In a recent New Yorker profile, the decorated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood shared the secret of her productivity. She does not have a special chair, or engage in a morning ritual, or limit her writing to particular hours of the day. She just sits down and writes.
“There’s a good and a bad side to that,” Atwood told reporter Rebecca Mead, sounding somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “If I did have those things, then I would be able to put myself in that fetishistic situation, and the writing would flow into me, because of the magical objects. But I don’t have those, so that doesn’t happen.”
What happens instead is work: an astonishing output of 60 novels, collections, children’s books, and other writing. Atwood writes wherever she is, with whatever she’s got. At one point in the profile she held up her scribbled-upon hand and remarked, “When all else fails, you do have a surface you can write on.”
Many workers start their day with routines and productivity rituals, though writers are by nature more inclined to write them down. There is a rich sub-genre of writing about the conditions in which writers write, and when reading it’s tempting to focus on the details and idiosyncrasies of the artistic life. Maya Angelou wrote in a rented hotel room stripped of any distracting décor. Haruki Murakami keeps a strict schedule of writing, exercise, and reading while working on a novel. Ernest Hemingway wrote only in the morning, stopping at the graphically specific point at which he felt “as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love.”
But there is a consistent theme: sitting down day after day and forcing oneself to set aside all distractions and actually do the work. That sounds so deceptively simple. Yet here is a partial list of the things I did in the time between sitting down with the intention of writing this story and actually writing it: Checked email. Checked Twitter. Scribbled a cryptic grocery list/koan—“card onion chili”—in the margin of my notebook. Got a snack. Checked Slack, just in case any colleagues had important questions I could attend to instead of writing the story (none did). At this pace an oeuvre like Atwood’s would take me longer than I am statistically likely to remain on Earth.
Rituals are not the problem here. Simple habits like planning each day the night before or scheduling a daily meditation session save time and boost productivity. Atwood isn’t prolific because she doesn’t have a specific routine, but because she works even when the routine gets broken. As EB White (who wrote smack in the middle of his living room while his kids ran around him) put it: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”