DON’T SAY GOOD MORNING to your dog. Don’t turn on the news. Don’t check your inbox. Just don’t. The only thing you can do is make coffee, get comfortable, and open Word.
This is one of two prescriptions for encouraging creativity offered by writer and writing teacher Dorothea Brande. In her 1934 book Becoming a Writer, Brande tells beginning writers that powerful writing comes not from Gods during a perfect storm of inspiration, but from sitting down and writing; first very early in the morning, and, later, at pre-arranged times without excuses.
“The first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm,” says Brande.
“The best way to do this is to rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can—and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before—begin to write.”
Write anything, says Brande. Write about your bitchy neighbour, the smell of grandpa’s cigarettes, the sock on the floor. At first, she says, the subject and worth of your writing is not important. “What you are actually doing is training yourself, in the twilight zone between sleep and the full waking state, simply to write.”
In the way that we are just a little funnier with one or two glasses of wine, we are better writers when our brains are relaxed in that half-asleep, half-awake state. Inhibition is still snoring. Imagination has been up for hours. The to-do list and the dishes are still at bay; the day, to your tricked mind, has not yet begun.
We are better writers when our brains are relaxed in that half-asleep, half-awake state. Inhibition is still snoring. Imagination has been up for hours.
I worked this way, early in the morning, for several months while I was writing my memoir How to Meet a Nice Man from Medicine Hat. My husband and I lived in a tiny (300 square-feet) studio. He worked nights at a pub. I rose at five or six and wrote until 10 or 11, when he woke.
It wasn’t easy at first. My brain resisted. It begged: Check your email! Read The Guardian. Is Ghost having a sale? But after a week or two, my mind went quiet. I tip-toed the two feet from our bed to the desk, boiled some hot water for the coffee press (no machines!), and sat down. I wrote. For one hour, then two, and so on. I fought the need to pee and typed away.
The words swam from my mind to my fingers. And not just when I was at my desk. My body had gotten used to writing, but my brain had too, and so it fiddled with sentences and delivered better phrasings when I was out walking, later in the afternoon, or riding the tube on my way to class.
When my husband stirred—I don’t know how he slept through keys clacking—I permitted myself to check my email. It was my reward. Yay! Usually there wasn’t anything there.
Brande, in the 1930s, couldn’t have imagined all the distractions writers would battle nearly 100 years later: Twitter, strollercize and streaming online news, never mind dinner and day jobs.
Today’s writers are skilled multi-taskers who face a barrage of distractions at any given second, and this makes Brande’s dawn prescription all the more useful. It’s much harder to tune out the world and all of it’s flashing icons mid-day. But when it’s still dark…
If you want to be a writer, forget everything else, at least for a little while when you wake up, and write.
Watch out for Part Two of Good Habits Make Good Writers, as well as one of my favourite early morning writing prompts.
If you give Brande’s rise and write suggestion a go, tell us how it went. What did you struggle with? How did you overcome those hurdles?