26 Hours: The Magical State of Writing

Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write… The reason the morning is so important is that I’ve spent the night somewhere else.

“How  I Get to Write,” Roxana Robinson

* * *

It’s five in the morning on a Saturday.

Ten years ago at this time, I’d be leaving the warehouse, the party, the bar I’d spent my evening, my hearing dulled from loud thumping music. I had more time then — I had more of a lot of things, I suppose: Energy. Willingness. Recovery time.

Time was never an issue.

Last year, I went from working 20 hours a week to 50+ hours a week. The increase has been gradual, but I’ve had a hard time adjusting to not just a new job and schedule, but lifestyle. I don’t remember the last time I’ve sat in front of my computer to write, just like this, without interruption. Without having to think about anything else — my work, my husband, or any of the noise unleashed on other tabs in my browser.

Time when I can sit and think and type and hope that, in these hours, a part of me — unaccessible at any other time — will make its way onto the page.

I’ve come downstairs to my sofa, to my laptop. Always glowing, always waiting — rarely touched in quiet, intimate hours like these, when I’m up and automatic, when the day hasn’t seeped in, when the outside world hasn’t grabbed hold of me. I don’t know how long this lapse will last, so I’ll just type until I stop.

For Roxana, the writer of the New Yorker piece on writing quoted above, coffee is part of this delicate, easily pierced space. The elixir of the imagination, she calls it. I once felt the same, but in the past year I’ve delayed putting on the coffee until later in the morning, or waited for my husband to wake up and do it. At first I thought I was just lazy. But now, I realize this lengthens the in-between state of free-flowing thoughts. It’s a bit of a game I play with myself: creating these magical hours to produce something — anything — unrelated to my waking world.

Because once the day starts, my window closes.

North Beach, San Francisco.

So here I am, molding jet lag into something productive and creative, carving out a bit more time. Squeezing out as much as I can between 5 am and 7 am, as dark turns to light outside of my window and this play time for my mind runs out.

There are not enough hours of the day, I’ve begun to think. I’ve never been obsessed with productivity, but lately I’ve been doing what I can to make minutes count, like whittling down my backlog of emails while walking down the street when I should be paying attention to the pole in my path. Or scrolling to the top of my Twitter feed when I’m stopped at a red light.

I don’t like operating this way, yet it’s a mode to which I quickly shift once I’ve left my bed each morning; I skip those magical hours, as there’s not enough time. But I realize there is — really, there is. I live comfortably. I have what I need. I don’t have kids. I have the fucking time. I just need to make room for it.

Yes, this I am a writer! I am creative! I am fragile! stuff is silly. But so what if I believe I can conjure up two extra hours in my day? Who cares if I must play this game with myself, that I find comfort in this fantasy that I’m a writer and I make words in an inspired, inexplicable state?

We all have our things. In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott writes of the little helper that lives inside a writer’s mind, or deep down in one’s gut:

There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on, is that little kid or the Dr. Seuss creature in the cellar, arranging and stitching things together.

So, in a time of noise and stuff and routine, allow me to think that some of my days — the special, whimsical ones — have 26 hours. That I can create time just for me. If it gets me to write, if it gives me time to play — to just be — then let me believe.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

55 thoughts on “26 Hours: The Magical State of Writing

  1. I just found your site, so this is late…although I did take Blogging 101 a few weeks ago. I’ve been wanting to write for years, well decades, and have resisted blogging for years. Whenever life seems hard, and it’s difficult to get through something,a friend always reminds me of the book I shared with her, and she says: bird by bird. Sometimes, things have to find their own way, at their own pace, into your life.

  2. Beautiful post on the same problem every writer faces! Lately I was doing some research on how famous writers wrote. As it turns out, they all have their own routines. Here is a page I found very interesting: http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/writers/
    And so should you. Try out one principle, keep it if it works for you. If it doesn’t, let it go and try another one. There is no principle that works for everyone. There are only principles that worked for many. Your task is to search and find the principle that works for you. And then go to your desk and do one thing: make good art.

  3. My 5am -7am, is at night. When the day is done, and please nobody should have a reason to disturb me between 10pm and 12am please… That’s my precious, there is nothing else in the world going on, so don’t bother me, I’m a creative spirit time! the problem is getting sleepy, can’t edit at all, and sometimes hard to be creative or get my mind to think anymore – well unless I’m on to something that just pumps me up… very nice article. we all can relate!

  4. Wonderful post, and one I can totally relate to! If I am jetlagged or awake before the break of day for any other reason – I revel in it, I feel more creative, I feel like I have fooled the world and found a free little bit of extra thinking space. It feels as though the mind’s imagination is less inhibited when on the frontier between waking and sleeping… and yet despite my best resolutions I can never keep to a “get up early deliberately” routine! Keep up the good work 🙂

  5. I’ve found writing much more difficult now that I’m employed. Finding free time isn’t the problem per se. It’s finding a stretch of three or more contiguous hours needed to get anything worthwhile written.

  6. What a great post. Trouble is my house is like a non stop railway station – empty house time starts a 2pm until 4pm and that is my time to write. So the coffee is a must and phone is switched off.

  7. I am a big believer in getting up early before the rest of the house is awake. I set my alarm for 3:47 am… It works for me.

    Bird by Bird is a book I often go back to- inspiring.

  8. Reblogged this on elisecolcord and commented:
    I feel the exact same way. The morning allows for you to wake before the world does and create your own, temporary reality in which thoughts dance freely around your mental and physical being. It’s quite the game of cat and mouse that beings before the sunrise each day.

  9. Hmm… I know that too well. Between a full time job and a band it feels like there’s never enough time. And yet blogging makes me so happy that I always manage to squeeze that in somehow!

  10. How much time you have to write doesn’t usually equate to how much you write. At the moment, I have two young children and am working from home – I write about 50,000 words a month for my paid work and about 14,000 for my blog/blog related activities. I think having kids and essentially having less time has made me passionate about writing and stringent about time. I use every spare second! Beautiful blog. Beautiful writing. x

  11. I can definitely relate to this. Especially where you say you have the time. you just need to make room for it. That’s my problem too. I work 50+ hours per week and realize that some of the things I want to do the most get put on the back burner but I just need to make time. Or I just need to drink more coffee. thanks for the post.

  12. I just wrote a blog post asking creative minds combat fatigue. I’m totally feeling you on this! It’s difficult, seriously, to work 40+ hours each week and manage the time to write. But at least you work as a writer, haha! I’d give anything to quit my non-writing job and exchange it for a writing one.

    Thanks for the post.

  13. I think we all do whatever it takes to get those thoughts down before the outside world intrudes. I wouldn’t quite call myself an insomniac, but I do have trouble sleeping. I used to turn the television on or read. Now I turn my computer on and write about whatever woke me. Inspiration under the shower is another good one for me. For obvious reasons, I don’t have a notebook or anything electronic nearby. I just sing ‘super hero mums, super hero mums doing things in aprons, la, la, la, la’ until I can hasten out and expand on the original ideas.

    1. Inspiration under the shower is another good one for me.

      Yep. I mentioned this to someone below. One of the best places to write entire posts in my head, for sure. (Sadly, I forget everything once I’m out, dry, and in front of my computer.)

      1. It’s the singing part that’s the trick, Cheri. (Close your eyes here) leap out of the shower singing that idea , loud and proud, la, la, la, la, la, and pop the idea down in your notebook. It works. And it saves on water too. What more can you ask for?

  14. I gave myself “the gifts of time”–plural–by quitting my job, finally. Do I miss the considerable extra money? Sometimes. But each day and night belongs to me more than ever before. Take it from someone who have lived six decades: every minute does count, and then you write of it…

  15. I know I write less and not as well if I do tasks after waking (e.g. washing up last night’s dishes, preparing breakfast, etc.), instead of just sitting down to write and allowing myself to do the necessary stuff later on. So I totally understand what you say about the coffee – there is some kind of quality to that not-quite-awake-yet state of mind that makes the words flow more easily and in new directions.

    1. There is some kind of quality to that not-quite-awake-yet state of mind that makes the words flow more easily and in new directions.

      Exactly. I actually just returned from Spain a few days ago so just experienced jetlag once again — that, combined with the natural state I’m in at 6 am, has contributed to some not-quite-awake writing hours this week 🙂

  16. I often get that quiet feeling in early mornings when I feel inspired to write. But it is rare, disrupted by someone waking and the day beginning. I find having coffee often prompts to me remember the day is here, and that I lose some of the quiet magic when the coffee is made. I often think we feel pressed for time when we have expectations of results. If there is nothing that needs doing, we have ample time.

  17. I’m a teacher and I know what you mean about those last few moments of vacation. While I can’t wait to get back to my students after I take a vacation, I also completely identify with your 5am feeling and try to stall the day’s arrival as much as possible.

  18. Yes, you are a writer! And you are creative! -I’ve enjoyed this piece. There is something magical both in the theme you are writing about and the way you have written it. I particularly loved the very last lines you wrote; it resonates well with me!

  19. The 50+ hour work week seems like it ought to be surmountable, if we just want it enough. The truth, of course, is that it is, but it’s difficult to lay the rest of my day aside sometimes and clear my head enough to immerse myself in my writing world. I come home from work tense, or wired with adrenaline, or so tired I can barely stand. I’ve contemplated the idea of getting up early, but I can never seem to go to bed on time, or pull myself up early when it really counts. I have some other things I need to do, but I think then I’ll try it.

    I tend to be jacked up on coffee much of the time. I’ve convinced myself I need it to get through my day, but you definitely have a point about the space between dreaming and the practicalities of day to day existence. Perhaps if I didn’t worry about being alert when I wrote, I would not filter and parse my ideas and words so much.

    1. I love hearing others’ approaches to this — some need coffee, some don’t; some work well at night, after absorbing the day’s events and “when there are ideas and language flickering around upstairs like a power grid in the summer” (as Nico commented below).

      I wish I could get up early on a regular basis. But like you say, sometimes we can’t get to bed in time, or pull ourselves up when it really counts.

  20. Back in the day my elixir was alcohol, and it usually came after the day was done when I had a lot to think about. These days most of my writing occurs at coffee shops in the late morning, where the white noise settles over me. I don’t actually think it’s the one or two cups of coffee that get my fingers going but the activity of the cafe space – being able to look up every once in a while to make sure the world is still there, then immediately refocusing on the words at my face.

    Regarding late at night vs early a.m., I’d love to hear opinions why people choose to write before they have the events of the day to inspire them (maybe the thought patterns are more pure?) versus at night when there are ideas and language flickering around upstairs like a power grid in the summer.

    1. Love the images and scenes you created for me in your comments, Nico: “the activity of the cafe space – being able to look up every once in a while to make sure the world is still there” — well said!

      And love your insight about late night vs. early am — I’ve never worked well at night. I may be tired and have already shut off, but you make a good point about having absorbed the events and encounters of that day to inspire and provoke us. While I have written stuff at night that I’ve been really happy with, I do need to be “in the mood,” and it definitely needs to be quiet, with no distractions.

  21. There’s a poignant beauty to this post, a post which whispers of all your writing themes.

    Funny how time and space are conflated on the microcosmic scale as well: to “have” the time, one must free up the space. (Far too easy to clog our lives with the behavioral equivalent of junk food.)

    There must always be room for whimsy.

    Apologies for the somewhat opaque comment. Perhaps this is *my* witching hour. I’ll put the coffee on….

    1. Though I do wonder if this caffeinated delineation between magical time and daily time is a form of mythological dualism?

      1. Perhaps we should not distinguish between magical vs. waking just as we do with digital vs. real. Time is time; maybe we don’t shut off as writers and shift between modes and worlds. But there’s something romantic and exciting about it all, I suppose — the spark of imagination conjured within a brief, elusive window. Here, too, we fetishize — that struggling writerly life, that tortured process we strangely crave.

    2. My theory:

      Writing whimsy is letting our inner child out for a run-around. Otherwise he/she stomps around our heads, sulking, pouting, knocking things over (our Hope, Self-Worth etc.) and caterwauling at such a volume that our Outer Adult has a problem focusing or getting anything done.

      I might just be making excuses for my own behavior, of course. Haven’t had coffee for *hours*.

  22. Well said, especially that last paragraph. As an aspiring writer who abandoned the writing inside of myself very very early and is just getting that identity back, I know that carving out time to write is one of the hardest parts, especially when you’re so accustomed to filling that time with things you’ve been taught are more important than your silly dream of becoming a writer. I’m slowly but surely learning how to make time for my creativity, for the magic you mention. The problem with my writer’s spirit is that it comes and goes and I never know when the next rush of inspiration will come to suspend me, untouchable, in that creative space between day and night, between one task and the next. But I’m getting there, and it sounds like you are too.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. I, too, never know when the next rush will hit. Sometimes it takes many months. I’m slowly learning how to manage my time. I feel like this is something I should know how to do by now, but I don’t 🙂

  23. I’ve found there are two types of writing I need to stay sane and hopeful, (which can be roughly labelled as “factual” and “fictional”, although that’s not strictly true.) When I focus on one at the expense of the other, all my writing suffers, I lose faith and find myself unable to deal with uncertainty. I feel unbalanced; sometimes, floored.

    And mornings are a good time for one of those types of writing – the free, meandering, playful, exploring, ‘fictional’ kind. Mornings are good for this because it takes me hours to properly wake up. I’m still partly asleep when I’m writing. Still dreamy, unconscious and unselfconscious.

    I read that Haruki Murakami has a set routine he engages in to expand this dreamlike state through the course of his novel-writing – effectively, hypnotizing himself, which explains the dreamlike quality of his work. I reckon mornings are a good starting-point for a campaign of self-hypnosis – less “squeezed into the cracks of the days” than “when you’re most able to write like that”.

    Sounds like you need both types of writing too. I look forward to seeing the results of your new routine. 🙂

    1. I see you online, on Twitter, when you should be sleeping, so I am aware that you may be half-awake or half-asleep or hypnotized or something similar at any time of the day 🙂

      Yes, I need different types of writing — writing done for work, at my various jobs, has rarely been satisfying in a personal, deeper way. The results may not lead to anything tangible (ie, monetary), but I feel better — healthier — when I make the time.

      1. >>”The results may not lead to anything tangible (ie, monetary), but I feel better — healthier — when I make the time.”

        Aye, and the lack of immediate money, there’s the rub. But something curious happens after a while, when you manage to get on with “Me”-writing and manage to get the balance right – opportunities to use *both* types of writing start to appear. The longer you stick around and get known for writing *that* kind of stuff, the more the world seems to say “okay, so maybe you’re onto something there, maybe I should send some opportunities your way”.

        I refer you back to a certain post, written entirely for the thrill of writing it, that landed you in an article at The Atlantic.

        Writers who don’t treat their work like a business tend to sink. And I’d argue writers who don’t treat their work like Art, too, although they tend to sink in a different way. The ones who find ways to treat their work like both, they’re the ones who have the stamina & passion to make everything work.

        I still say the response to your Atlantic-mentioned piece screams “topic worthy of non-fiction, well-researched Internet culture book deal”. Just sayin’. 😉

        1. Writers who don’t treat their work like a business tend to sink. And I’d argue writers who don’t treat their work like Art, too, although they tend to sink in a different way. The ones who find ways to treat their work like both, they’re the ones who have the stamina & passion to make everything work.

          + infinity

          Hard to find that balance right now, sadly, with my time focused entirely on work. To be honest, I’m worried about it all — drifting away from the intellectual space I’ve begun to carve for myself online. Not having as much time to actually read the stuff *I* want to read, and keep up with the moving train of Twitter, of ideas.

          It’ll be a challenge, certainly. But I haven’t forgotten about the larger, long-term projects in which I hope to invest my time and energy. It’s not quite the right time, but in the meantime I’ll create a path for myself that will help me get to where I want to be.

  24. What a great post! I loved that you quoted Anne Lamott. I have that book and it’s so great. I do know what you mean though about carving out some time for writing, creatively, for yourself! I put this off plenty, telling myself I’ll get to it…one of these days. Something always seems to take priority over it but many times, it’s me putting it on a lower priority. I think whatever one has to do, “create a whimsical time for yourself,” is wonderful. Who knows what may come out during this extra two hours for you? This post certainly came from some “magical” place and I enjoyed reading it. It inspired me and that’s what good writing is supposed to do.

    P.S. (loved that painting!)

    1. Glad you mentioned the piece of art — I took a photo of this, which was splashed on the wall of an alleyway in San Francisco. I felt it illustrated a bit what I was describing here — unleashing creativity.

  25. Your early morning wee-hour writing has inspired me. During the summer, I would get up every morning before everyone else in the house, and it was a magical, silent, twilight time of putting words directly on “paper.” Somehow, life got in the way. I want to be in bed in the morning to cuddle with my husband. Or grab a few extra z’s before making breakfasts and lunches. But now, my writing has to squeeze in somewhere, after all the other chores are done, after my to-do list has been tackled. I write, but it’s chaotic. By not giving it its own time slot, I feel like I disrespect it. I tell it “you’re not important enough.”

    This is beautifully written. Quiet, like the morning. I think I might start setting my alarm, at least once or twice a week, to cuddle with my keyboard.

  26. Too true. Not enough time. And why do great ideas for blog posts always come when you’re busy doing something else? When you just want to sit down RIGHT THEN AND THERE and write it down…

    1. Funny you say this — I get a number of post ideas in the shower. Something about running water relaxes the mind. I write entire posts in my head and swear I will remember them, and once I sit down to write something, I’m blank.

      1. Skipping the magical hours of quiet, with distractions put aside. Excellent thought.
        For me, I like the weekend hours between 8 and 10 am. I’ll often draft a blog post (but I do enjoy me coffee:), work on an article draft, try to write inspired lesson plans, or just see how the time unfolds. I’ve come to expect something positive to happen, but that’s not always the case.
        As the day unfolds, I find it more difficult from noon onwards (any day of the week) to feel energized or inspired. And more likely to be distracted digitally, or by work stuff.

      2. Yes!! Showering, running, driving. Everything is there – all the words, eloquent, perfect, like the things you wish you would have said during an argument – and you grin with satisfaction that you are about to write a masterpiece. Then you dry off, or arrive home panting, or get to a stoplight where you dig out your moleskin and a crayon from the bottom of your purse, and just as you put wax to paper, Poof. It’s all gone.

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