The fifth and final aspect of discipline involves a paradox. Don’t work too hard. Specifically, take a break at least every ninety minutes. Research has shown that paralleling our regular ninety-minute episodes of dreaming while we’re asleep, we have similar cycles of concentration and lapses while we’re awake. Roughly every hour and a half, your brain spontaneously begins to space out, to daydream, to wander.
If you allow yourself to rest then for at least ten minutes, by relaxing, daydreaming, or doing something that doesn’t require the same kind of concentration or degree of skill, then when you return to your work, you’ll find your attention equal or greater to what it was before you spaced out. Even if you don’t feel your concentration waning, take a break at least every ninety minutes. You won’t lose time, you’ll gain productive energy.
In addition, don’t work yourself past the point of exhaustion. I believe that all writers have a natural stopping point, up to which you’re productive and beyond which the yield of your efforts drastically drops off. When I was writing a novel, I would get to work sometime between eight and nine o’clock in the morning and write until one or two o’clock in the afternoon and then I’d had it. If I didn’t break for the day and just kept on trying to write, I wouldn’t be able to get much more done. If I did call it quits, I’d begin to replenish my creative energy so that the next morning I felt fresh and excited and full of new ideas that I didn’t seem to have the afternoon before.
My signal is a certain kind of mental fatigue, and I have learned to respect it. A good friend of mine, however, habitually works far, far past the point of exhaustion and never experiences any mental rebound. He only takes a break when he’s sick and appears to work extremely hard. However, his writing is often muddled, and it takes him an inordinate amount of time to bring his writing to the point where someone else can figure out what he’s trying to say. This kind of grind isn’t efficient.
If you tune in to your body, you can learn to recognize your natural stopping point. Respect it, and you’ll see higher-quality pages of your work piling up.
While I’m on the subject of the body, I’d like to correct the common misconception that writing is a purely mental activity and that the body is at best incidental to the process. Consider these questions:
When you pass a sleepless night, does that affect your writing for the next day or two? If you spent an hour in a hot tub, then sat down to write for a few hours, would you be able to do it? If you drank five cups of coffee or five gin and tonics, would it have any impact on your writing? If you normally type your ideas as you create, but had broken both hands, would you be able to dictate your manuscript? Or if you usually dictate, but had to finish something by typing it out, could you?
In my research on creativity, I became curious about the possible influence of posture on the writing process. I used to write with my legs folded up on my chair, yoga-style. But I had an experience during a mind-body alignment session with an Alexander Technique teacher that convinced me that I write differently when both feet are touching the floor. With that contact below me, I’m more grounded and my writing is more down to earth.
Both Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf wrote in a distinctive posture – standing up. I’m not sure why Hemingway did it, but Woolf had a special high desk constructed because someone once remarked that her sister Vanessa, a painter, had to work harder at her painting than Virginia had to work at her writing because Vanessa had to stand and Virginia could sit. With her standing desk, Woolf evened things up. So there, sister!
Does the physical position of your body affect the quality and efficiency of your writing? Experiment with different postures and explore what you can do to make your body a partner, not an enemy, in your writing.
Join me in the next lesson as we go on to the second part of the course now, the five elements of inspiration.