On the first morning of my honeymoon, I woke up at 6 a.m. to the alarm on my phone. I moved carefully, so as not to wake my brand-new husband (later, I would discover that herds of reindeer could dance on his sweetly snoring head). I rooted through our luggage for a sweatsuit and my laptop and I headed downstairs.
We were in a small hotel in Glacier National Park. The restaurant wasn't even open but I asked at the front desk -- using as few words as possible -- if there was any way I could get coffee. The clerk glanced at my pastel blue sweats, flip-flops and barely brushed hair. But I stood my ground. "Thank you," I eked out, when he brought me a styrofoam cup.
I took the coffee and the computer to the closed dining area, pushing aside the "Open for breakfast at 8 a.m.!" sign. Then I found a booth in a nearly-dark back corner and opened my laptop. But nothing came.
I was still bowled over from the excitement of our wedding. I was frightened, too. This was my second marriage and John's third; statistics ran like ticker tape through my head. I was nervous about the teenagers I'd left back home. Even more daunting, I was working on my second novel -- the one everyone told me had to be a blockbuster, better than my first and a far bigger commercial success.
I sat, drinking my scorched coffee and staring for about 15 minutes at the characters on my screen. Nothing was clear to me: no next sentence or event. So I pulled up a fresh document and tried some meta-writing about the story, which involved a lonely, 40-year-old food critic and the ex-husband who left her when he realized he was gay, then turned around and married a beautiful, younger woman. Also a sexy chef trying to shore up a failing restaurant, a brilliant obese man with impeccable style, a corrupt editor, a food-obsessed gym rat, a motorcycle-riding grandmother, and a thirteen-year-old circus performer.
It was a mess.
Finally, around 7:10, I opened yet another document and typed the date: September 2, 2006. Then I began: "I am married." This was my writing time. And no matter how much pure shit or nothingness I produced, I would write until the line formed for breakfast at 8 a.m.
I developed my method -- my "ritual," some might call it -- in 2003. That's the year I moved back to MInneapolis from Providence, divorced, broke, hauling three weary kids. My dad made me this proposal: I could move into their house for three months, he would support me, my mother would watch the kids (yes, they have a very traditional marriage) and I would finish that novel I was always talking about.
Oh, and I had to get it published, too. That was part of the deal.
A person with no options will agree to anything, so I agreed. Yes, of course, I'd write the remaining 60 percent of my book in three months and get a publishing contract. No problem.
Even knowing this was crazy, I set my alarm for the next morning and rose at 6. I went to a Caribou Coffee about a mile from my parents' house, spent a precious $2.18 on coffee, and wrote for the next three hours. It was like magic. Without cereal to pour and field trip slips to sign, my mind was blank and ready for ideas to appear. Plot seemed to move without my guiding it. The story flowed along like a stream.
The next morning, I did it again. And the morning after that. I was averaging four pages (about 2,000 words) a day. Then my father suggested that coffee was much cheaper at home and I was wasting a good 20 minutes in transit (not to mention gas); why didn't I stay home and write? So I tried it. The first day, I was in their basement with my cup of Folger's hearing the thumps and voices of my kids upstairs. My mind kept wandering. At one point, my mother sent my son down to confer with me about his clothing choice and that was it. My head was full of the everyday and my story had flown away, like a bird that got scared.
I explained all this to my parents and they reluctantly said fine. Do it your way. Make it work. And I did. I finished that book in 11 weeks, sent it off to my agent, and he sold it within another six. Lucky? You bet. But the luck came after 77 straight days of early mornings. It's really, truly about placing your butt in the writing chair.
I'm hardly the first writer to say this. I'm maybe more like the 10,000th. My onetime friend, the great children's book author Kate DiCamillo, kept her writing time so sacred she placed her beloved dog in the home of a friend. She'd go visit him from time to time, but she couldn't abide the interruptions in the morning: the tail wagging and nosing and requests to go out. Eventually, with grace, Kate cut me loose, too. She kept her world small -- and likely still does -- so nothing unexpected could intrude.
Stephen King, in his spectacular book On Writing, writes about how you have to invite your muse to visit.
There is a muse, but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He's a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it's fair? I think it's fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he's got inspiration. It's right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.
In other words, set up a space for writing. Go to it daily. Be quiet. Sit there even when you think the muse isn't coming. And wait.
Like every other published writer in the universe, people I meet at parties inevitably tell me they want to write. They launch into describing their novel or short story or business book idea and I break in gently (I hope) to ask, "When do you write?"
This throws nearly everyone. What do you mean when? Like, the actual time? Jeez, I don't know. I'm really busy...
At which point I tell them, each and every one, about my schedule. Awaken between 6 and 7 o'clock. A cup of coffee, a quiet place. And -- except in cases of emergency -- an iron-clad no-talking rule. No chitchat, no quick conversations with my husband about our evening plans; all that can be worked out later, over email.
Speaking of email, no email. No Facebook, no Twitter, no quick check of the day's news. The uncluttered, recently dreaming mind is the best conduit for your muse. Start inviting in your friends' "perfect sunrise" photos or Snooki's pregnancy drama and the writing spirits will run shrieking. Or else just drift away.
But here's the catch: About half the time, it won't work. Like, for example, that morning in Glacier when I had too much on my mind and a manuscript that was (I finally faced up to this two years later) simply fucked. I probably spent 1,000 silent, early mornings (and roughly $2,700 worth of coffee) plowing through that story. Today, it's just a 943 KB file on my hard drive.
Was the time wasted? I think not. Because I kept up my schedule. The day after my agent told me to give up on the food critic/obese man/quasi-gay ex/circus performer novel, I sat down at 6 a.m. in front of a blank screen and began writing what actually became my second novel, The Forever Marriage. And the story slid out in ten months.
Yet, no matter how many times I tell people that this is my "secret," early mornings, boredom, fear, constant failure, obscene amounts of caffeine... They want it not to be true. Maybe whiskey is the answer. Travel. Special crystals that emit creative rays. Like yo-yo dieters, these would-be writers keep looking for the loophole.
Which makes me exactly the wrong person to talk to at parties. Because if there is some easy alternative to sitting in a chair and sweating through the writing, I assure you no one has clued me in.
NOTE: If you're a glutton for punishment who wants to hear more of my tough love theories about writing, I'm teaching at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival this July. Find out more here.