Advice on building creative stamina
“I’d love to pour more of myself in . . . but I lose focus, get tired, get frustrated, feel disappointed in my progress.”
Welcome to the latest installment of my monthly advice column. Please note: I’m taking a four-week break from this newsletter, returning to your inboxes August 30.
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
I’m writing today to ask about building more stamina into my writing time.
I’m a fiction writer with a pretty sustained daily habit. I’ve been writing nearly daily for several years, even if it’s just for ten, fifteen minutes...
For the first (and likely the last time) in my life I have a lot of time in the day available to me to work on my novel, courtesy of my MFA. But I can’t write for more than an hour and a half at a time and even that, consistently, is a struggle. I’ve been working from home, as most have been, and hobbling through an hour a day in the morning. Sometimes a half an hour. I know some artists can spend the day at their desk and now that I have that option, I’d love to pour more of myself in... but I lose focus, get tired, get frustrated, feel disappointed in my progress. Any suggestions?
—J in Brooklyn
Let me start with the good news: An hour a day of writing is not bad! Especially if it’s part of a “pretty sustained daily habit.” A lot of writers would be satisfied with that, I think. Gertrude Stein, for instance, said that she was never able to write much more than half an hour a day—but, she added, “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year.” Joseph Heller said something similar: “I write very slowly, though if I write a page or two a day five days a week, that’s 300 pages a year and it does add up.”
Building up more writing stamina is an admirable goal, however, and I do have a few thoughts on how you might do that. One thing that jumped out at me from your letter is the fact that you’ve never before had the option to spend the whole day at your desk. Now that you do, you want to take advantage of that unprecedented opportunity. But this may be part of your problem! In my experience, there is no greater recipe for disaster in writing than having the entire day available for it. As the available writing time expands, so does the opportunity for delay, fatigue, boredom, and general mental listlessness.
Shrinking the time you have available to write may, counterintuitively, make it easier for you to work for longer stretches, especially if there is a well-defined stopping point, like leaving the house for a class or an appointment, having someone over for lunch, going to the gym, whatever. This is why some writers have found that they actually prefer having a day job and writing on the side, because the job forces the writing into sharp relief and makes it seem a magical slice of creative time rather than this vague, flabby thing you’re wrestling with all day. In short: If you want to write for, say, three hours a day, try giving yourself only three hours a day of writing time, and then get the heck away from your desk, and see if that doesn’t help with your stamina.
Another thing that might help is to shrink your writing time but expand your writing-adjacent time. Earlier, I quoted Gertrude Stein on writing for 30 minutes a day—but I left out the second part of her quote. The entire thing is:
If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day.
Ay, there’s the rub. A lot of writers don’t spend that much time actually writing each day, but they may spend a lot of time circling around the writing, letting ideas germinate, building themselves up to the state of anxiety or exaltation where they can do this weirdly demanding and confounding work.
This is especially true for fiction writers, I think. So much of the real work there is thinking and daydreaming and problem-solving around the writing. Some of this happens when you’re sitting at your desk, but more of it happens when you’re taking a walk, doing the dishes, taking a shower, watering the houseplants, or engaged in other rote, lightly physical activities that tend to get the mind wandering in productive directions.
My Daily Rituals research is full of stories about this dynamic. George Balanchine thought up the ideas for his choreography while ironing his clothes for the day. Virginia Woolf found walking essential to her creative process, but she also got a lot of ideas in the bathtub. (The Woolfs’ servant could sometimes hear the author talking to herself during her post-breakfast bath: “On and on she went, talk, talk, talk: asking questions and giving herself the answers. I thought there must be two or three people up there with her.”) Doris Lessing liked to putter around the house when she was writing, stepping away from the desk to wash out a mug, tidy a drawer, make herself a cup of tea. “I walk and I prowl, my hands busy with this and that,” she said. “You’d think I was a paragon of concern for housekeeping if you judged by what you saw.”
You might try building more of this kind of time into your writing day. For instance, you could set yourself the task of writing for one hour, and then get up and take a walk—and then come back to your desk for another hour. The first few times you do this, it might be too new for it to really work. But through repetition the walk will become familiar and unremarkable, you’ll be on auto-pilot, and then, with luck, thoughts will start to “come at you like space junk,” to borrow a phrase from last week’s newsletter.
When I was researching my second Daily Rituals book, Miranda July generously agreed to talk to me about her process, and she was really smart on writing and walks and how vitally important it is to get up from the desk. “Often I feel like I’m playing hooky,” she told me, “but I find there’s only so many good ideas you can have sitting in a chair. Of course the work has to be done there; you have to write. But there’s a way that I can get really kind of frozen—where I’m literally not doing anything and yet I forget to remember that I can get up and walk or look at a book or do something else.”
I also love how she talked about these walks. July said that over time she’s figured out the exact “amount of pressure to apply to my brain on a writing walk. It’s not too much. You know, you kind of want to trick yourself that you’re just enjoying being outside and maybe plant the seed of, like, ‘How does this character do this?’ And then let it go.”
Of course, your writing break doesn’t have to be a walk; it could be housework, a shower, gardening, something else. I think the two requirements are that you not talk to anyone else and not look at your smartphone. You need to hang out in that airy, aimless mental state for as long as you can. If this feels like procrastinating—that’s OK. I think you probably want to procrastinate a little bit, to let ideas percolate and to build up some pressure and anxiety around the actual butt-in-chair time. You want to be like the artist Maira Kalman, who said, “I procrastinate just the right amount.”
One more thing I want to add: A lot of writers have talked about how, with longer projects, they have to push themselves really hard at the beginning, when getting the first draft finished requires steady, grueling effort—but, as they get farther along, there will often come a point where the project forces itself to center stage and suddenly they’re working at a much faster clip. (“I become its daily routine,” Ali Smith has said.) So even if you’re only managing short daily increments now, you may be able to write for much longer stretches later. That’s something to look forward to, though probably not something you can induce or count on 100 percent (sorry).
I started out my reply with good news, so let’s end with bad news: That feeling you describe in your letter—when you “lose focus, get tired, get frustrated, feel disappointed in my progress”—that feeling is going to be around as long as you continue writing seriously. It may come and go, sure, but as far as I can tell that is one of the essential, core experiences of being a writer. And as with any chronic condition, there is no cure, only management. Your management strategies are going to be highly individual, and they will probably change over time and from project to project. The best thing you can do, I think, is treat the management itself as a kind of project: Step back and look at when you have had a good stretch of writing days. What were the conditions? Were you spending a lot of time socializing, a lot of time alone, a lot of time watching movies, a lot of time, I don’t know, playing mindless video games on your phone? Or maybe you had a hangover, it was a miserable rainy day, you slept poorly, you could barely drag yourself to your desk . . . and then you did your best writing in months.
Obviously, you can’t control all of these variables—and you wouldn’t want to induce a hangover every morning—but I do think it’s valuable for us writers (and other creative workers) to keep honing in on what works for us, keep refining our silly little practices. That’s the “subtle maneuvers” idea that inspired this newsletter in the first place—that these little tweaks don’t sound like much, but in a practice that’s all about the accrual of small increments of work, they can really add up over time. Besides, this is often the only kind of control we can exert in this fickle, unpredictable business, so we might as well pay attention to our own idiosyncratic habits and try to replicate the ones that seem to help, at least a little, at least some of the time.
As usual, I feel like I’ve written a lot and yet barely scratched the surface of your question. So I’d like to invite anyone reading this to please weigh in with your own ideas or advice for J. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below and I’ll be reading and replying this week.
Readers, I’ll be honest: J’s description of losing focus and feeling tired and frustrated and disappointed in the writing process—that’s been me lately. I’ve been trying to make the transition from doing a bunch of research for my next book to actually writing the first draft, and my progress so far has been painfully halting and meager. I think taking a little vacation from the newsletter may help, and it will probably help the newsletter as well. So I’ll see you August 30th!
If you’d like to submit your own creative dilemma for the advice column, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into writers’ and artists’ work habits.
Thanks for reading! This newsletter is free, but if you’re feeling generous you can support my work by ordering my Daily Rituals books from Bookshop or (if you must) Amazon.
Fabulous examples and the research shows that for full time writers they are only productive for a few hours each day.
Robert Boice looked into this and found: "In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking, or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake."
I think writers have a tendency to judge themselves harshly - office workers get paid for faffing around most of the time and workplace productivity is measured in presenteeism rather than 'words on page' typing at desk. Take this much quoted survey which found that in an office, only 2.53 hours is spent working: https://www.vouchercloud.com/resources/office-worker-productivity
My advice, see progress in all the things that contribute to your writing. That includes, rest, distraction, procrastination, talking to other writers and reading about how other writers write.
I think that counterintuitive point about shrinking your time is a good one.
I sometimes wonder what it feels like to wake up at some writer’s retreat and feel the terrifying freedom of nothing but time.
Maybe increments is the trick- Smaller windows of time. Too big a window will eventually make me want to jump out of it.