Continuing with this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing we’ve arrived at the fourth of eleven commandments. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want a second (or third, or fourth) look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.
This week, we get into much more specific process stuff, bringing in Henry Miller’s own work “program,” beginning with the command to . . .
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
I have to admit I have the worst problem with both parts of this: working according to any “program,” but also stopping at some “appointed time.” I tend to keep going when I get going, but getting going can be tough.
But before I get into my own whining—and I promise it won’t be all whining—let’s look at Henry Miller’s to do list template:
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.
Work on section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections—on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.
Whew—sounds like a full day!
Actually, sounds like a fantastic day.
Let’s break it down a little, compared to my own version of a work “program.”
First of all, I never write in the morning and I never have. Maybe once or twice . . . maybe, but we’ll say effectively never. As is I tend to my consulting business in the mornings, which is when I go through emails, respond to clients and prospective clients, manage my online courses, and handle various bits of personal business like paying bills, handling my simple accounting, and I try my damnest to exercise. But my exercise bike broke and now I need to figure out what else to do. Summer is here, so this is a good time for me to find some alternate exercise program. Maybe Miller’s evening stroll through “unfamiliar sections” could actually work for me. No more morning exercise would actually help me get my butt in the chair earlier and get through all those morning business things earlier, so maybe I could actually write for an hour or so in there somewhere.
Still, if you aren’t groggy, and don’t have some kind of “day job” that intrudes on your morning, try Miller’s morning writing program and let me know how that works for you.
Afternoons . . . now that tends to be my Achilles heel.
I work like a madman most afternoons, switching between a number of projects in any given week—edits, ghostwriting projects, courses . . . not a lot of my own writing, though. I have, on the other hand, had some solid success with a “program” of my own, not at all dissimilar to Henry Miller’s. I’ve started blocking out time on my calendar to help keep myself on task during the day.
It’s been working for me—increasing my productivity by leaps and bounds. To do this, though, first you have to have a solid sense of how long things actually take you. How many words can you write in an hour? How many words can you revise or edit? Or, I suppose, you can set your goals by time rather than words: Write continuously for an hour. If that gets you 800 decent words on Monday and 1200 on Tuesday . . . fine! I do have a good sense of the relationship between words and time, though, so I know I can write a reasonably solid, if rough, 1000 words in an hour. I also know that I can actually carve out an hour in any given day to do anything—even at times like right now when I have a particularly robust workload. So I need to, if in fine fettle, write for an hour every afternoon!
I hereby add that to my calendar in the name of Henry Miller!
His advice to stay on task in your afternoon writing session goes back to the previous commandments. I’ll let my revisions of those stand and say work on the novel if you want to, a short story if you’d prefer, and so on, as long as you’re, y’know . . . writing.
Still, this is Henry Miller, full time writer we’re hearing from, so what about the 99%+ of us who have other work responsibilities—even people like me who’s “day job” often is writing, if not full time fantasy novelist sort of writing?
If you need to pay bills like a grow-up and need to keep your job at the law firm or the library or the pizzeria . . . can you still write everyday on that one (or small set of) current projects(s)?
I feel good about being able to carve an hour of writing out of every afternoon because with a few exceptions I tend to be in charge of my own schedule anyway. I’m very rarely expected to be at certain place at a set time. So if I write from, say, 2:30 in the afternoon to 3:30 and that means maybe I need to work an extra hour later in the evening to finish up an edit, or better yet, sit down to work an hour earlier in the morning . . . I can do that. But if you have actual office hours, work a set shift, you won’t be able to stick to Henry Miller’s plan, or mine, with my blocks of time on a Mac calendar so reminders push me from task to task like a virtual project manager.
Where is that hour to be found then? On the bus or train on the way in and the way home from work? Do you get an hour for lunch? Or do you shift this writing time to the evening, when gentlemen of leisure like Henry Miler are wandering the streets of Greenwich Village, scowling at the local hooligans? Or do you get up an hour earlier in the morning and fight through the grogginess? Give up an hour of evening TV viewing and let the DVR hold onto Better Call Saul for a bit? Wherever it comes from, you’ll have to find it on your own.
As such, I’m going to revise this commandment to read:
4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.
Honestly, Henry Miller’s whole evening plan just sounds great to me. My evenings? Fight with my family over dinner I’d rather skip, cook it anyway, eat it joylessly, then watch TV while feeling guilty about not working for a couple hours before falling asleep sitting up at 8:30 pm. I used to write at night, but I don’t anymore. I used to have hobbies (not painting, per se, but hobbies), but I don’t anymore. And I never allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride.
This Miller guy might be onto something here.