For Christmas, my mother gave me a book called The Storied South. It’s a collection of interviews, conversations, and excerpts from lectures compiled by southern folklorist William Ferris. I’ve been reading bits and pieces each day. It’s the sort of book that’s good to read in bits and pieces.
Today, I was particularly struck by this observation from Margaret Walker:
“It takes a lot of energy to write. You need more than physical energy. You need psychic energy. I have to get my work finished before the parade passes by.”
Walker was talking about the passage of time and how she felt she hadn’t written or published as much as she should have at that point in her life. She talked about the hundreds of pages she’d compiled for an autobiography and the draft of an unfinished novel. She was not quite 70 years old when she said this. She would live another 16 years. She’d long ago published For My People and Jubilee, and several collections of poetry. She would later publish a biography of Richard Wright. We never got to see that autobiography or that novel she drafted. The parade passed by, though I don’t know how anyone other than Margaret Walker could feel she hadn’t done enough.
I’m no Margaret Walker, but I, too, fear the parade will pass by. I was 46 years old when my first novel was published. I will be 48 when the second one comes out. I am already thinking about the third, though I’m currently too absorbed in revisions for the second to do any serious writing on a new project. Writing takes a lot of energy. It also takes a lot of time.
When I was a young adult, I wrote whenever the urge struck me. I waited for both the inspiration and the time to write. I learned that inspiration and time rarely align. Later, I resolved to write after work, but I was tired from dealing with people all day long. I didn’t feel like writing most evenings, so I wrote sporadically on weekends. Finally, when I resolved to get serious (really serious) about writing, I would wake at about 4:30 in the morning and write for two hours before getting on with my day. I tried to avoid social media or emails or news, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself and I’d take a little peek to see what was happening in the world. Before I knew it, I’d wasted an hour here and an hour there. Even so, I learned I’m a better writer in the morning than I am in the evening.
Now, five days a week, I wake up between 5 and 6 a.m., pour myself a cup of coffee, and write for at least four hours. No news. No email. No Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Sometimes I’ll keep at it for six or seven hours before I take a break and shift over to working on things that actually pay the bills. Earlier this week, I worked on my latest novel for a solid eight hours. Just a few years ago, it would have taken me a month or more to spend that much time writing. I have more writing stamina now than I did when I was younger. Also, I feel that parade passing.
Last week the New York Times published a piece titled “How to Become a Super-ager.” Super-agers are people who retain exceptional mental acuity in old age. The key, according to the article, is to work really hard at something. It’s not enough to solve a few puzzles or to jog an easy three miles. You have to push past the point where your brain or your body tells you to stop. Just when the task or the problem seems impossible, you have to recommit and keep going. I’ve been applying this idea to my writing practice. I often hit what feels like a natural stopping point or I come upon a thorny section and think I should save it for tomorrow. Now I force myself to push past that point. After all, I can tackle the section now and revisit it tomorrow. When I get an idea that seems difficult to execute—chopping up an entire section and redistributing it throughout the manuscript, for instance—I don’t allow myself to dwell on the logistics of it, on how I’ll have to untangle things if my editor hates it or if I hate it. I concentrate only on the fact that the section as it stands isn’t working and I must try something new. Maybe I’ll have to try four new things, or ten. Maybe I’ll end up scrapping it altogether.
I tell you, it is liberating. When you decide you must do something really difficult, you will do it. It won’t kill you. It won’t even make you sad. For the past couple of years, I’ve been experimenting with ways to increase my productivity and this is the best thing I’ve found. It’s so simple. Work harder, work longer, push past the painful moments. The parade passes whether we’re working or not.