Jon Kabat-Zinn devotes a section of his mindfulness manual Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life to the importance of scheduling meditation practice in the early morning. Kabat-Zinn touts the solitude of the hour, the contemplative quiet, the importance of having at least one aimless portion of the day not devoted to marking To-Do items off the never-ending list.
In agreeing with this, I’d add that we creative types benefit not just from an early morning meditation session, the early morning is also an optimal time for creative work. Understand that I offer this both as the possessor of an ever-restless mind and as a former unrepentant night-owl.
I was in grad school when I recognized my night-stalking habits weren’t going to work.
During my undergrad years, my best studying and paper-writing and critical thinking used to fire-up about 9 PM. I wouldn’t quit until 1 or 2 the next morning. And when I started my fiction writing habit during Junior year, I shoe-horned my writing time before or after my studies depending on my workload. This worked fine for the short stories we would workshop – I didn’t have high expectations for my output (other than the certain belief that a literary agent would discover me any day and publish my works before I left college). But there was no way I could have constructed the longer works I truly wished to write.
Anyway, I hadn’t anticipated how demanding grad school would be. The sheer amount of reading exhausted me and made fiction writing impossible to schedule with any reliability. My work and home schedules also conspired to make maintaining my favored night-owl ways impossible – I could no longer get away with working until 2 AM and rising at 10 AM. I was forced to do more of my paper-writing and studying during the day, and I found that by evening, I was spent. My creative writing suffered.
I studied fiction writing with Richard Cortez Day, and he had many times touted the virtues of writing first thing in the morning. His usual routine—if I remember correctly—was to write from 5 AM – 9 AM and then he would close his office door and focus on his non-writing life, as well as his day-job as a professor.
There are many advantages to writing in the morning: Your mind is still in a partial sleep/dream state, which finds your inner critic a bit too froggy-voiced to flood your mind with enervating doubt. Most of the people in your life* don’t want anything to do with you at 5 AM (*this is untrue if you have small children, I have since learned the hard way). And most importantly, you get to do the thing you love most right away – you don’t have to wait until you’ve worked your day job or until you’ve cleaned the house or until you’ve had dinner with your spouse.
Waking and writing is a convenient way to be selfish, and as every writer knows, being selfish is the only way to carve out the time we need to get those words down.
So about two months into my grad school ‘career,’ I began my regimen of waking up at 5 AM. But first I needed to also wade into the Addiction Waters I had avoided much of my early adult life and take on what I knew was going to be as much a habit as my writing: I needed to start drinking coffee.
Quaffing coffee was the only way I was able to convert myself from a night-owl (oh how I miss those blissful hours between midnight and 2 AM) into a morning person* (*I’m still not much of a morning person). On the days when my passion for writing wavered before the wanton influence of a warm bed and more sleep, the aroma of a fresh brewed pot sung out to my groggy body and enticed me into the kitchen. And soon after, the writing table. (For the coffee snobs among us, I admit that my coffee preparation has matured to the pour-over method using only fresh ground beans. To those who care, these admissions are important. Snobbery thy name is coffee drinker.)
Back to the writing. In short my Pavlovian plan of pairing a coffee addiction to my writing worked, and I transformed myself from late-nighter to early riser. I still, to this day, write first. There is great comfort in knowing that when my family awakens, I’ve already committed myself to centering my thoughts and putting words to the page. Much of the stress I once felt about getting tasks done before I could write has disappeared.
So, if you find yourself struggling to find space and time to create, I humbly offer the early morning option as a means to get your work done. The coffee addiction is optional.