When Tenured Radical wrote a blog post about the “Grafton Challenge” this summer, I was both impressed and completely intimidated by the blistering pace at which Tony Grafton writes: 3,500 words a day! Amazing. Then when she followed up to report that Matthew Gutterl had drafted a book this summer by. . . sitting down to write every day and cutting out distractions like blogging!. . . I thought to myself: how much longer do I really want to live with the book I’m writing now, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright? Isn’t it time to move on?
So, I decided to finish a rough draft of my book this fall, with Christmas day as my drop-dead date. When I finished the second draft of Abraham in Arms eight years ago, the only time I had to myself that was completely free of familial distractions or responsibilities was from 4-6 a.m. So, several days a week I now get out of bed at 4 a.m. and try to write for two hours. It’s not as difficult as you’d think. Caffeine helps, as does a shockingly early bedtime the night before. I’ve had a cold this week, and the high-test antihistamines I’m on also give me a kick. (I think it’s the stuff they cook meth out of, so no wonder.) I prefer the silence of the tomb when I work, and my brain is freshest first thing in the morning, so 4-6 a.m. it is.
(I was reviewing a chapter I had already drafted, and I re-read something I had written last summer about how the Ursuline nuns I’m writing about would rise at 4 a.m. to begin their day. Coincidence? Who knows. But instead of the Liturgy of the Hours, my day is now occupied by the Liturgy of the Book.)
I’m not writing very fast. In fact, in this draft I’m still figuring out how lots of tiny bits of evidence fit together, so many days’ worth of “writing” might only yield a page or two in a chapter. But, that’s because of the subject I chose: reconstructing the life of a girl and a woman who never wrote much of anything down means that I have to reconstruct a life, not just report on it. Even after drafting the book, I’ll still need to do more research to make sure that my arguments are correct, and to make sure that I’m wringing all of the details I possibly can out of my archival sources.
Matthew Gutterl has some great advice for those of you who want to go on a writing jag. In short: get plenty of sleep, and cut everything else out of your day that’s not completely necessary. He also has some great examples as to how continuous engagement with your material is something that will snowball and lead to more connections and insights. The only thing I’m doing differently from Matthew is that I’m continuing to run and to go to yoga classes, whereas he cut out exercise almost entirely while writing this past summer. For me, running and yoga are as much about mental health as physical fitness–I enjoy the time to let my brain wander. And I enjoy the social aspects of yoga, as well as the fact that when I’m taking a class, I don’t have to make any decisions–I can just follow someone else’s instructions, and bliss out. But, I’m not on a publisher’s deadline like he was!