Routine? What Routine?

Naomi J. Williams

Landfalls

In author Q&As, someone in the audience invariably asks, “What is your writing routine?” or “What is your process?”

I find this question alarming. But even more alarming than the question are all the answers:

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I wake up at 5 a.m. every morning and write for two hours before my family wakes up. I wrote my first book in six months this way.

I rent an office where I write every day. I treat it like a 9 to 5 job. That’s how I’ve churned out three bestsellers.

I work best at night. After my wife goes to sleep, I pour myself a glass of port and write till 1 a.m.

I write 500 words a day, rain or shine.

I write 1000 words a day, come hell or high water.

I write 3000 words every day, no matter what. Even on vacation.

Hearing these pronouncements, I feel wretched about the haphazard way I go about my writing. I also feel like pinching all the writers with their neat little routines and sound-bytable processes.

I do not have a writing routine. I don’t have a writing schedule. I don’t have a word quota.

Every morning I wake up and make it up as if I’ve never done it before.

What’s my excuse? Well, my lifelong insomnia is at least partly to blame. On any given day I don’t know how much sleep I’ll have had the night before, or when I’ll be able to wake up, or if I’ll get suddenly, inappropriately sleepy in the middle of the day. These things are not conducive to a routine.

I also have children. Kids obviously occupy time and attention, but more than that, they’re unpredictable. This is true even after they start school. They wake up with fevers on days you planned to write, then make you sick so you lose a week of work. They come home with lice, and you end up spending hours combing out nits instead of writing. They tell you the night before their Gate of Ishtar project is due that they are building said structure out of Lego and need help sifting through thousands of bricks to find the right ones. They require accompaniment on field trips and orthodontist’s visits and, later, college tours. Even after they leave, they ask for last-minute help with a resume for today’s job fair or to please overnight that thing I forgot at home. I would not forgo a minute of it. But again, not conducive to routine.

I guess I’m also a perfectionist, although—am I the only one who thinks it’s self-aggrandizing when people say that about themselves? This is more apt: I’m a fussbudget. A perfectionist is more dedicated to craft than you are, whereas fussbudgets are just more neurotic. I can’t move forward with a new sentence until I stop hating the one that preceded it. Ditto with paragraphs and scenes. I revise obsessively. If I had a minimum daily word count, I’d go out of my mind. I don’t know how people do NaNoWriMo. I wouldn’t last a day.

And finally, I’m a bit monomaniacal. I have trouble multitasking or compartmentalizing. I often wake up with a resolution to run my day like a long shampooing session: “Write for an hour, do housework for an hour, read for an hour, attend to volunteer tasks for an hour; repeat.” But whatever I start doing, I end up doing all day. If I start writing, I don’t stop after an hour. I write through lunch. I write through appointments. I write through when I was supposed to pick a kid up from school. Ditto with housework. I start straightening, and next thing I know, I’ve spent the day reorganizing an entire closet.

Which is all to say that although I have those rare days when I bang out a few thousand decent words and imagine myself to be some sort of genius, more typically I spend all the writing minutes in a day laboring over a single page or a paragraph, and many days, too many days, not writing at all.

For me, the ideal conditions for writing productively are as follows: decent rest the previous night, a sensible infusion of caffeine in the morning, just enough food to stave off nausea, the indoor temperature at about 66° F, and a deadline I respect. Alert, a little jittery, a little hungry, a little cold, a little afraid: that’s me at my writing best. These things don’t align perfectly all that often, of course. When they do, it tends to be on a winter weekday between 10AM and 3PM

I wish I woke up at dawn every day and wrote for two hours. I wish I were a 3000-word-a-day writer. But I’m not and never will be. I grow weary of people talking about “accepting” themselves, as it’s often an excuse to stay lazy, but yeah—I’ve had to accept that I’m a certain kind of writer and certain kind of human animal. I respond very well to external pressure: I’m law-abiding. I hate disappointing people. I almost never miss a deadline. So I make sure I always have one to work toward. I still sign up for writing workshops for this very reason. My friend, poet and essayist Rae Gouirand, runs an incredible multi-genre online workshop called ScribeLab that provides hard monthly deadlines for brand-new work. Honestly, without it, I would have written zero this calendar year toward my new project.

More than anything, though, I respond to internal pressure. I ignore housework until I’m ready to burn the place down, then go on a cleaning blitz. Same with writing: If I go four or five days without writing, I become quite depressed. The pressure of that knowledge is very motivating. But if I ignore it—if I’m drawn away by other fixations (a household project, a family trip, a research jag), I will start to write again when I can no longer stand not to write. I guess this is my routine, my process: I write when I must.

Landfalls

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Naomi J. Williams lives in Northern California with her family. Landfalls is her first novel.

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  • Rachel

    Thank you so much for this human, humane post, Ms. Williams. It’s rare that I see my own experience reflected in other writers’ answers to the “What is your routine?” question, but yours really resonates for me, and that’s encouraging.

  • Janet Sunderland

    I tend to revise by chapters instead of paragraphs and worry that chapters toward the end are faster than the leisurely pace of earlier chapters when I lived in a jungle community, but I’m pretty haphazard. I’ve often been a morning writer; now I’m an afternoon writer; I wake up slower. Exercise helps wake up. And then, finally then, I can sit down and write a few hours until my husband calls me for dinner. Yes, I have a husband who cooks. I have no small children, only a oldest son who takes care of himself. I’ve always been a mite chaotic (my family would say very) and I usually have several projects (not necessarily writing although sometimes) going at the same time. But if I don’t write, I get crazy. So I write.
    Thank you. I love the humor in this. Janet Sunderland

  • Alan C. Elms

    I didn’t know you’re such a humorist, Naomi!
    Alan

  • I can most definitely relate, Naomi. Thanks for letting me know that I’m not the only writer who writes when I can, not necessarily when I’d like to, an hour or two snatched here and there, half a day if I’m lucky, before life’s other responsibilities demand attention. You have, in spite of it all, managed to write what appears to be a fantastic novel. Can’t wait to read it.