By Annie Persons
I recently read an article in the online magazine Brain Pickings titled “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized,” by Maria Popova (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/12/16/writers-wakeup-times-literary-productivity-visualization/). The article discusses a data-map visualizing the correlation between wake-up time and estimated literary accolades of thirty-eight renowned writers ranging from Charles Dickens and Simone de Beauvoir to Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. I was not surprised to learn that Sylvia Plath woke up at a red-eyed four a.m. and that Fitzgerald didn’t wake until eleven (one can only speculate as to why, but the word “hangover” comes to mind).
I immediately compared my own sleep habits to those of these writers, thinking Virginia Woolf woke up at 9am too…does that mean that I am like Virginia Woolf?! Should I start waking up earlier if I want to be more like Sylvia Plath? …Do I want to be more like Sylvia Plath?! I then reminded myself that no, I will never be exactly like these writers; my best creative writing comes when I try to find my own voice. However, the article still raises the interesting question of what, if any, common habits do all writers have that make them great?
Pondering this, I thought about the area that I felt I achieved the most in before college: running. In high school, I ran cross-country during the fall and track during the spring. When I first started running, I was terrible. I enjoyed practice but hated the races. They were hard. However, while genetics does play a role, getting a good time in any length of race comes from a unique balance of determination, stamina, and a touch of insanity. Running forces you to strike up a personal and dramatic relationship with your pain threshold. To get faster, you have to want to push yourself, knowing that the process will, undoubtedly, cause pain. But with this pain comes the feeling of flying, just you in your own head; the ineffable feeling of internal strength, and the satisfaction that comes with knowing that you—your own grit—is what propels you down your path. I did get fast, and I would never, ever chalk it up to inherited “skill” or “talent.” No. It was really hard work.
I think that writing might be the same, or at least similar. After taking creative writing classes at Washington and Lee, I’ve discovered that creative writing gives me even greater joy than running. And not only do I love writing, but I enjoy editing my own work. I want to be better.
So, back to Brain Pickings. Maria Popova’s habit-based theory made me realize something I should have realized a long time ago, something that most writers probably know. Like running, improving one’s writing comes with practice. It begs the endurance of rejection. It means writing when you don’t want to. It might also mean writing about something hard or painful that you would rather ignore, or it might have to do with the blood, sweat, and tears that comes with editing. It’s that paradox of loving writing but being too lazy to do it enough to make something magical.
I want to feel that magic more often. I want to create it. And not so that I can see my caricatured face on a bizarre map surrounded by other literary giants. I want to improve my writing because writing—truly digging into my self and producing something that I’m proud of—makes me feel whole. Getting on that map wouldn’t be so bad, though.