Why I Wake Early


Most of my mornings look the same. For two or three hours, I may as well be Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” But I don’t mind. In fact, I do this on purpose. My seemingly boring, robotic mornings actually consist of a bunch of overlapping rituals and routines. What may seem to others like random, strange, or even ridiculous behavior is, to me, all part of a carefully crafted schedule that, shaped by superstition, has over time gained a sort of sanctity.

In other posts, I’ve written about the importance – however painful it may be – of shattering these kinds of rituals and routines. That being said, there’s a good reason why I cling to my morning schedule so closely. The reason is this:

I’m kind of at my most awesome first thing in the morning. And by “first thing” I mean right around 4:30 AM.

Yes, I get up early. Not always four-AM early – especially not if I was up late the night before – but still early. Let’s just say that I consider snoozing past 6:45 on a Saturday morning “sleeping in.”



But the early morning is my favorite time of day, and I see no reason to let it slip by unseen. I know there are plenty of people out there who agree with me. If you spend a few minutes looking outside around 5:00 AM, you’ll see windows lighting up, runners emerging for their morning workouts, and robed, slipper-footed men and women sitting on their porches with steaming cups, waiting for the sunrise.

Me, though? I usually don’t spend much time looking outside. A second or two, maybe, just to soak up some of that darkness, that stillness. But then I’m past the window, heading for the coffee machine. I flick the switch to get a nice strong pot brewing, then make my way to my desk, hoping to get there before my brain can shake off the last clingy threads of sleepiness.

Then I write – and write, almost invariably, better than I will at any other point that day.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why this is. In part, I believe it has to do with the proximity to sleep – a place of dreams, of course, where the absurd, impossible, and utterly unique are just the norm, are common and even expected. With one foot still in that lawless and fantastic world, my imagination seems most free.

It’s like my brain is more elastic, more limber, able to bend and contort itself to solve a problem, to squirm around and find a solution to the trickiest of situations. It’s less inhibited, basically, allowing me to giddily invent without worrying about style or structure or even about making sense. Often, my best ideas, my breakthroughs, are happened upon almost randomly, as if by accident, during such stretches of freewheeling invention.

The shaping and structuring and stylizing of the prose – I leave that for later on in the process, once I’ve completed a full draft of a piece. And I leave such work for later on in the day, too, for the afternoon or evening, once that flexible, spontaneous side of my imagination has tired itself out. Without that part of me nagging to have itself heard and attended to, I’m better able to turn to the tasks of revising and editing.

I think this is because of all the practical matters and everyday problems that fill a regular day. Even the most minor of things – deciding what to have for breakfast, finding an alternate route to work because of a detour – can tug me away from the fanciful head-space in which I’m best able to purely create. Once I’ve started thinking literally and critically, it’s harder for my imagination to shake off the weight of reality and run loose.

You can think of it as a butterfly net. First thing in the morning, there’s nothing in it. I can wave it around however I want. With nothing but air whizzing through the mesh, I can raise it up high, spin it like a baton, or toss it like a javelin and go chasing after it. But throughout the day, things get caught in the netting. It grows harder and harder to wave around. Soon it’s impossible to toss. And eventually, I have to resort to dragging the thing along on the ground behind me.

Of course, I can’t always stick to my tried-and-true, much-preferred schedule. I’ve got a full-time job, for one thing. And sometimes, I just can’t get myself out of bed at 4:00 AM. Occasionally, a day’s writing time will be limited to scattered snatches of time – a few minutes here, a half-hour there – and maybe only at the end of the day, once my mind has become cluttered with other stuff. And as E. B. White, that fount of wise and wonderful quotes, once said:

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.

E. B. White, endlessly quotable dog-lover.
E. B. White, endlessly quotable dog-lover.

Even so, it’s good to know one’s preferences, as well as the specific abilities of your imagination and mind. The writing process, after all, does more than just produce stories. The process is one of discovery – we discover the stories we have tucked away inside ourselves, aching to be told, and we discover the way that we uniquely work to tell them, too. We discover, in other words, ourselves.

Nobody’s process can, or should, exactly resemble somebody else’s. You have to try things out and find your own way (and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, know when to ignore, change, or even dispose of – briefly or permanently – those ways). And so maybe you’ll find yourself yawning, finally heading off to bed after a long, middle-of-the-night session at your desk while, elsewhere in the world, I’m shuffling toward the coffee machine, pouring myself a cup, and settling in to start my own.


. . .

P.S. Click here to read a post on Maria Popova’s utterly amazing Brain Pickings blog about this year’s The Best American Infographics, in which an infographic she helped to create – “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits and Literary Productivity” – is featured. (The whole book is great, by the way. I’m about a quarter of the way through it.)

P.P.S. Below is a passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, providing some evidence (if any is even needed) for my statement that others find the morning just as magical a time as I do. (If you read this blog, you know that I’m kind of obsessed with Spinelli. Click here and here to read a couple more selections of his inimitable prose.)


He pointed the pipe stem at me. “You know, there’s a place we all inhabit, but we don’t much think about it, we’re scarcely conscious of it, and it lasts for less than a minute a day.”

“What’s that?” I said.

“It’s in the morning, for most of us. It’s that time, those few seconds when we’re coming out of sleep but we’re not really awake yet. For those few seconds we’re something more primitive than what we are about to become. We have just slept the sleep of our most distant ancestors, and something of them and their world still clings to us. For those few moments we are unformed, uncivilized. We are not the people we know as ourselves, but creatures more in tune with a tree than a keyboard. We are untitled, unnamed, natural, suspended between was and will be, the tadpole before the frog, the worm before the butterfly. We are, for a few brief moments, anything and everything we could be. And then . . . ”

He pulled out his pouch and repacked his pipe. Cherryscent flew. He struck a match. The pipe bowl, like some predator, or seducer, drew down the flame. “ . . . and then – ah – we open our eyes and the day is before us, and” – he snapped his fingers – “we become ourselves.”

2 thoughts on “Why I Wake Early

  1. I am the same way. I wake each morning at 5-ish. After thirty minutes of exercise, I take care of the dog and then disappear to write for an hour. I have written every morning for close to a decade now, and it is some of my most prized time. Some mornings aren’t as productive as others, but even on those days, I find that my mind continues to mull over the problem long after I’ve left the keyboard, and suddenly. some time in the afternoon. it will all fall into place.

    The only exception has been The Memory Letters, which I have a hard and fast rule to never, ever rush. I let them come in their own time (which feels too slow), and then they rush out, usually at some very late hour of the night. It’s very odd how different they behave from every other writing habit I have, but I’m not going to change them. I think it’s what gives them their own identity outside of my other work.

    1. So fascinating. I’m endlessly intrigued by writers’ routines and habits, the slow and often-unconscious way we all develop our own unique processes. And yes — you’ve got to see the benefit of a seemingly unproductive writing session. You’re doing something, even if it’s not getting down a satisfying number of words. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere on the blog, but Martin Amis has said some great stuff about his process, which he has come to understand so well that he can predict how long he needs to stay away from his desk — twenty minutes or two weeks — in order to solve a problem that’s preventing him from writing.

      It’s interesting to hear that you’ve developed a brand-new routine for the Memory Letters, though the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. It’s like the different project/content required a different time and space, a process of its own.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing!

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