“Finding Our Rhythm,” by Louise DeSalvo
February 12, 2010
In today’s New York Times, there is an article about eleven of J. D. Salinger’s letters, written between 1951 and 1993 that have just been opened to the public. The letters were written by Salinger to E. Michael Mitchell, the designer of the cover of A Catcher in the Rye – Mitchell became Salinger’s friend and correspondent when he was assigned the task of designing the cover. Carter Burden gave the letters to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City in 1998, and the Museum, in deference to Salinger’s notorious insistence upon privacy, waited to open them to the public until after Salinger’s death. Snippets from the letters are included in the article, and the Museum will soon mount an exhibition of them.
I love reading writers’ letters and diaries, so this article captivated me. I love learning about writers’ work habits. Other people do too, I know, for one of the questions I’m always asked when I speak about my work is What’s your writing schedule? I love learning about how writers’ live their lives because I believe that perhaps then I will learn how to most productively live my writer’s life.
One of Salinger’s letters describes his writing regimen. He started work each morning at 6 AM, not later than 7AM, and wrote without interruption throughout the day, sometimes well into the night. A letter written in 1966 refers to Salinger’s accumulation of ten or twelve years work, consisting of what might very well be two novels that Salinger continued to work on, though did not publish.
Often, when I read an account like this, I compare my very meager writing regimen with that of the writer – two to three hours a day, but often not more than ninety minutes a day, when I’m not teaching, fewer when I am. I chastise myself; I commit myself in my imagination to setting my alarm for 5 AM the next morning so I can be at my desk by 6 AM like Salinger. I imagine myself working throughout the day. Because I am so unsure about how to go about my work, I often try another writer’s schedule on for size, and I work the hours they work for a day or two. Carol Shields’ hour or so in the morning; hour or so in the afternoon – she was raising children. Virginia Woolf’s 10 to 1. George Sand’s middle-of-the-night writing time as described by Elizabeth Harlan in George Sand.
Not surprisingly, their schedules do not suit me and it should be obvious why this is so. Their rhythms are not mine. My rhythms are my own. One of my jobs as a writer is to learn what mine are. And that’s not easy because – at least in my experience – when it’s best for me to write shifts and changes, throughout the year, from one project to another, from one year to the next, sometimes even from one day to the next.
I’ve spent the last week or so reading Edward M. Hallowell’s Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Hallowell is a specialist in Attention Deficit Disorder and he himself is a person with ADD, raising a son with ADD. (According to some tests I’ve taken, I, too, manifest certain ADD traits like plunging into projects, moving from one thing to another, having difficulty completing tasks. Even though I’ve published a score of books, getting to the end of a book is very hard for me.) In Crazy Busy, Hallowell writes about how the conditions of modern life create a way of life that resembles that of the person with ADD. For any of us who find that the precious uncluttered time we need to write our lives is slipping from us because of all the demands that are made upon our time and upon our attention, for any of us who find that we’re shifting from one unnecessary task to another throughout our days and wasting our best time, Crazy Busy suggests strategies to reclaim the time we need to do our work.
In my reading notebook, I’ve written down many of Hallowell’s numerous and helpful suggestions – set limits to what you commit to so you have time to do what you want to do; reserve time to do what matters most to you rather than frittering your time away on responding to communications that come at you that aren’t important to you, on demands on your time made by others, on being sucked into spending time online; don’t waste the time of the day when you’re most alert – use it on what matters most to you; train yourself to stay on task. There are far more than these, but you get the idea.
But the suggestion that captivated me most was this. Sculpt your day to do what matters most to you, and keep adjusting the way you spend your time until you find what works for you. In other words, plan actively how you’ll use your time, your most precious commodity, experiment with what works for you and you alone. Find your own rhythm. Don’t assume that someone else’s will work for you.
Find your own rhythm. Don’t assume that someone else’s will work for you.
This means, of course, that what worked for Salinger, Shields, Woolf, or Sand will not work for me. This means that part of my responsibility to my craft is to take the time to think about what works for me, to sculpt my day, to experiment with what works for me, to find my appropriate rhythm for right now.
I’ve written when I was a graduate student and young mother with a toddler and an infant. I’ve written when I was an adjunct in a university nearby teaching four classes when I had two young children. I’ve written as a college professor with older children, who eventually went to college, then moved out to places of their own. I’ve written through my parents’ illnesses, after their deaths, through serene times and difficult times, through health challenges of my own. I’ve written no matter what. And throughout all those times, my rhythms changed. I wrote, yes. But I often chastised myself for not sticking to a rigorous schedule that I adhered to, no matter what.
What I haven’t done, and what I’m working on now, is to accept the reality that, as my life changes, my writing rhythms must, of necessity, change and that’s all right. What I haven’t done is to accept the way I work. I always seem to be judging my rhythms against some ideal – Salinger’s way of working or Virginia Woolf’s, say – and finding mine wanting.
These days, when I’m not teaching, I like to be at my desk, and writing, by 9. But I never get there by 9. I can’t seem to write unless I knit a little – to calm me down, unless I walk for a half hour or so – to lift my spirits. I can’t seem to write unless I take a shower and dress up in something I wouldn’t mind someone seeing me in – if I stay in my sweats all day, I feel like a failure. I tend to chide myself for doing all these things before I write, without telling myself that I do all these things so that I can settle into my writing. Instead, my brain chides, You’re not at your desk yet, you’re not at your desk yet, you’re not at your desk yet. When I tell my husband what’s crossing my mind, he asks, Would you hang out with a friend who keeps criticizing you? And of course the answer is No. But it’s hard to get rid of our demons, even at my age.
Still, after reading Crazy Busy, I’m working hard at learning what my writing rhythms are right now, and accepting them. I’ve always thought that one of the hardest parts of being a writer is that you’re both labor and management. That is, you write. But you also have to supervise your writing self. You have to decide what to write, when to write, when to revise, when to stop writing, when a work is finished, when a work needs more work. There’s no supervisor to tell you when to start, stop, finish, move on.
Many of us can write; fewer of us know how to supervise our writing lives – it’s a learned set of skills, acquired through time and practice, if we know they’re skills we as writers must learn. (I must say, here, that few courses in writing teach these skills, which is why so few writers coming out of MFA programs finish their books.) These supervisory skills are different from the act of writing — skills that can turn pages and pages into books. Many of us work; fewer of us reflect upon our work, think about what needs to be done to the pages we’ve written to bring a work to completion. This is a difference, not in degree, but in kind. And it seems more difficult to practice these skills now than before, according to Hallowell, because learning how to go deep is different from just being busy: reflection takes time, quiet, patience.
So, what is my writing rhythm right now, Hallowell’s book impels me to ask myself? And does this rhythm work for me? What will I try tomorrow? And will that work for me?
This ongoing process of finding our rhythms, of sculpting our days is necessary, and necessary, too, is assessing whether what we’re now doing works for us. This reflection upon how we work feels kind of like the examination of the conscience that a practicing Catholic undertakes at the end of each day – how did my day go? did I act according to my professed ideals? will I change anything tomorrow?
So what do I know right now? I know I need to knit a bit, walk a bit, shower, and dress before I work. I know I can’t look at email or talk on the phone until I write a few hundred words – if I do, the writing day is shot. I know that I will get to my desk at about 10 or 10:30, and that’s all right. I know that, at my age, I won’t be able to concentrate on my writing for more than, say, 90 minutes at a time, and that’s all right too. I know I need to read memoir sometime during the day to learn about craft. With Hallowell by my side, I will continue to try to do what matters most to me – write the book about my father, hone my craft – during my prime time; I will continue to try to sculpt my day, I will forgive myself when I don’t. But I will then go right back to trying.
“To a Dear Buddyroo: Salinger Letters Unsealed,” by Alison Leigh Cowan, The New York Times, February 12, 2010, C25, C30.
Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., Crazy Busy (NY: Ballantine Books, 2006).
Elizabeth Harlan, George Sand (New Haven: Yale, 2004).