The Writing Life

The Writing Life is not it’s all cracked up to be. Let me jump out of the blocks with that one. I do so only because it’s true. Before I give you a choice set of lines from a brilliant writer, I give you a few of my own thoughts on The Writing Life.

Here’s a good (and typical) day, and it would be every day if my school somehow got the idea that funding a professor to write without teaching would be a good idea, and if they’d point my finger at me when they called forward the one they wanted to assign to The Writing Life. Until that day, and I’m not waiting on it, I do this when the day permits.

I get up somewhere between 5 and 5:30am, spend some time pottering around the house doing all the things that folks like me do to rev up the engines for the day, like eating breakfast (Greek yogurt and raw oats), making a cafe latte, saying my prayers and reading the news online, checking on the blog and making sure the tweets are ready for the day. By 7 or 8am, with a second cafe latte in hand, I descend into the bowels of my house (the basement) and get to my desk and sit there — with normal breaks and interruptions — until I’m done, usually by 3pm and occasionally not until 4pm. If I go past 4pm I get a headache.

On my off days and in the summer and over breaks I do this every day. The days don’t vary much unless I have coffee with a friend or a luncheon. I’d like to play more golf but I managed only three times this year. I wonder if my golf game will desert me while my neighbors must wonder what I do in this house all day because nothing seems to be going on from the outside.

The Writing Life is about routine, day after day, month after month, year after year, and it takes a decade or more for The Writing Life to make sense and to be natural. If I miss a few days it gets hard to get back into the rhythm, and a week or two away and it takes at least two days to feel comfortable again.

Which leads me to a real writer, Harper Lee, who was once asked by some students what it was like to be a writer…She told them she sat at her desk between 6 and 12 hours every day. That day produced one page of a completed manuscript. (One page.) Then she said this:

To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It’s sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not. Everyday. Alone. Without interruption. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamour to writing. In fact, it’s heartbreak most of the time.

She’s got it right, of course. It’s not glamorous; it’s lonely; it’s everyday; it’s a disciplined habit. At the end of the day you might have very little to show for it. Some weeks are unproductive. But after a decade or two, you wander past a bookshelf in a bookstore and say to yourself amongst other browsers, “I wrote that.”

It’s more than a passing thought, that’s for sure. It can distract your browsing.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.kelly-bean.com Kellybean

    Scot- It is just what I needed to hear this week. Thanks.

  • Rick

    Your work, writing, and dedication are truly appreciated.

    Just wanted to say Thanks!

  • rising4air

    I read an interview with Jonathon Franzen. He came up with a wonderful solution to getting distracted from writing that comes from having internet access:

    He uses an old Dell notebook with a modem card: that is removed and destroyed.

    He superglued the RJ-45 cable end into the socket of the notebook: then cut off the the cable.

    Now: he has no distractions from the internet when he writes. :)

  • http://www.stephanieseefeldt.com steph seefeldt

    It’s not unlike a music performance degree. I had a brilliant teacher who told me, when I was a freshman considering vocal and/or piano performance, ‘If you are not wired to love the solitude of the practice room, day in and day out, for 10 hours a day, you are not wired for a performance degree, no matter how good and gifted you might be.’ Her honesty challenged and saved me.. instead, I got a BA in music – certified to do nothing, but it has served me well! Thanks for your life of disciplined writing that has helped to grow and shape so many of us.
    Steph

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Interesting. I think I’m a reasonably prolific writer (at this point in my life, academic articles, not books). I’ve never been able to implement the sort of routine you’re talking about. My serious writing comes in bursts — a week here or there in which I focus on writing like a maniac. If I try to force myself to write, it usually results in mush.

  • http://www.joshuagraves.com Josh

    Two great books on writing: Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) and Stephen King (On Writing). Great post.

  • DAK

    Scot, does your teaching help inform and shape your writing? Does the classroom function like a lab where you can try ideas and new ones are generated? Or does the writing inform the classroom/teaching? Or both/and? Would becoming only the guy assigned to The Writing Life somehow remove an important element in the process, or are they less significantly linked for you? Just curious what your thoughts are on that. I teach in the university classroom regularly, but am not a writer (at least not at this point), so I can’t put myself in your shoes, so just wondering how you see the interplay between teaching and writing for you. Thanks.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Going back to school made me realize… I hate writing…

    Or at least, I hate having to write.

  • scotmcknight

    DAK, good one and one I’ve thought about. It tends to be from the library to the classroom, though student questions, a thought that emerges and then gets developed, etc does work back into the library. But so does preaching and teaching in churches do the same for me…

  • Danny

    Yogurt and oats, huh? Brain-food?

  • Rick in TX

    I think it was Michener who was asked how one becomes a great writer. His answer was: Two steps:
    1. read a lot of great books.
    2. Write a lot of great books.

  • http://robmoll.com Rob Moll

    So then, can you be a writer when you must do so on evenings and weekends, after putting the kids to bed and doing the dishes, once the 9 to 5 job is finished and grad degree work is complete?
    I’m working at it, but I haven’t had and don’t foresee any day that I’ll have from 8 – 4 to write.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Thanks Scot. I will be able to use your story with people I work with (including my kids). I’ve had the opportunity to coach hundreds of young professionals over the years. I tell them that they may have big dreams, and they will come, but whatever they are doing now is the most important thing they can do. Be the best at it. Make it your work, your passion, your hobby. Be the best, and then go on to the next thing.

    I sure sounds like you are keeping the ball out front and doing what you need to do. It is frustrating to the young and those of a short attention span to do the hard work for the big prize.

  • http://www.nomorewrigglingoutofwriting.wordpress.com Suzie Grogan

    As you can tell from the name of my blog (www.nowrigglingoutofwriting.wordpress.com)I am a writer much prone to procrastination. The quote from Harper Lee is inspirational if not a little scary! I think you need a balance – you have to write as much as you can, even if you use very little of your daily output. But you have to read too. Not enough hours in the day, basically…

  • scotmcknight

    Rob, you can be the beginnings of a writer … and you, like Trollope, can do what you can. As a young professor I tried hard to write in the time between summer courses, coaching baseball, getting lunches ready, running errands, etc etc etc.

  • Lived in Wien!

    I love hearing about the balancing rhythms of your family’s life. More posts like this please! Do you do any personal journaling? What advice do you give to those of us who have 9-to-5′s & writing is not part of our official job, but needed for life-affirming sustenance? And for those of us with children? Any suggestions on adaptations for that stage in life?

  • John W Frye

    I echo Josh (#6)–Anne Lamont on the Writing Life–*Bird by Bird* and Stephen King’s *On Writing: Memoir of a Craft.* I have a quote from Ernest Hemingway on my FaceBook profile: “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”

  • http://robmoll.com Rob Moll

    I’m with you Lived in Wien! It is tough to develop a routine–no matter how disciplined you are–when all the other demands are, well, demanding. I know how good it is to be regularly engaged in the writing process and how difficult it is to re-engage. But achieving that routine is nearly impossible with family and work responsibilities.
    On the other hand, the calling remains. So, whenever time allows, I pursue it. Maybe eventually, with better skill and more ability, the opportunity for a disciplined routine will present itself.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Quite an encouraging post. I rarely feel like writing each morning, but it usually comes easy, except for the editing afterward (a rare morning this morning, when it did not come easily, but I forced it through well enough, only to erase it, and do a short one later during break and lunch at work.) The editing part does amount to work, though in my case relatively short and painless. (almost like a word game)

    But I loved your writing from the beginning, Scot. You write the way I aspire to. Bringing clarity to difficult and profound matters without losing the profundity of them.

  • TFM

    “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Red Smith

  • John M

    Scot, I have one question. In the context of the schedule you described, how in the world do you find the time to do all the reading you apparently do? I am continuously amazed at all you read. How do you teach and read as well as write so productively and prolifically?

  • http://timmhallman.blogspot.com Tim Hallman

    Thanks for the dose of reality on writing.

  • http://www.kairos2.com Alex Tang

    Didn’t Harper Lee just publish one book which became a bestseller and she stopped publishing after that?

  • scotmcknight

    Alex, yes, she wrote one book.

    But she kept writing, and the story is that her next one was stolen by someone who broke into her house, and then she was at work on another crime novel … and I don’t know anymore. The point, though, is that she kept writing.

  • http://derek4messiah.wordpress.com Derek Leman

    Scot,

    My routine is similar. Fun stuff. We are compelled to write. Writing muscles grow and strengthen. Insanity looms always near. LOL.

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    The assumption here seems to be that book writing is what constitutes the writing life when in fact there are many other types of writing that engage and satisfy. I read a lot of books that I think should be articles, which may be why I write articles.

    I also always keep in mind something Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in one of her books, and that is, something to the effect that if one doesn’t live, there is nothing to write about, so she preferred to spend more time engaging with the world than writing about it. Which is not to say that Scot’s model isn’t admirable and something to aspire to when one’s circumstances allow that level of commitment. He produces substantive books that have enriched my life and many others. But I think he’s done the bulk of his popular writing after his children were grown. Am I correct Scot?

    So, Rob, I tend to think you will regret missing out on moments with your wife and children more than you will regret a slow rate of production.

  • scotmcknight

    cas,

    Yep, I agree. My post is a riff on Harper Lee’s comment not a full statement of writing theory/life. I began with her comment and then explored it.

    Writers build through habit and routines so that later in the career it is both easier and more productive — well, that’s the common pattern. (Some dry up or move on etc.)

    Yes, my own writing became more focused when the kids were out of the house. One summer when Lukas was about 10 or 11 I didn’t write a word … I was so tied up with things around the house I had to put writing aside.

    Good point, too, about journalistic writing which requires experience and conversations and observations …

  • scotmcknight

    cas (and Rob),

    When my kids were younger and more demanding around the house, and when life was really shaped so that interruptions were unavoidable, I made conscious decisions to work hard on lectures and research and let writing come when the time came my way.

  • http://christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    Sorry if it sounded like I was criticizing the post. That’s what happens when I read something one day and then comment on it the next without rereading it. I was responding to the discussion generally. Anyway, I see myself moving in the direction you’re talking about Scot, and that may just mean a book of my own. Don’t call me a hypocrite if I write one!

  • RD

    I loved this post! Garrison Keillor wrote a great piece once about his writing habits. I think it’s fascinating to see what kind of routine writers follow. This might sound a bit odd, but I am also fascinated by the writer’s lare. You mentioned your desk in the basement, Scot. Any chance you’d consider posting a few photos of your creative sanctorum?

  • http://aaronmitchum.wordpress.com Aaron M

    The book, The War of Art speaks to this truth as well. Great post Scot.

  • http://hereiblog.com/ Mark

    Some of us are bloggers who pretend to be writers, but it’s still hard work. I appreciate this post.


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