June 17th, 2017

There is a sense that writers compartmentalize. That we have a time and a place where we write and that after we have written our self-imposed daily allotment, we stop and go about the rest of our mundane day. I don’t buy that. Being a writer is a 24-hour-a-day reality and we never stop being writers. This can be distressing to the non-writer’s around us. We never seem to be off-the-clock, every second is grist for our writing mill. Long before people began taking selfies and live streaming their lives, writers were constantly taking notes, consciously and unconsciously, of every moment, every conversation, every view, every touch.

Most of what we record in a day is rubbish, but you never know what will spark a character or an entire novel.

In If I wake up at an early hour and write 500 words each day I will, in time, have a book, Hisham Matar writes:

The myth is you do the ordinary every day and the extraordinary will happen; if I wake up at an early hour and write 500 words each day I will, in time, have a book. Not all myths are untrue, of course, yet some of my best writing happens on the bus or while walking, and I must stand to one side, writing quickly, trying to catch the line of words that had just passed through my head like a butterfly. Some are phantoms; others are valuable sketches that can become the basis for entire paragraphs. I have learnt to take them seriously.

In recent years I have relied on the recording tool on my ancient flip phone—I actually have students who don’t recognize the device as a phone at all—to capture thoughts and moments for later transcription into my notebooks. Transcription is vital. I learned that as an undergraduate when I would transcribe all my class notes every evening before preparing for the next day.

Matar concludes:

I used to spend the evenings, depending on how the day went, either congratulating or beating myself up. It took me a long time to understand that both are just as narcissistic and just as useless, not only because the work is not responsible for my mood, but also because both conclusions steal the wind from my sails and leave me exhausted either from self-loathing or jubilation. Now I close the door and return to my life a little tired but also with that modest contentment and gratitude of those who enjoy their work. This must be boring to read, as there is really no drama. The deeper I am in this routine, the better things are.

Deep work indeed.

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