A life’s work in half an hour
Yesterday, I posted a quote from the former United States poet laureate Robert Hass: “You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.” It’s a nice sentiment, and one that I desperately wanted to believe seven years ago. Back then, I was working at a job that I liked, but didn’t love, and I was doing everything I could to write novels in my spare time. I’d already begun and discarded an ambitious project that I’d spent close to a year researching, only to find myself lost after a couple of chapters, and the novel I’d chosen as its successor—an art world story that would eventually, after radical transformation, be reborn as The Icon Thief—wasn’t going anywhere. Frustrated, I resolved to force myself to write a certain number of words each day, and decided to make the the goal as achievable as I could. A hundred words, I thought, was a reasonable quota: if necessary, I could do the necessary work in five minutes, and if I kept up that pace, after two and a half years, I’d have a novel. Anything more would be gravy. Thus inspired, I wrote my target on an index card and posted it to my medicine cabinet, so it would stare me in the face each morning, in a writer’s version of the mirror scare.
I should give fair warning, at this point, that this isn’t a post about how I wrote my first novel a hundred words at a sitting. In the end, I didn’t keep up the routine for very long—maybe a month at the most. Ultimately, as readers of this blog know, I quit my job to write full time, and although it took me years before I could begin to make a living at it, I think this was the best solution, at least for where I was at that point in my life. I’m aware, of course, that this isn’t an option that most of us have: even in my own case, the ability to do so was the result of a confluence of several unrelated factors, as well as some degree of blind luck. Moreover, I don’t think word count was my problem. I have a hunch that I would have been more than capable of writing a novel while still working during the day, provided that I managed to develop the planning and outlining skills I later developed. I didn’t lack time or energy; what I lacked was a plan. And although in my own case, I had to commit completely to writing before acquiring these habits, there’s no reason why they can’t be put to work under other circumstances. (Part of the reason I write this blog is out of the hope I can convince a few readers to avoid the mistakes I made.)
But Hass’s advice is still valuable, even if, at first glance, it seems to apply to poets more than novelists. Just it’s easier to start saving money by easing into it gradually, then increasing the amounts over time, the habit of writing every day—which nearly all professional writers share—is best achieved in small steps. There’s nothing wrong with the math of writing a hundred words a day, as long as you can keep it up over the long term, which is where all those outlining and creativity tricks come into play. And the nice thing about writing is that once those hundred words are written, barring some kind of unforeseen disaster on your hard drive, they’ll stay there, and the resulting paragraph has the same ultimate value as those written on days of extraordinary productivity. The only real benefit of spending the entire day writing, aside from the chance it affords to disappear more deeply into the fictional dream, is that it allows you to cover the necessary ground a little faster. Minute by minute, however, the ground looks much the same. To slightly misquote David Mamet, you write a novel in the same way you eat a whole turkey: one bite at a time.
And the best part of writing each day, even in small amounts, is that the half hour you spend at the computer turns out to be only a fraction of the effort you’ve invested in the project elsewhere. As I’ve noted many times before, much of a writer’s best work is done while he’s apparently engaged in something else entirely: taking a walk, doing the dishes, shaving, in the bus, bath, or bed. That half hour of work isn’t just important for its own sake, but as a means of organizing and channeling the otherwise aimless work of one’s daydreams, which tend to inevitably return, at the most unexpected moments, to the problems of the story you’re writing. And the only way to enter that continuous state of receptivity is to write every day, even if the word count remains a modest one. A writer is like an athlete: most track and field events are over in a few seconds, but they represent the result of endless hours of solitary devotion, which only attain their full meaning in the arena. For us, the arena is the page, and every word we write is, or ought to be, the visible crystallization of an unseen and ongoing process. It’s possible, as Hass notes, to do your life’s work in half an hour a day. But only if you’ve structured the rest of your life around it.