A sustainable practice

The most effortless project I’ve completed was the writing of my senior thesis, a collection of poetry and translation relating to the book of Genesis. I suppose it’s no coincidence that I was fixating, even then, on beginnings. I spent some time in the summer doing a bit of research, and when I returned to school in the Fall, I had no idea what the actual writing process would look like over the course of the next six or seven months. I’d spent many sleepless nights wringing academic papers from my brain over the previous three years, and I knew I needed a more sustainable process if I was to make it to the finish line, sanity intact and thesis in hand.

In my first meeting with my advisor, he gave me a piece of advice that, at the time, I found funny. In retrospect, I think of it as earth-shattering. He told me to write first thing in the morning.

I must have asked what he really meant by “first thing,” because I remember his insistence: DO NOT brush your teeth, DO NOT eat breakfast, DO NOT get dressed, DO NOT do anything before you sit down to write. OK, you can have coffee. But everything else will get in your way. Just write, first thing.

This advice must have been personal, because, at the time, I didn’t drink coffee. He must have been sharing what worked in his own practice. In any case, I took his advice very seriously, and I’ve thought about it a lot since.

I arranged my course schedule so that I had a couple of mornings free during the week, and I did my other work at night. I took his coffee exception to mean that I could choose a couple of my own non-negotiables, as long as I could do them on autopilot.

So for a few mornings a week, before my anxiety or inhibitions could get the best of me—in other words, before I had a chance to get in my own way—I did what I needed to do to feel vaguely human, and then I wrote. Later on, I was editing or rewriting, but the process was the same.

I didn’t start by searching for inspiration or thinking particularly hard about what I needed to do. I just showed up at my table for a couple of hours, did what I knew how to do, and then, for the rest of the day, took care of the business of living. It was like starting the day with an offering to the muses. You can sleep in, I was telling them. I got this.

It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity, in which she emphasizes the importance of simply showing up and doing the work. I also think of the recent New York Times article on working less and accomplishing more when I consider the relatively limited number of hours I spent working in comparison to the amount of material I needed to produce. It was all about the quality of those hours, not the quantity.

Since I’m no longer a student, it’s been a process of trial and error trying to reestablish this sort of practice in my differently arranged life. The peculiar blessing/curse of the student is that she tends to have a great deal of control over her schedule. But even in my post-student life, I am comforted by a sense that the process of setting a goal and actually accomplishing it depends very little on talent or magic or circumstance and very much on creating rituals and habits that support simply showing up and doing the work over the long haul.