First Things First

A few months ago, I wrote about the advice that made writing a thesis feel effortless. It sounds simple, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before: write first thing in the morning. It’s something Julia Cameron recommends for anyone on a creative journey, even for those who are not writers. And in general, I think she’s really onto something, especially in terms of creating a sustainable practice. Let’s revisit those precious morning hours, though, because sometimes they’re not as straightforward as they seem. When is first thing?

Perhaps, like many, you don’t have much control over the series of events that unfold in the moments after your eyes blink open. You wake to a crying baby or a hungry cat. You wake in the evening because you work at night. You wake at a different time each day because you are on call or work different shifts. Many of us don’t wake on purpose but because we have to, after too little sleep. Much of the work of this world, especially when it comes to caring for living beings, is unpredictable.

Many have waxed poetic about those first moments after waking, which precede the cares of the day and still linger on the edge of dreaming. I can vouch for the magic of those moments, especially when combined with a first glimmer of morning light. If you can swing that delicate combination and dedicate those moments to your most pressing creative errand, sometimes or always, I hope you will.

And if not, never fear. I am quite sure that many great and wonderful things have been created by the light of the moon. Perhaps first thing, for you, is simply the first moment in a 24-hour period when you can snatch up a few quiet moments alone. You can leave those snooty morning makers in the dust; it might just take a little more effort to keep from getting in your own way.

Which first thing?

Let’s say you do have some control over your waking moments. You’ve turned in early, so you can rise before the sun and before all other living things within a ten-mile radius. Now the question is: what will be your first thing? Will it be writing your three longhand morning pages, as Julia insists? Will it be yoga or running or meditation? Maybe you have many loves, and you know you can’t fit all of them into that first morning hour.

The idea of cultivating a “first thing” habit to support a creative practice can be very effective, especially when tailored to the needs of the practitioner and her life. It may be even more effective, though, and less intimidating, when counterbalanced with another bit of advice. “God-willing,” a wise friend once said, passing along to me advice she herself had received, “it’s a long life.”

When what you need most in this world is a kick in the pants, I hope you will pay attention to the former and ground yourself in a practice of putting your first thing first, whatever that may be. When what you really need is an extra hour of sleep or a shorter list of “first things,” consider that you may only be able to do one very small thing in a day but very many over the course of a lifetime.