When it comes to the habits and schedules of writers, and creative people in general, there is a lot of research already out there. The book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Currey, is very illuminating if you’re interested in tidbits like how Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up in his kitchen or that Igor Stravinsky stood on his head to clear his brain (a tactic also employed by Jack Kerouac). My favorite part of that book is the daily schedule of another Benjamin—Benjamin Franklin (it’s all about the Benjamin’s)—in which he wakes up each morning and asks himself, What good shall I do this day? And before bed, asks, What good have I done today? And this concept, I will return to later.
Another study on daily habits can be found here. This really neat infographic shows what time various authors woke up, and also how productive they were in their literary careers. I’m sure we’re all aware of some of the famous quotes by writers on writing. And if you aren’t, here are a few:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” —Ernest Ernest Hemingway
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” —Mark Twain
“Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.” —Henry Miller
So, how do we, at UCF, write? How do our working schedules align with the Kafkas and O’Connors of the world?
Lou Mindar writes, “I usually like to write in the morning. I can put in a good four hours, but my writing tends to start breaking down after that. I prefer to write at home because I’m not nearly as productive writing anywhere else. Rather than find time to write, I set aside the time. It can be a struggle learning to make a schedule and then sticking to it, but I’m getting better. When I’m writing a first draft, I’m completely open to whatever ideas come into my head. Even if I know things won’t make it into the final draft, I still include it in the first draft. Everything goes in, good and bad. I don’t edit at all while creating the first draft.”
Lana Ghannam keeps an opposite schedule: “Best is middle of the night when there are no distractions (shopping, people, school, work). That’s when my mind races—thought after thought after thought—so there’s a flood of emotion and topics. Keeping those thoughts in control, however, is difficult, but having too much to say is better than having nothing to say at all. I suppose this can be said for any and all writing—there can never be too much as long as it can all be placed at the right time in the right piece.”
MFA Director, Terry Thaxton writes, “I write anytime. I don’t have a set schedule. I started writing when I was a single mother of a young special needs child, so distraction or no distraction, I learned to write either in silence or with distraction. I do like giving myself a week of solitude once every six months or so, and I can pump out a lot of writing and revision during that time. But I can also write in coffee shops or at home with all of the distractions of home.”
Allie Pinkerton says, “I usually like to write in the morning or early afternoon on the days I’m not working. On the days I’m working, I’ll write when I’m free. For first drafts, I like to write by hand on paper. Then, I like to revise on my laptop. For the second revision, I’ll read through the first one and see what’s working and what’s not. Then, I’ll open a new document and start over. (Like, if I have the general idea but there needs to be more voice or something.) I’ll ask a few people to read after I’ve gotten a couple of drafts out, so I have a basic idea of what I want to do before other people read it.”
There’s also the question of what state to be in while writing. Allie says that she drinks a lot of hot tea while she’s writing. John Hughes likes to have a few pints of Guinness down the hatch before he puts pen to paper. I myself drink a lot of coffee. Netflix seems to be a popular go-to in clearing writer’s block for some of these author’s, although so are things like doing a menial task—walking, reading, eating, or watching a favorite movie.
Personally, I’ve had two very different semesters here at UCF. During my first semester, I wasn’t working and for most of it I was single. Also, I feel like the first semester was a little bit easier (course load wise) than my second. I don’t know if this is actually true, or if it just feels that way. But, this time last year I was asked by a fellow MFA student what my schedule was like, and I cheerfully replied that I wrote nearly every day, in the morning, and that I read books aside from those assigned for class. Ah, what glorious times, how lucky I was.
This semester, I’m working 20-30 hours a week (there are only 168 total hours in the week, by the way), which cuts down on my writing time. Also, I bartend, which means that I work until sometimes two in the morning. This makes getting up at four a.m. like Balzac or Murakami nearly impossible (not that I would ever actually get up at four a.m., that’s ridiculously early). Second, I have a girlfriend this semester, which means that another twenty-thirty hours a week are spent, however pleasantly, not writing.
I also spend time with friends and family. There are benefits to working, family, and having a girlfriend, as all of these things require leaving the house, putting pants on, and having conversations with other human beings (which I’ve heard is sort of good for you). And then there’s schoolwork; a book, maybe two, a week; short stories to be read for workshop; articles and papers to write on the history and theory of Composition. Now, understand, I’m not complaining. I enjoy doing all of these things, but all of these things are not writing, and that’s what I’m supposed to be doing in an MFA, right?
And so, this semester, what I’ve struggled with more is this feeling that the time I spend writing is neglected for all these other things. And I feel a bit guilty. But in the end, being a writer means being a little bit selfish. So I spend less time with the family and my girlfriend, I get through the books we have to read for class, and I carve out time for me to write. And I tell myself, stop feeling guilty.
A lot of the studies on how creative people work deal with which hours they work, whether or not they drink coffee or alcohol while they work, etc. But not as many of them address the intent of the artist as they sit to do their work, and for this reason I really like the Benjamin Franklin daily schedule, specifically, that each day is an opportunity to do some good. When I think back on some of the best stories I’ve written, I remember that they came from some place in me that wanted to understand another person, to humanize them. Writing, at it’s best, is an empathetic life. And so, I’ll end with this thought, that if you come to the desk in the morning, or at night, hopped up on coffee, or after a few drinks, in your personal, private study, or in the crowded coffee shop, remember that at the heart of it all is consideration, empathy for other people, for our characters, and for our readers. This is the good, we as writers, can do each day.
Ben Buckingham is an MFA student at the University of Central Florida. His short story, “Casper,” was noted as an honorable mention for the Glimmertrain November 2014 Short Story Award for New Writers. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.