Energy management

How do you write?

It’s a question of endless fascination to me.  I’m insatiably curious about how other writers manage to get their stories on the page.

Some writers, it seems, hit on an ideal method early in their careers, and they feel no need to experiment. But I am restless, restless. I keep thinking there must be a better (easier?) way. So, over the years I have experimented with different writing methods across a variety of dimensions. I have tried outlining and not outlining. I have tried writing before breakfast, writing late at night and, on deadline, writing from dawn till way beyond dusk. I have tried blasting through a complete draft without going back; I have tried polishing each chapter as I wrote it; I have tried writing up to the point to where I got stuck and then feeling my way through from the beginning again. I have tried prewriting doodles in notebooks; I have tried keyboard stream-of-consciousness. I have tried writing out of chronological order; writing longhand; writing in coffee shops; writing with friends; writing in a rented space; and writing with a hat pulled down over my eyes (thank you Norma Fox Mazer).

You know, reading that last paragraph, I think I need to adjust my expectations. Am I thinking it ought to be easy? But why should it? Why can’t writing just be hard? And so what if it is?

In any case I am experimenting again—this time with energy management.  I’ve been reading that we’re more productive when, instead of working without a break for hours on end, we divide our time into discrete intervals, oscillating between spurts of intense work and frequent periods of rest.

This idea intrigued me, because I know that some of the time when I’m “working” I’m fuzzing out in front of the screen, or making excuses to do easier things rather than hard ones—looking up some research tidbit online, or making a new pot of coffee, or reading an article about writing, instead of actually, you know, writing. And I have noticed that I tend to do these things when I’m mentally fatigued.

What sold me on trying intervals with writing was what happened when I tried intervals in my morning workout on the stationary bike. I usually go for forty minutes at a certain steady resistance level. My goal is twelve miles, which I reach in most, but not all of my workout sessions. One morning I realized I was not on track to make my twelve miles. Just not gonna happen that morning.  So I thought I might as well try intervals: go really hard for thirty seconds, then go slower for four minutes, then hard for thirty seconds again. And repeat. Thirty seconds didn’t really feel like very long to work hard, but I had permission to dog it for the four minutes, so I did. When I had finished the workout, I was shocked to find that I had gone nearly fourteen miles. So those smaller intervals of greater intensity…really made a difference.

In my writing, I’m experimenting with focused intervals of one hour, forty-five minutes, and twenty-five minutes, with much shorter, timed, periods of brain rest in between. Tom Birdseye told me about the Pomodoro technique, where you go hard for twenty-five minute intervals with five-minute breaks. It’s actually more complicated, but that’s the gist of it. For me, sometimes “brain rest” means unloading the dishwasher or doing Pilates stretches. Sometimes it’s eating breakfast. Sometimes it’s crashing on the couch.

More productive?  The jury’s still out . I’m still tweaking, but so far I’m really liking working with a timer. I feel more energetic and focused while I’m writing. The resting part is nice, too.


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9 responses to “Energy management

  1. Martine Leavitt

    Susan, thank you so much for this post! I’ve been doing the intervals thing for some time because I can’t seem to sustain for long periods the kind of intensity of thought writing requires of me. I always felt guilty about it, until now.

  2. Thanks for this. Susan. I’ve been going through several nights of next to no sleep, which often presages the start of a new novel. No guarantee of that, because two or three chapters can end up just being, you know, two or three chapters. But as I think about clambering back into the saddle, I immediately find myself looking at how it will happen — what shape the process will take as far as getting it out: all those words and actions and first-draft babble, while your brain is on fire and it’s still a long way from when writing will again actually be fun!

  3. susanfletcher2012

    Martine! If this is how YOU write, I’m even more excited about it. And Tim, I love that your embryonic novels inhabit you in this way. Can’t wait to see what emerges.

  4. louisehawes

    I’ve tried walking in “bursts,” Susan, and I really like it. And I just read an article that suggests everyone of us needs vertical/standing time at frequent intervals throughout the day. As someone who can “forget the time” and stay writing/seated for 5 and 6 hours at a clip, I’m seriously in need of a timer! Thanks for making me get off my butt and buy one 🙂

  5. I love this, Susan! I can really only write-write, as in write without doing anything but writing, for two hours at a time, and by the end of that two hours my brain is screaming at me to stop. I used to feel badly about this when I heard of other writers who could write for eight hours without stopping. I feel better after reading your post, and I think I’ll try focused intervals for a while.

  6. Thanks, Susan. I loved your post. Because of the way my life seems to be arranging itself these days, I’ve been using the intervals method, and I find that it works sometimes but not all the time. I think a lot of its effectiveness has to do with what happens between the periods of writing and what type of energy from those periods carries over into the writing. I also must say that I feel sometimes like an old baseball pitcher — it takes me more and more time to warm up.

  7. Susan, you’ve inspired me. Thanks for sharing all your experiments with writing time and energy. I admit to doing the fuzzing-in-front-of-screen thing and the doing-easy-things-first thing. I look forward to hearing how it all works for you. I agree with Mark that life sometimes takes a (wild-card) hand in life (mine at least) so I’m going to go for the 25-minute gusto at least twice a day.

  8. susanfletcher2012

    Mary and Mark, I read somewhere that there was a study of the top tennis players, and the difference between the ones at the top top and the next tier down was that the very top level players relaxed more completely between points, thus conserving their energy.

    I think this mitigates in favor of naps…

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