Waking up at 5am to Write

posted May 7, 2015

IMG_1431My daughter turned nine this week. Nine is the age of competency in my mind. “The nine-year-old is no longer a mere child,” quoth the fabled child psychiatrist Arnold Gesell. There’s almost nothing a nine-year-old girl can’t do. She regularly reminds us where we’ve left our things, or which of our friends’ mothers is ill, or when any particular event is scheduled. She has a shelf in her bedroom that acts as a desk, and it’s as well-organized as a CEO’s. She keeps track of her life in her tiny, square handwriting, neat and legible. She pauses in her violin practice to grab a pencil and make notes on her score. More wonderfully, she refuses to do anything about the scars on her face (one from a jungle gym accident; one when Stella literally flew into her and scratched two huge red lines down each cheek, looking like bloody tears.) She said, “I like scars. They show people that I have lived.”

And she is furious that her bedtime is at 8:30.

“You treat me like a baby! No, wait, a five-year-old. Oh, actually a FOUR year-old!”

The reason her bedtime needs to be at 8:30 is that my new bedtime is at 9. So is her dad’s. He is training for a (half) marathon. I am getting up at 5 to work on my novel, The Big Idea, that behemoth I have been laboring over off and on (in equal parts) for 14 years.

Why am I doing this? I know I have a great life. I know I have done plenty with my life. The one bucket list thing I can think of that’s missing is that I have not finished this book. I almost don’t care if I never write another work of fiction again–it’s not like my ambition is to be a novelist. I am a songwriter and an essayist/sermonizer first and second. But if you told me that I would die tomorrow, really my only regret–in terms of creative fulfillment–would be that I have not finished this book. I must finish this book.

I whined about this to my friend Molly Burnham a few weeks ago. She just published a fabulous YA book called Teddy Mars: Almost a World Record Breaker. She said, “I get up at 5am to do my writing.”

“I hate that solution,” I said.

“It’s not forever,” she said. “Just for a stretch.

The next day, we had dinner with some friends, who are parents of kids our kids’ ages. The husband also just finished a YA novel which is going to be published this fall. He writes at 5am. And to complete the horrible trifecta, a third parent-friend, this one an academic who publishes about a book a year said she gets up between 4:30-5 to write, and THEN she runs for an hour!

So I tried it. I set my alarm for that evil time, and I rolled out of bed, made some black tea, pulled out a print-out of everything I’ve written and went to it. I am just reading and making marginalia, and I do this for 45 minutes. So far, I am on week three, and I just finished the draft. And here is what I have discovered:

1. I love getting up at 5am! It’s a pure, sweet, quiet, focused time to get work done. I don’t know for sure that it will be the magic hour in terms of inspiration, since I haven’t actually done the kind of lost-in-the-flow first-draft writing I think of as Writing, but I suspect it will be. I don’t intend on giving this time up. And my body has now adjusted to the new time zone. Tom has, too, thanks to my new FitBit which insures that my 5am alarm will be silent. Also, as I said above, his response to my insistence on finishing this book is to train for a (half) marathon.


2. I need an architect. I need someone to help me with this book. It’s a labyrinth. I have six characters to follow, and all their themes and issues need to weave beautifully into an integrated tapestry. I still am not totally sure what the ending holds for each of them. Most of them want to narrate. Some of them need to narrate and aren’t saying very much. I want someone from the outside to tell me what to cut, just as I want someone to come over to my house and force me to throw out 3/4ths of the contents of my attic, basement and barn. My brilliant writer friend Lisa Papademetriou says I should throw out the entire novel and re-write it as a verse novel, like Spoon River Anthology. Except I have never read Spoon River Anthology, and I am way too in love with my darlings to kill them all. I have close to 1000 pages written, and some of it is very good. It’s just that a lot of it is terrible. But even the terrible parts have some great lines in them. Maybe I should just mine the lines for songs. “Why don’t you hire Molly to be your architect?” Lila said this morning while we were cuddling on the couch.

3. The book is not that bad. Re-reading it has given me a lot of clarity and courage. Also, I can see that the work I have done since I picked it back up after a seven year hiatus has vastly improved it. So I need to keep laboring.


In her violin lesson yesterday, Lila’s teacher was working on getting Lila to make a particular sound: Lila came up with the term “feather” to describe it. It’s strong, but soft around the edges, and it requires the player to hold the bow firmly, but not to press down too hard. We went from the lesson to a restaurant in Northampton to celebrate our birthday girl, and from there to Herrell’s. We ran into friends, basked in the warm day, sat on the grass and soaked up the moment. Then we went home, opened presents and got to bed way too late (all of us.) This morning, violin practice was a disaster. “It’s your fault that I am tired!” she wailed. “You make me get up at 7 in the morning! That’s too early!”

The center of a feather has a strong core. Lila pointed this out yesterday to Emily, her teacher, when they were discussing the sound. “But it has all these little soft things,” she said, waving her fingers. “That you barely feel. But if they weren’t connected to something strong, the sound would be too soft and they would all fly away.”

I am trying––as a mother, as a presence in my kids’ lives––for the same kind of sound. When she complained about her “early” wake up time and bedtime, I had my typical reaction which was, “I am so selfish to want to wake up at 5am to work on MY novel. I should sleep in so that I am more available to my kids.” In fact, I had recently made a change in my schedule just so I would be more available to my kids.I had moved my wake-up time from 6 to 5:45 so that I would have fifteen extra minutes to cuddle them on the couch. (So the move to 5am wasn’t quite as dramatic as it might have been.) What I have given up is my 9-10:30pm “Golden Hour” when I like to check my Facebook status. The problem with this is that I become comatose at this time, and I get stuck under the laptop, which suddenly weighs a thousand pounds. “Come to bed,” Tom will say, and I will whimper, “I. Can’t. Turn. Off. Computer.”


It is famously difficult for parents to find balance between meeting their kids needs and meeting their own needs, and perhaps particularly acute for parents who are artists, whose art is somewhat speculative: that is, not necessarily remunerative. I have no idea if I will ever make a penny from The Big Idea. And yet it still remains the THING I MUST DO BEFORE I DIE. And I know from past experience that when I feel that I am doing my work, as a musician and as a writer, I am much happier and more balanced than when I am not. And much nicer to my kids.

I so want my kids to love me. I want them to smile and dance and jump into my arms and say, “Thank you, Mama. You are the best Mama EVER!” I can be assured that they will do this when I buy them things, let them eat junk food and let them watch screens. And I also know that setting limits with them, both for their own sake and for my sanity, is crucial. Really painful, at times, but crucial. So I said, “Here’s the deal. I am the one who needs an early bedtime. I am sorry you don’t like it. I could treat you more like a grown up by letting you read yourself to sleep–this is what my parents did with me. They said, ‘Good night,’ and let me read to myself until I passed out. But Daddy and I love your cuddles, both at night and in the morning. If you want us to be able to spend this time with you, it’s going to have to be when we say it’s time. We have to get our sleep so we can take care of you guys, and so we can take care of ourselves. I know that might be frustrating and disappointing to you, but it’s just how it is for now. I love you, and I hope you understand.”

She thought about it. We were walking to school together. “Oh, all right,” she said. And then she ran off and played with her friends. I forget that kids are not nearly as stuck in their ways and opinions as grownups are.

Later that day, when I picked her up from school, she said, “What’s your book about, anyway?”

Here are the rules passed down to me by my writer friends:

1. Get up at 5am to write.

2. Do not talk to anyone, if possible. Especially do not text to your other writer friends: “I am up writing!!!” with a bunch of emoticons.

3. Do not look at your iPhone. In fact, do not touch it. In fact, maybe do not even have an iPhone.

4. Ditto the newspaper if you are one of those arcane people who still gets one.

5. Do not go online. If you are writing on your computer, set up your document the night before in a full screen way so that it’s all you see when you boot up in the morning.

6. Along these lines, it can be helpful to read something from your work the night before to get your unconscious working overnight.

When your time is up, do a little jig to celebrate your commitment. And then go do all the other things you have to do.

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  1. So glad to hear you say that you cannot die without finishing the book. I feel the same way (a week away from my 64th birthday) about the novel I’ve been working on for the past fifteen years. I’m workshopping it now in Jane Roy Brown’s writing group. Very helpful and encouraging, and it keeps me writing. “See” you in the morning at 5AM.

  2. Yes! I am a longtime admirer of you and your sister’s music, and a lapsed playwright. Mt children are 12 and 6, and I am a first-year teacher. However, I need to get back to my writing, for my own sanity to say the least. I will try this because I know, as you do, that 9 p.m. writing does not work. Thank you for this as for so many other things. 8o)

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