Craft Lesson: Mornings are made for writing

Craft Lessons

When do you write? First thing in the day or last?

It depends on the writer, of course.

But many highly successful writers, whether by habit or belief, seem to find mornings to be the most productive time. Neuroscience backs them up.

An admittedly unscientific search culled through interviews with working writers, quote collections and an excellent book, “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” by Mason Currey, revealed repeated examples of writers choosing break of day.

“Get up very early and get going at once,” was the preference of poet W.H. Auden. “In fact, work first and wash afterwards.” Mornings were the rule for Nobel laureate Saul Bellow who would write for 3 to 4 hours at a sitting.

When Ernest Hemingway was working on a story, he said, “I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.

Pre-dawn is the preference for Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. When I’m in writing mode for a novel,” he says, “I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. 

Not every writer has the freedom or the inclination for morning writing. Exiled to military school at 15, J.D. Salinger wrote his early stories at night under his blanket by flashlight. “There’s a mislaid family of readers and writers at night,” Matt Shoard wrote in a survey of nocturnal writers. And nighttime writers are a passionate, if somewhat cranky lot. Maybe it’s the caffeine.

“Is it the peace and quiet? asked Stephanie Meyer who wrote “Twilight” mostly at night. Nighttime composition is also the preference of Danielle Steele, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Barack Obama. Allison Leotta used to write her legal crime thrillers before work as federal prosecutor. But that changed to nights after she became a mother.”Now,” says Leotta, “the sound of a softly snoring baby triggers a Pavlovian response in me to start typing.”

For every nighttime writer, though, there seem to be many more who prefer early morning, close to dream sleep when the unconscious still lurks.

Brain science suggests that a morning writing schedule is geared to creativity. Moderate levels of the stress hormone cortisol aid focus. It also helps that willpower is strongest at the start before the day’s stresses sap it. The writer can rely on the prefrontal cortex, which governs planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and acting with long-term goals in mind.

The routines of successful writers suggest that they’ve discovered, without a degree in neuroscience, the power of the morning writing session.

Children’s novelist Lloyd Alexander woke at 4 a.m. to write because, he said, “you are closer to the roots of the imagination. At the end of the day the edge is off—You’re not the same person as you were in the morning. “

Barbara Kingsolver described a routine that starts before dawn. “Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency.”

“Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency.”

Barbara Kingsolver

Of course, some writers have no choice. Work or family demands may make it impossible to start work first thing. You may have to steal time; drafting at your desk over a quick lunch, after dinner, when the kids are in bed. Crime writer Leotta also writes when her baby is napping. I know writers who work late at night after the house is quiet. They may sacrifice sleep but meet their daily quota.

I’ve tried both times of the day, and while I sometimes find afternoons are productive, in the end I’ve come to prefer the early morning quiet before the day’s responsibilities intrude. Otherwise, as the day goes by my willpower and energy wilt. I keep in mind the words of Goethe, the German master: “Use the day before the day. Early morning hours have gold in their mouth.”

Daytime writers like Italo Calvino, the Italian journalist and fiction writer, feared the effects of nighttime writing which keep their mind moving when they preferred it would rest. “I’m terrified of writing at night,” he told an interviewer for The New York Times, “for then I can’t go to sleep. So I start slowly, slowly writing in the morning and then go on into the late afternoon. “

You may want to experiment, toggling between day and night to discover your best writing time. But if you choose AM over PM, here are suggestions to get you moving and writing.

  • Wake up. Get up. If you’re’ the type who tends to overlseep, don’t hit the snooze alarm. Brew your coffee or tea, take it to your desk.
  • Quarantine yourself. Susan Sontag vowed in her diary to tell people not to call her in the morning and she resolved not to answer the phone. Lock your office door. David Margolick uses Flents Quiet Please foam earplugs to buffer the din outside his Manhattan apartment while he’s working on his books about comedian Sid Caesar and scientist Jonas Salk.
  • Start off easy. If you begin first thing trying to write a masterpiece, writer’s block will likely ensue. Begin writing in your journal, making notes for the day. Read “sacred texts.” from the Bible to your favorite novel or poem, writings that inspire you to start your own compositions as the sun comes up.

May the writing go well.


Photography by Nick Morrison courtesy of unsplash.com

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