surprised me.  After this 3 or 4 hour morning stint, most were done for the day. They napped, lunched, drank and generally just lolled around enjoyably.  Gertrude Stein felt that a solid half hour of writing was enough, and those pages added up.

Many others do the unthinkable. They wake late and don’t get working till midday. What kind of schedule is that? Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso, William Styron, Leo Tolstoy, Andy Warhol, Albert Einstein, David Foster Wallace and Jackson Pollack liked to linger over their coffee and get a later start.

He writes best without an imposed schedule, but when it comes to him naturally, says David Foster Wallace – author of The Infinite Jest, and This is Water. Wallace said he only subjected himself to a draconian timetable when he was foundering. And what kept him from writing well was the disciplinarian in his head that had unrealistic expectations. Then it was just a question of how many days, weeks or months it might take for him to remember to give up the schedule and then the work came back to him. It might be worth considering that you’re working too hard. 

Get Daily Rituals on Amazon.

For me the difficulty is not in finding an hour and a half when I can write each day. The hardest part is 1) believing that’s enough, 2) feeling okay about writing that short amount of time each day and therefore 3) doing it. Since I don’t think it’s good enough, I often go months without writing, feeling bad, guilty, low, sad, meanwhile yelling at myself for not working hard enough, being lazy, playing small – all those ugly recriminations. My inner voice can be a real a-hole.

There are lots of successful ways to write on a daily or every other day routine. It may not be a question of “forcing yourself” to write. And you may not require 3 hours or 6 hours or more.

Just do it. As you can, as you enjoy, as your life permits. Set up any routine of writing – however many hours you can manage on your schedule – and then that’s it. Even if your goal is to write 15 minutes a day – do the time. The 15 minutes, and then give your brain time to relax, and work behind the scenes to solve the creative issues your writing raised. Enjoy the rest of the day.