from The Art of Work

by Robert McGee

People have asked about my work habits—that is, if I mouth mantras or burn sage to invoke a spirit or muse—and I have to say that my methods are so very simple that you might find them boring. When I’m going on some project (or projects, as I often work on many pieces at once), I typically wake with the sun, thrilled to know what I’ll be doing that day. I carry my first cup of coffee outdoors, no matter the weather, and saunter about the garden, letting my eyes adjust to the light. My goal is to be writing by seven, though in wintry months I might not make it 'til eight. I used to think I couldn’t write at all if I didn’t reach my desk by seven sharp. I’d sometimes psyche myself out and squander an entire morning if I woke late, but I’ve learned not to fret or sabotage myself but just try to get to my desk at roughly the same time six days per week, as I believe that getting in position to work is the crucial step if you want to get something done.

This habit of working at the start of the day came about in two ways. First, I read that Hemingway and other writers I admired when I was young wrote in the morning (maybe so they could get drunk and go to bullfights in the afternoon) and this idea of treating art like serious work to tackle at the start of each day made perfect sense. Also, the habit was forced upon me from years of having to write before going to full-time day jobs I planned to escape the first moment I could. If I didn’t do any pages before heading to the dreaded office, it wasn’t going to happen and then what would be the point of my life if I felt I was put on this planet to write but instead just endured some job for money that kept me from the thing I hoped to do? When you’re old and look back and see that you didn’t paint or sculpt or make pies as you’d planned, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself. So, I can’t fully stress the importance of treating your art like the boss and doing what’s necessary to arrange your life so that you’ll be able to go to work at roughly the same time every day. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Beyond practicalities, mornings are generally quiet and cool, steady and calm and maybe even more holy. For me, the early hours are more conducive to creative thought than the hot frenzied mid-day when one must tend to obligations and respond to whosoever clamors for our attention. As I often come to my writing after a night of sleeping and dreaming and not having had to speak for many hours, there is a trance-like state that has become essential to my work as well as my sanity. For a while I’m between worlds, no longer sleeping but not yet fully available to whatever real-life concerns might be lurking near. Morning seems a fine time to remove oneself from the outer world because people are busy (or should be) commuting to jobs and tending children or maybe going to their own desks or just sleeping late because they are nurses at night. You’re less likely to be disturbed in the morning. You can avoid e-mail and phones while steering clear of plans to have brunch. You can hide out in your room feigning sleep. Or you can simply hide out inside your own mind.

On good days, I get rolling right away and I work steadily, either editing yesterday’s words or (hopefully) typing several hundred new ones very fast. By eight-thirty I’m ready for a brief break. I walk outside and meander between fruit trees beneath the warming sun, maybe eat a banana, maybe bring in firewood (during winter) or pull suckers from tomato plants (summer) and then return to the kitchen to clean any stray dishes from the night before. Even while I’m doing these tasks (hauling wood, washing dishes), I’m still working with words in my mind and am not available to the outer world. I’m still in my studio even if I appear to be doing nothing more than traipsing about eating bananas. Often what I’m doing is turning that compost heap of words in my mind, searching for the proper phrase to fortify what I’ve written, trying to make sense of some memory that came flying forth (but which does not yet have a place in a story and might in fact become a whole other piece altogether). All this while (for the first three hours of the day) I reside in something of a silent trance.

This business of being non-verbal at the start of my day has upset some who don’t know me well. I rarely speak before ten. I’ve spoken at that time maybe twice in a decade, and it doesn’t make me happy. In fact, it makes my blood boil to have to talk in the morning unless it’s to whisper some secret into the ear of the woman I love. You don’t want to be the target of the rage that can erupt if I’m jarred from my thoughts, and I will never apologize for unleashing my fury because you have been warned. The rest of the day I’m pretty pleasant and even-keeled and I can deal with whatever comes my way with humor and grace, but only if I’ve had those first few hours of the day to immerse myself in quiet work. It may sound rigid, but those who know me well accept and support this mode of living and working because they know how long I struggled and how much I sacrificed to reach this point where my mornings are arranged in such a way that I don’t have to speak. If I were a genius, it might be different. I might be able to churn out stories as those around me yammered on cell phones and crunched cashews and blared Beyoncé while dancing about, but I just happen to be a person who works best when there is no noise other than chirping birds and falling rain. What I’m trying to make clear is that I’m not not-speaking to cause people pain. I didn’t just dream up this system to inconvenience others. I’ve reached this mode of operation after many years of figuring out how to work. Just know that we’ll all be much happier if you never try to engage me in conversation before, say, eleven-thirty.

Okay, it’s nearly nine, the wood is hauled, the dishes cleaned, and I’ve had another thought that might lead somewhere and I return to my desk to type some new words and move a paragraph and I begin to see that there might be a story emerging. I’m a little looser from having written, from having faced a blank page and come out the other side with a victory of sorts. I keep working without uttering even a word to the cat, only now I might turn on some music: Chopin or Edith Piaf or Miles Davis or maybe a Norah Jones tune that’s stuck in my head. I don’t yet have a finished piece, but I can see that if I keep chipping away, I might have something soon.

Between ten and ten-thirty, I cover whatever typing device I’m using with a cloth I keep for the purpose of signaling that my work for the morning is done. Now I might read from a book related to writing such as Bird by Bird or The Letters of Flannery O’Connor before taking my walk. There’s a private trail right outside my front door. I usually spend half an hour after my morning session walking or running this familiar path through the forest that changes a little each day. My jaunts are not merely exercise but rather meditative excursions that are instructive, therapeutic and necessary. I always emerge from the forest with a rock or piece of wood in my hands; and I almost always have some new thought in my head.

Depending on the time and the weather and season, I transition to do all the other things I must do to keep a small but steady flow of cash pouring in—not a large amount, just enough so that I stay free of debt and own my mornings to write. I currently support myself by selling firewood and cutting lawns, as I find that work with hands and feet is a fine way to balance so many hours of living inside my mind at a desk. No one seems to care where I am early in the day so long as what they pay me to do ends up getting done. Most people who hire me have no idea that I’m a writer who’s won awards; they think I’m a full-time yardman. I actually enjoy cutting grass, as it’s the only job I know where you get paid in cash to walk around in the sunshine staying fit. Once my work for hire is done, I might swim laps at the Y or take naps in the woods. Evenings I might meet friends to shoot pool and grab a bite; or I might stay in alone to cook and read or watch a film. But the main thing is that for about twenty hours after each morning session, I forget I’m a writer, it’s as if I’ve never written, as if I might never again.

Robert McGee is a Pushcart Prize nominee who spends much of his time tending a private forest near the River Arts District of Asheville, North Carolina. His work has appeared in several anthologies, including The Mysterious Life of The Heart: Writing From ‘The Sun’ About Passion, Longing, And Love; and NPR’s National Story Project, I Thought My Father Was God, which was a bestseller. The excerpt that appears above is from a longer work-in-progress.