“The Office is Closed”
This blog can get kinda hardcore at times, I know. The posts can seem relentlessly insistent on hard work, self-discipline, and so forth.
Today let’s talk about the other side.
Let’s talk about when the writing day is over.
I’m a big believer in “the office is closed.” What I mean is that, when the day’s work is done, I turn the switch off completely. I close the factory door and get the hell out of Dodge.
This is not laziness or exasperation or fatigue. It’s a conscious, goal-oriented decision based upon a very specific conception of reality.
In this conception there exist two levels upon which we work. In the first level we operate consciously and with deliberate intent. We apply will. We invoke talent. We labor.
On the second level, we don’t do a damn thing. We consign the endeavor to our unconscious (or to the Muse, if you prefer.) We very deliberately hand off our enterprise to these invisible mysterious forces.
Let the goddess take over. She wants to. It’s her job. And she’s a lot smarter than we are.
That’s what I mean by “the office is closed.”
The best thing you and I can do at the end of the writing day is to stash our work gloves in our locker, hang our leather apron on a hook, and head for the workshop door. If we’ve truly put in our hours today, we know it. We have done enough. It won’t help to keep at it like a dog worrying a bone.
I forgot who said this (I think it was John Steinbeck in Journal of a Novel):
Let the well fill up again overnight.
That’s it exactly. Someone asked Steinbeck on another occasion if he ever stretched himself at the end of a working day. He replied with an emphatic no. The phrase he used was that to keep working when you were tired was “the falsest kind of economy.” You might eke out an extra paragraph or two tonight, but you’ll pay tomorrow.
Here’s how I judge it in my own day. I work till I start making mistakes. When I find myself misspelling words and generating typos, I take that as a sign. That’s the factory whistle. The shift is over. Grab your lunch pail and hang up your boots.
Let’s get the f*%k outa here.
A weird thing happens after my work is “done” for the day. I turn the light out in my office and walk out of the room and soon after, the Muse starts whispering in my ear. This can last throughout the evening, no matter what I’m doing. She’s telling me how to fix a problem in a certain scene, that a word choice was wrong, or that a new bridge scene is needed to nail down a plot point. Experience has taught me that I will not remember these on my own, so I keep my phone handy and use the voice recorder to capture these little gifts and incorporate them into the writing when I’m back in the chair in front of the computer the next day. I don’t know, does this mean I’m never officially “outta here” or is it just the well filling up again? I think it’s the latter because I’m always grateful for it.
Mary- this happens to me all the time as well, and I need to jot it down immediately or I will hate myself the next day when I can’t remember the “aha moment.” If I ever find myself writing more than a sentence or two then I realize I’m inching back into work mode and stop for good. The idea-stash can be mined the next day.
Steve, how does marketing the work fit into this plan?
Muscles only grow when you sleep. The little proteins with hardhats can only do the work repairing your torn, fatigued muscles when the body is at rest.
While giving a decision brief to a commander, we must define the screening criteria. This is done both written on the slide, and said aloud, “Less is better” or “More is better”.
I think “less is better” is so counter to our culture that it has a very catchy ring to it.
Sooo guilty of not putting the Closed sign up…have started todo it more ndmore but, it’s a battle…
It took me a long time to realize that working beyond the stamina level was counter-productive, but now, it’s a mantra! So…..I give it my all for as long as I am able to do so with a clear head and ability to focus and like you said, when I begin to make silly mistakes, it’s time to ‘wake up’ and quit for the day. Thank you.
What I’m curious to know is: what do you find more effective, setting a goal of x pages per day, or to write x hours per day?
If your goal is pages, and on a certain day you breeze through it super-fast, do you then feel the obligation to keep going until you’re tired? Or shut down shop after y more pages?
I don’t go by pages, Alex, just till I feel I’m wearing out. But of course everybody’s style is different and how one person does it really only applies to them.
Ahhh, that’s a whole ‘nother level of discipline. I’m still in the training wheels phase where I need to set a concrete goal so I don’t quit on myself too early. I’ll get there soon! Thanks Steve!
Like Steinbeck, I like to sleep where I work. I also have “certain angers…” as he did about injustices.
Sleeping where I work, and sometimes even with the pages, nourishes them in my subconscious. Because of my anger, my passion for the material, I set boundaries and when the work is done for the day, mentally close the door.
Words and visions come in the night and I do often lay on my yoga mat or sit up and let the Goddess have her say and I get it down.
Overall, I’m more productive at everything if I stop when it’s obvious I can’t progress further that day. I respect the Goddess’ timing.
While Steinbeck may have said the same or similar thing (and probably did, given that he and Hemingway corresponded), this quote might be from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:
“But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
Ah thanks, KP, I’m sure you’re right. My mistake. Who can tell those great writers from one another anyway?
I’m so glad you wrote this post because I actually mentioned your term “close the office door” months ago on my blog. The post is: “Do You Abuse Your Muse?” I’m absolutely not pushing myself here, but just want to prove it: http://mudpiewriting.com/do-you-abuse-your-muse/
I didn’t steal it, Marcy, I swear!
You ANSWERED me, Steven Pressfield. You sweet, darling, wonderful man. You may steal ANYTHING of mine. I just included my post link to SHOW that you truly inspired me to think about “closing the office door.”
You’re a great writer, and an even better person. TY.
Damn good advice. I work early in the day before my brain wakes up too much. When I’m done, I get to do what I want, usually lunch and a nap.
I am wrapping up two weeks of holidays in an effort to re-fill my well. Decompression takes about three full days for me. I find it challenging because I like to work and feel bare naked when I am not working. But—burn out is a bitch…Thanks for posting about the other side—so helpful.
Whoa, I look forward to the day when my writing sessions are so productive that I have to will myself to ‘closing the office door’! I’ve been trying to discipline myself just to do the writing each morning at the computer for 3 hours, with eminem on the headphones as backup. It’s worked half and half, I’m getting there. I wrote my first 3 ebooks longhand in restaurants, but it’s hard to keep it going regular day after day doing that, so I’d like to train myself to write at home, each morning, and do planning etc in restaurants. I’ve read elsewhere that the 2 things needed to really produce, fast, once you’re planted in the ‘chair’ are knowledge and enthusiasm. That’s knowledge of the story world, the characters, and what comes next in the scenes I write today. In other words a fairly complete story outline (scene by scene), and a feeling of excitement about what’s happening there today. You got to have those 2 things down or the writing drags, crawls, slithers along in a soul-destroying way. I’m getting closer by the day, but I’m not there yet.
I enjoyed your reply to this post. I’ve been a painter for many, many years and a teacher of painting for 20 years or so. I’ve had to figure out how to make my own work amongst teaching schedules etc. Once I found my rhythm I let go of the idea of a set schedule. Apparently, I’m a binge painter! Who knew? What that means is I paint 10 or 12 pieces in the course of six weeks or so and then I may not paint for another two or three months during a heavy teaching schedule.
So maybe you’re a binge writer. Perhaps a daily writing schedule isn’t your thing. Just a thought. Perhaps a retreat twice a year will do it. Or long weekends or who knows…every other Thursday. 🙂
With the possible exception of Isaac Asimov, every writer of renown agrees. When the work day is over differs – some go by word count or page count, some by the clock (Trollope!), some by hours, some by the deadline, some by playlist – but all have an end-time as part of their professional routine. This is probably true of all professionals – musicians, athletes, etc.
I think it was the great painter, Nathan Oliveira, who said he left a little something to be done on the canvas the next day. Sort of priming the pump. I’m a visual artist so that works for me. What about you writers, do you leave a sentence half finished? 😉
Whatever the case may be, this is damned good advice. Farmers know you cannot continually till the same piece of land season after season. You have to let a piece of land lay fallow so it will have a chance to grow again.
For me, staring off into space while sitting in my chair at the studio (my “cogitating chair”) is still work. Funny, huh? Staring into space is part of my job description! But then, at the end of the day, I close the studio door and go home to read or swim or watch t.v. cause I’m “out of the office!”
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