ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: O is for Overnight

Posted by on Jul 20, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

aj.oconnell.photocreditO is for Overnight (or, the importance of knowing your own schedule)

I write my best first drafts overnight. It usually happens after everyone else has been asleep for a few hours, when I’m just finishing the tidying up, or the laundry-folding, or any of the other repetitive tasks I do before bed, just about the time I’m contemplating sleep. Right then, when I’m at my most tired; that’s when inspiration strikes.

It’s not very convenient — I go to bed at 2 a.m. some mornings — but I’ve come to accept that at this point in my life, two hours in the middle of the night are the most creative hours of my day.

I’m a novelist, but writing and pitching essays to magazines is an important part of what I do as a writer, so I’d been setting aside time during the day to brainstorm and write these pieces. Unfortunately, I was having trouble during my designated writing time: I couldn’t come up with anything worth writing about, or if I did, my essays seemed forced.

One night, after a frustrating afternoon of trying — and failing  — to work, I noticed that I was telling myself stories as I emptied the dishwasher.

This isn’t a new phenomenon; I’ve often found myself carrying on one-sided conversations late at night, about something I’d read or seen that had affected me; sometimes it was an article that had gotten under my skin, or an exchange I’d had with someone, or something I’d seen during my errands.

On this particular evening, a little concerned that I’d been muttering to myself during my chores, I decided to sit down and quickly draft something instead. I was sitting on the couch with my laptop for two hours before I finally let myself go to bed. I’d written a full essay.

I couldn’t believe how easy it had been to write that piece. Why did it come to me right then, when nothing at all came to me during the day? It took me a while (and a few more essays) to understand that my best nonfiction work was happening at night because I was processing what had happened during the day. I wasn’t inventing anything. I wasn’t crafting prose. I was just getting my thoughts out on the page before I could go to sleep

That piece, by the way, was a complete mess. It took a lot of revision to make sense of it. But the meat of the essay I wanted to write was there. Once it was edited down, I pitched and sold it to an online magazine. (I had to do all that that work during the day. As it turns out, I’m terrible at revising in the evening because I’m too tired to focus on details.)

Not every writer will write essays at 11 p.m., but every writer can benefit from knowing their own schedule. The trick is listening to your body, observing your own schedule and planning accordingly.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • When during the day is your imagination most active? When do you catch yourself cooking up fantasies or telling yourself stories?
  • When do you catch yourself going on rants or having imaginary arguments?
  • When are you most focused and able to revise and edit?
  • When are you least focused? When are you unfit for anything but videos of cats or Law & Order marathons?

Make a note of these peaks and valleys in your creativity, and if you can spot a consistent pattern, prepare to catch the ideas you churn out when you’re at your most creative. If you’re most creative on your commute, download a recorder app for your phone. If you are a font of ideas in the shower, invest in a diving slate. If, like me, you get creative before sleep, keep a notebook on the nightstand.

Also, be prepared to adjust your writing habits as your life shifts and changes. Before I was a parent, my best writing hours were 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Life changes, and so do we as writers.

I’ve learned to love writing overnight. There’s a lack of inhibition; ideas just keep coming. They’re rough and unformed; my spelling and grammar are almost always a complete mess, but I get things on the page. Knowing your own rhythms can help you know when to draft, when to revise and maybe even when to submit your work. Is there even a good time to submit? If so, I haven’t figured it out.

A.J. O’Connell is the author of two books: Beware the Hawk (2012) and The Eagle & The Arrow (2013), both published by Battered Suitcase Press. Her other creative work has been published in various journals and anthologies. She’s also a journalist, but asks you not to hold that against her. She can be found here.

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