A Year of Early Morning Writing

Last week marked  the one year anniversary of my early morning writing ritual where I get up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to write.  If you find that to be an insane hour, I would not disagree with you.  I don’t live on a farm or in another time zone where that hour might be reasonable.  It is crazy early.  Why did I do it, what kept me going, and why – a year later – do I have no desire to stop?

Why I First Did It

I began writing at this ungodly hour because I craved a space where I could, on a regular basis, be creative, and simply write.  I didn’t have a specific long-term project in mind.   At the time, I was (and still am) coaching an online writing group of mostly female academics, and I saw how they struggled with finding time to write.  May is a time of intense summer writing in academia, and I thought it a great opportunity to put my money where my mouth was and accompany them on a 12-week focused summer of daily writing.  

I had read about other writers who maintained an early morning routine. Richard Carlson of  Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff rose every morning at 4:30 a.m.  Leo Babauta of ZenHabits also encouraged and followed an early morning writing routine.  Henriette A. Klauser, author of Writing on Both Sides of the Brain  extolled the virtues of early morning writing, pointing out that your inner critic is fast asleep at that time.  I even recall a former Dean, speaking to a room of aspiring junior professors, recounting how she got tenure by waking every morning at 4:30 am to write before her small children woke.    

I had also been through one period of intense writing commitment when I took part in National Novel Writing Month  in 2013.  NaNoWriMo challenges you to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  To do so, you have to produce at least 1,667 words every day, more if you skip a day.  With a full-time job, and a more than full-time family, there was no “skipping a day” that was going to happen. I had to get it done in 90 minutes a day – morning, lunch and evening after everyone went to bed. What I learned from this experience was that (1) I could make myself do something every day; (2) writing in the morning was a heck of a lot more productive than writing at night, where I would often catch myself with my fingers poised over the keyboard in a state of mini-sleep; and (3) writing at a set time every day made it easier.

What Kept Me Going

The first thing I did was to publicly commit to getting up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to write.  The day before I started, I announced this absurd plan to my online writing group, and I invited them to join me in the writing group chat room.  I was their writing coach.  I was supposed to know how to do these things and never succumb to my humanness and falter.  The pressure was on.  This accountability was an amazing source of motivation.  In its simplest form, it generates peer pressure.  I tell you I am going to do something, and you’re watching me, so now I have to do it. My reputation is at stake.  If I can’t do it, how can I ask you to do it?

Despite this motivation, the first few weeks of 4:30 a.m. writing were brutal.  My brain responded violently to the alarm.  Are you insane?  I felt as close to the living dead as I could imagine stumbling out of the bed.  

My writing was awkward as well.  I was so intimidated by what I was writing, that I would only write in an online journal to ensure that under no circumstances whatsoever would anyone ever mistakenly stumble upon my writing and read it.  This allowed me to write jibberish, which I often did.     

Every day my thoughts would do their best to sabotage me.  Go back to bed, they said.  Are you seriously getting up at this insane hour to write crap? You could be sleeping right now.

To make matters worse, no one ever joined me in the online chat room at 4:30 a.m. – or at least no one I was coaching.  There were often productive writers there – writers in other time zones where the hour was much more reasonable.  But they didn’t know me and they didn’t know my commitment.  I knew that I could stop and no one would be any the wiser.

Except for one small detail – just because they weren’t showing up at 4:30 a.m. didn’t mean they couldn’t.  

Accountability largely kept me going during the hardest phase, which was those first 12 weeks from May-August.  I kept going after that because I really started to enjoy my early morning writing sessions.  Make no mistake about it — I have never enjoyed getting up at 4:30 a.m., but after a while, I knew that I just needed to get over the hump and a special treat was waiting for me – a nice hot cup of my favorite coffee or gourmet tea, a warm blanket, my favorite armchair and my writing.  

Why I Don’t Want to Stop

A lot of times, we establish good habits on a short-term basis.  We give up some food group for a short amount of time.  We exercise regularly when the weather is warm. Maybe we get up early and write when we have a big project we are trying to finish.  Sometimes we give up on establishing a long-term habit, but other times, we like the time-limited nature of our commitments.

It’s never easy to get up before the birds, but after a while I noticed that it got a lot easier.  It became automatic to get up when the alarm went off instead of hitting the snooze bar.  

After a while, the writing got a lot easier, too.   At first, it took me  at least 15 minutes at the keyboard to say anything coherent, and I would take a break five minutes later to get a second cup of coffee.   Now I am writing coherent sentences before I even take the first sip of coffee, and I power through the breaks because I don’t like how they interrupt my morning flow.  

I am almost universally disappointed when my 45 minutes of early morning writing are over.  This is in sharp contrast to the relief I initially felt at the end of my tortuous writing sessions.  

I still have bad writing days, but they are far, far fewer than before.  Days where I struggle to find the right word, when my writing is all over the place, where I don’t know what I want to say, when I should just stop and write an outline or do something else.  It happens, but it’s rare, and when it happens, I know – from experience – that the next day – or the day after that – it will come all together.  This has helped me in every single writing project I have had – the faith to keep going even when my writing is dreadful.

I have made some modifications along the way.    Shortly after I started, I gave up my pre-dawn writing on the weekends and holidays in favor of the more reasonable hour of 8:00 or 9:00 a.m.  

Then, after nearly a year of trying to get to bed earlier, I made the executive decision to move my weekday early morning writing time to 5:00 a.m.  I can’t  believe the difference an extra 30 minutes of sleep has made in my life.

I can’t say that I haven’t missed a few writing days over the past year.  I generally don’t write on vacations, and I’ve skipped a day here and there, but not more than a handful over the past 365.  I’ve grown so accustomed to the writing that when I do miss a day, I feel unsettled – like my morning is not quite right.

Maybe one day, I’ll stop getting up insanely early and writing every day before work.  Maybe I’ll give up the weekend and holiday writing in favor of other things or nothing at all.  One day maybe.  But for now, early morning writing is part of who I am and I’ve got no plans to stop.  

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