For most of my adult life, and a lot of my youth, I’ve been a night owl. As a kid, I loved staying up on Friday and Saturday nights to catch Chiller Theater or The Ghoul. Then came “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” and “Midnight Special” and “Saturday Night Live.” Later, my punk rock inclination and hospitality industry lifestyle kept me howling at the moon well into my twenties. Then came grad school and much burning of midnight oil. Even after I married and got myself a so-called real job I kept hours few would call healthful. But my tired joke that went something like “I’m 49 going on 19” finally started to wear a bit thin, I suppose, as I crossed into my 50s.
Worse for me was the sad, undeniable fact my night-owlishness had done little for my productivity as a writer. Yes, there had been a time when I did most of my writing at night. But over the years my bad sleeping habits–and a host of other questionable habits that tend to accompany late hours–started turning me into an unthinking zombie too tired to do much of value after a day in the corporate salt mines.
Call it the aging process, or–god forbid–call it maturity, but this year I’ve decided to take on some of my unhealthful behaviors. Part of this reclamation project involved attacking my sleep deficit. So, for the first week or so of the year I started going to bed early–way early–like 7:30 or 8 o’clock early. As a consequence, I started waking up way early. One morning, about a week and a half into my early-to-bed program, I awoke refreshed, alert, and ready to go at 4:30 (yes, a.m.). Without giving it much thought, I got of bed, turned off an alarm yet to ring, made a pot of coffee, and sat myself down in my office. I worked on my current project, the novel Housebreaking the Muse, until 7 o’clock. Then I got myself together and headed out on my commute to work. I’ve been doing this every day since and I feel more engaged with my writing than I have in months (if not years).
For years I’ve been hearing and reading advice for writers about prioritizing writing, making it the first thing you do every day. This advice always made sense to me. In fact, there was one brief period during my grad school days in which I adopted the practice. “Get the writing done,” I said, “before the bullshit of the day wears you down and takes you hostage.” It didn’t sick. I was still young and more than a bit nuts, keen on enjoying a bit of nightlife. And it didn’t help that my mentor in those days had a true night owl writing schedule: He would go to bed in the early evening, then get up at midnight and write until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning.
But, having at last made the switch (if only by accident), I have to say it’s been the best thing I’ve done for my writing in years. What I once believed is true: it is best to attack before the daily bullshit closes you down. Early in the morning, the head is clear and receptive to those images and ideas and visions and voices that inform your narrative. And what a good feeling to know, even as you’re making your way to your day job, that your most important work of the day is already behind you. Now you can enjoy your evenings unfettered by a sense of guilt or remorse over, once again, ignoring your work.
If you haven’t tried writing in the morning, I suggest you give it a try. Work into it by first moving your bedtime way up. The first morning you wake up before your alarm goes off, dive right in. Keep doing it for at least a week and see how your productivity–and even the quality of what you produce–improves.