I was reading the other day that MP and novelist Nadine Dorries wakes up at 6am (eek), goes downstairs, lets her dogs out, makes a cup of tea, takes it back to bed, the dogs jump on the bed and then she gets her laptop out and writes.
She usually manages 1000 words before the alarm goes off at 8am. And that’s how she writes 2 books a year! Easy, eh?
I’m a kind of ‘lark’ (stop laughing, those who’ve seen me first thing in the morning!) – in that, I hasten to add, I write best first thing in the morning, before the distractions of the day begin. But I’m the first to admit that I’m not one of those people who naturally wake up bright and cheery and ready to start work, so I’d struggle to do what Nadine Dorries does (also, our dog’s not allowed on the bed!).
This brings me neatly to another one of the articles that I wrote once for Writing magazine: ‘Lark, Owl or Hummingbird: What Kind of Writer Are You?’
Are you a lark, most creative in the early morning, before the rest of the world’s awake? Or an owl, happiest burning the midnight oil and writing into the small hours? Perhaps you’re a ‘hummingbird’, flitting about somewhere in between and at your best in the middle of the day?
It’s worth considering the time of day (or night) when you feel most energised. If you’re not sure, try keeping a daily note for a week, of the times when you feel most alert. It’s likely to be your most productive time for writing.
Of course, your lark or owl tendencies can be skewed by certain factors: if you suffer from insomnia, have a newborn baby or work nights, for example.
Over time, your body clock may also change (many people turn into larks as they get older, for example). Scientists are divided on whether it’s possible to change yourself from a true lark to an owl and vice versa because your ‘am’ or ‘pm’ preference is likely to be genetic. But if you’re a ‘hummingbird’ – somewhere in the middle of the two – you might be able to train yourself to get up earlier or retire later, in order to write.
Try setting your alarm earlier (for would-be larks) – or go to bed later (for owls) – in gradual, 15 minute increments. And remember, it takes about a month to form a habit.
If you’re quick to rise and generally cheerful in the mornings and if, (time permitting), you like lingering over breakfast, you’re likely to be a lark. Larks often wake naturally, without needing an alarm and are most productive in the mornings and most alert around midday.
Nobel-prize winning lark, Ernest Hemingway, chose to write, ‘every morning, as soon after first light as possible’ because, then, ‘There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.’
Owls, on the other hand, often struggle to wake and get up and can be tetchy in the mornings. They often skip breakfast because mornings can be a real rush for owls. If you regularly watch TV or surf the internet after midnight, then you’re probably an owl. Owls are most alert around 6pm and most productive from late evening onwards.
Famous owls include Marcel Proust, who lined his bedroom walls with cork so he could sleep through the Paris day and write at night and Barack Obama, who, when asked how he found time to write his books, admitted, “I’m a night owl, so I usually wrote after my Senate day was over and after my family was asleep, from 9:30 p.m. or so until 1 a.m.”
Which raises another point. Regardless of their body clock, many writers have no choice but to write when their work or family commitments are over for the day, or haven’t yet started.
Novelist Toni Morrison started her career by writing before dawn, because she had young children but then later, realised that she was actually “clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent, in the morning.” Writing at the start of the day, which started out as necessity, became her choice.
I asked 25 fellow writers if they were ‘larks, owls or hummingbirds’ and they turned out to be a fairly even mix. It was clear though, regardless of their preference, most writers don’t have the luxury of choosing when to write.
Jackie Sayle said, “I’m an owl. I have to be because I don’t get a moment’s peace in the day to write.”
And Simon Whaley quipped, “It depends on the deadline!” As a full-time freelancer, he can’t afford to be choosy about when he writes.
It was clear too, from the responses, that if necessary, writers can be adaptable.
Elizabeth Ducie, a lark, had convinced herself that she couldn’t write in the afternoon. “However, I have recently done some challenges with writing buddies and found that I can actually write whenever I want to: I just have to apply my posterior to the chair and my fingers to the keyboard.”
Alison Wassell agreed. Her favourite time for writing – mornings – is now spent working, but she’s discovered that she can, indeed, write in the afternoons and evenings. She recommends trying to write at different times. “You might be pleasantly surprised at what you can achieve.”
Ian Smith admitted that he doesn’t have the luxury of being a lark or an owl. “When I’ve got ideas and it’s falling into place, nothing else is more important than capturing that opportunity. Maybe I’m more a bird of prey, seizing the chance to get on with it?”
And perhaps that’s the answer. Lark, owl or hummingbird, it really doesn’t matter, as long as we get our talons into whatever time and opportunities we have, to get writing.