Haruki Murakami wakes at 4am to write, without variation. Hemingway wrote as soon as it got light. Vonnegut started at 5:30am, Maya Angelou at 6:30, WH Auden at 7, and Simone de Beauvoir at 10 am. Jack Kerouac wrote midnight til dawn. 1-5 am are Tim Ferriss’ best hours. Kafka often wrote all night. Proust lost all track of day and night.
Since successful writers have set routines unique to them, there must be an optimal time for me as well, when my best ideas will flow like water, my words might be unstoppable! Years of experimentation and experience has led me to some conclusions, so here is the final word on the absolute very best time to write.
First thing after waking, as dreams still thrum through your subconscious and spill out at the edges. When it’s time for bed but you have this one thought that you must get down on paper. At 3am when you can’t sleep anyway. Very early or very late while the world sleeps and silence allows words to bubble up uninterrupted.
When you notice something seemingly normal or benign and want to capture its essence to make it come alive. When a song, a poem, or even a brief lyrical fragment comes to mind. When a story bubbles up and won’t leave you alone. When a work of art inspires words that sizzle. When you want to communicate the ineffable. Mary Oliver had it right: Instructions for living a life. / Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.
When a loved one dies and you try to figure out what happened or how you can go on. When your thoughts tumble confused or disorganized and you need clarity. When your experience feels unique and separates you from others. When you’re weary of life and you wait and wait for words with a new spark. When you’re stressed, depressed, or anxious. Hemingway said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
When you want to overcome a long-standing or transient fear or a challenge you can’t avoid. When you’re sick and want to make sense of the symptoms or learn your body better; or in health, as your world explodes with unexpected vigor. When your path forks and diverges into unknowns and you want to figure out the best choices. When you puzzle over a decision or dilemma. When you want to build self awareness, and learn your mind.
When you’re giddy in love and want to relive the course of each heart swelling moment; or when you’re heartbroken, abandoned, or treated unfairly. Jorge Luis Borges said, “All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
When you’re nine years old, learning to track your life and the world around you in words. When you’re fifteen and pissed off, angsty, and out of control. In mid-life when everything you think you know turns topsy-turvy and you desperately look for equilibrium. Late in life as you grapple with life’s finite nature and mysterious cycles.
When you want to reflect on historical events and political tides that wash you to and fro. When you travel and are torn open by exquisite or heartbreaking moments; or when you’re in your home town and see the same old things but in a new way. Natalie Goldberg said, “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded…. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us.”
When you’re in the shower, as you stare out the window, waiting for water to boil, or considering a newly-fledged bird as it hops from one garden bed to another. When you try to remember something, but have only a ghost of a thought, and need to catch it before it sprints away. When you just write about what’s in front of you and it excavates an old memory, or a story, or turns into something you do want to write about. While you meditate and an irresistible thought arises. When you need a regular practice to anchor your mind. When you have no ideas but somehow, perhaps out on a walk, words roll in like fog, tangible, and can be laid down on paper in whatever random disorder.
When you think that what you’ve written is the worst, but you slog on in hopes that when you look back later or read it aloud to someone, a bigger better idea will shine through. When resistance is at a peak but you made this commitment – to a certain time, a certain number of words or pages, or to a writing buddy who keeps you accountable. Donald Barthelme said, “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.”
When you hope to improve your writing skills, learn to make sentences ring out and come alive. When you want to be more observant, present, and mindful. When you want to celebrate the magic of the natural world, or the wonders of humankind.
So now you know, and… there goes my last excuse.
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” — E.B. White