Who am I to sit here dispensing advice on managing writing output? As my next manuscript deadline hurtles toward me like a big, um, hurtler, all these carefully cultivated creative habits wilt. The gears begin to grind. The machinery starts to smoke. I reconsider my path in life.
As the pressure mounts and my prefrontal cortex sizzles under the strain, I've leaned more and more heavily on Brain.fm, the "science-backed" focus music service. Science? Probably a reference to binaural beats which, well, I'm not sure science has come to a conclusion on whether those aid concentration or not. But science was involved in all those inconclusive tests, so, science!
Either way, the service works well enough for my needs. Even the so-called focus playlists on Spotify and Apple Music occasionally let discordant or otherwise jarring sounds slip through to my ears. There goes a good sentence. Or, worse, they include a track with vocals. At the wrong moment, all it takes is a single lyric to shatter my delicate little snowflake writer concentration.
Brain.fm says it can evoke four different mental states: focus, relax, sleep, and meditate. Once I tap "focus"—if "sleep" were an option, believe me, I'd take it—I have to choose between light work, study & read, creative flow, and, naturally, deep work. Usually, I opt for that one because it most accurately describes the persistent sense of drowning. (Not sure that was Cal Newport's intention in coining the term.)
Next, length of work session: For late-stage manuscript development, a mere 25-minute Pomodoro is barely enough time to review the complex mess of notes, interviews, quotes, research extracts, and missing citations that span a handful of pages, let alone do anything about all of it. Even setting a 90-minute timer makes me nervous that I'll be interrupted before I've closed the necessary loops. So I go with the final option which, believe it or not, is "infinity."
Nothing drills home the sad state of your writing affairs like seeing "infinity" on your phone. The same phrase keeps running through my head as I return to the coffeemaker over and over again: "Infinity deep work...infinity deep work..."
"To write a book is to make a Faustian contract in reverse," read a note that Salman Rushdie once pinned above his desk. "To gain immortality, or at least posterity, you lose, or at least ruin, your actual daily life." Tell that to a ghostwriter. If there's a Faustian contract involved in this, it probably involves blockchain. (Actually, if there is a Devil, he's absolutely into crypto. Hell is a DAO.)
To be clear, I'm not writing all day. That would be absurd. Yet some writers appear to persist for unbelievable durations. "I have been feeling execrably of late—whole weeks have passed without relief from head-ache and dizziness," H.P. Lovecraft wrote a friend, "and for a long time three hours was my utmost limit for continuous work." Three hours on a bad day? The guy really was crazy. (Also, racist.) Did he work too much because he was nuts, or was he nuts because he worked too much? Let's not find out.
As I've said before, one benefit of writing heavily each and every day is that you finally stop optimizing (assuming you have a slight tendency to over-optimize, like me). Under the gun, there's simply no time—or energy—to get caught up envisioning a better approach. You just sit there and do what needs doing, one word in front of the other, until you look up and realize you're out of time.
The trick I've yet to learn is bringing that marvelously efficient working mindset into my normal, everyday writing life. Swinging violently back and forth between hyper-productivity and, well, the other kind does a number on you. It's not quantity but continuity that makes a project come together.
"Weekends and weekdays don’t matter to a writer," Erica Jong tells the New York Times. "I’ve discovered through my life, if you take the day off, it takes you two days to get back to where you were. You need to keep it going in your head." True. We returned from a trip and it took several days to restore my rhythm again. Touching a project every day—though not being completely consumed by it—keeps part of the mind engaged at all times. When I break that connection by taking too much time away, the work becomes abstract. I start thinking instead of doing, stuck in my head instead of on the page.