Create before you Consume
Why I write like it’s a habit and you should too.
These days, I’m rising early. Although I hardly get to campus before 11 a.m. I’ll roll out of bed around 5:45, unzip my blinds and stare into a still coal-black sky. I’ll perform about 10 minutes of stretching, timed by how long it takes my kettle to boil. Then I’ll steep an inky coffee, draw up a blank page on my laptop and attempt to untangle my thoughts.
What I won’t do is pick up the paperback on my nightstand and finish the chapter I’d fell asleep mid-way through last night. I sure as hell won’t touch my web browser or my iPhone. These 60 minutes of free writing are performed with my wi-fi disabled, in the unheated living room of my apartment — sensory deprivation, aside for the cold concrete floor against my bare feet and the warm porcelain of a coffee filled mug against my lip.
My intent behind this is simple: I want to make sure I create something today before another distraction crosses my mind.
Up until two years ago, I had the goal to write long-form journalism for a living. I studied nonfiction for 40-hours per week at the University of Victoria. I read probably at least half that much on the side. I had one feed to follow the bylines of authors I admired, and another to follow all those I despised but whose work it would be worth growing familiar with if I wanted to succeed in the business. I had a spreadsheet that tracked my words written as well as one that tracked my articles submitted. At one point, I was publishing at least something minor — an op-ed, a guest blog post, or the occasional album review — at least 5 times per week.
Eventually, this grew exhausting. Research and rejection letters. Flowcharts and industry news. For somebody who spent a full-time week writing, it was shocking how little of this time was dedicated to putting new words upon a page.
My response was to reboot. I filled a backpack. I moved to Asia. I still wrote but I wrote less. When I did, it was because I was chasing a story I found irresistibly compelling. I needed to learn it for myself, not necessarily because it demanded to be shared with the rest of the world. In essence, I began to write for me — which is a horrible habit if you’re hoping to produce a sellable product but an incredibly rewarding one if you’re hoping to enjoy what you do every single day.
At first, I found this liberating. My work was better for it. But then, a few months in, those short potent bursts of composition became less frequent. I’d wake up with a hangover or headache and decide my brain wasn’t primed to produce its strongest prose in that instant — I’d write when I could be more efficient later in the day. I’d step out into a deep honeyed sunset and decide to push back my screen time a couple more hours — nature was demanding she be observed. I’d come home late and tell myself that by staring into an LCD screen after 11 p.m. I’d disrupt my sleep patterns — perhaps I’d better push my writing time to the morning, instead?
A few months crept by and I hadn’t published anything. My Moleskine cover was battered but the pages were empty. At one point, my laptop battery hadn’t been charged in over a week.
I was at a friends birthday in Melbourne when I was jarred by this turbulent conclusion: I want to introduce myself as a writer but I couldn’t remember the last time I wrote.
By now, I was working toward a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering. I’d grown accustomed to troubleshooting most problems by analyzing efficiency. I’d balance what I put in against what I got out. I decided to perform a similar analysis upon the elements of my life.
What I realized was that it wasn’t just my writing time that had been diminishing — I’d subconsciously began to pare down all the hobbies in my life. I ran less, my camera lens was coated in dust. I hadn’t removed my climbing shoes from the suitcase I brought them across the Pacific in six-months ago.
By delegating my writing to the same echelon as every other hobby, it began to compete with them. And although I’d created more space in my schedule than ever, I was bleeding a large portion of that time simply deciding how I wanted to spend my free time.
And so, through trial and error I began to construct the habit I now following. It’s based in two principles:
1) If you don’t schedule something, you register it as unessential and you won’t do it. REGARDLESS of how much you love it.
2) Not all timeframes are created equal. Most athletes will train for strength in the afternoon, when their muscles are most nutrient dense and limber. The brain, as well, has moments when it is most suited to create. For me, that’s between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.
I’ll do many things throughout the day that I’m proud of. I’ll perform research on how to clean diesel contaminants out of Antarctic top-soil. I’ll produce a short film or compile impact related stories for Engineers Without Borders Australia who I work with a few days per week. I’ll probably take and share an image or two as I buzz around the city as part of each of these tasks. Each chore is demanding on its own, but none requires the sheer gymnastics of the imagination that it takes to create something from nothing. Free writing is an act of magic. If I’m going to defy the laws of entropy, I’m going to do so when my energy is most in supply.
When I’m still rubbing sleep from my eyes, my mind is its most expansive. It has yet to become fenced in by the thought patterns of the day. If I’m forced to draw on recent associations, my nearest touch point is the few pages of fiction I read before bed, and even these have been steeped and seasoned and brought to a boil over 8 hours of dreams. Words come easier, but they’re also more playful.
And distanced from anything I’ve recently consumed, each phrase is distinctly my own.
I’ve yet to meet a creative who doesn’t lament the sheer glut of content being created these days. The democratization of certain practices — writing with digital publishing, photography with the mobile camera — has been a great liberator for so much talent that would otherwise go untapped but it’s also created a deafening amount of noise. Most complaints assault the bad stuff — the thoughtless snaps that clog up Instagram hashtags or the unedited stream-of-conscious rants that sit on public platforms that once housed great blogs. This stuff’s easy to ignore however; what I’m more fearful of is the half-good. The type of content that’s mildly enjoyable but very rarely globs on to the back of your mind. At best it syphons off hours of your day. At work, it recalibrates your standard at mediocre.
They say you’re the average of the five people you spend most your time with. I believe the same about the authors on your shelf. You must read great word before you can write them. But there’s a difference between reading for the sake of reading and reading with intent. There’s also a critical — and very limited — amount of this style of reading one can do in a single sitting if his sole intent is to learn.
Each week, when I was at writing school, we performed an exercise. We selected a 300-word passage from the canon of a particularly accomplish author. We read it once, copied it out twice, by hand, and then had a go at creating a short vignette of our own in the same style. This practice was inspired by Hunter S Thompson who claimed he learned to write by re-typing The Great Gatsby until he internalized enough of Fitzgerald’s voice to absorb elements of it into his own. This in my opinion is healthy consumption — it primes the synapses and forces you to consider what works and what doesn’t.
The problem is, we do this very rarely — and certainly not before 6 a.m.
Use your energy wisely. Create before you consume.
So here I am, writing for an hour every morning.
Sometimes I’ll push these musings to my blog. Sometimes I’ll post them here. If I’m writing anything with higher stakes — a magazine article or a report for work — I’ll carve time to perform these tasks into another section of my day. This block is reserved for growth and experimentation; whereas when I write for publication I’m often performing tasks I already know how to do well.
I don’t publish as often. I fill less pages than I used to. But I feel more confident tackling a blank page, more intentional with my words, and most importantly this is a muscle I love to flex.
I wouldn’t call it a recipe for immediate success, but it’s certainly a minimum effective dose.