Do you know how many pages a day Norman Mailer wrote when working on his novel The Naked and the Dead? Seven. Double-spaced. Assuming that he could fit an average of 250 words on a page, that sums up to about 1750 words. 1750 words a day. And these 1750 words per day were reached during Mailer’s time of flow. When working on his third novel, The Deer Park, he would only manage to write four or five pages a day.
Now, do you know how many days a week Mailer worked when writing The Naked and the Dead? Four. He worked on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. (I absolutely love how he took Wednesdays off, probably to have a small “mid-week weekend”.) While working on The Deer Park, he only would sit down to write three days a week.
When I read about this in Paris Review (PDF), I was like: Hmm. I don’t now about you, but one or two thousand words a day, three to four days a week doesn’t sound like much to me. There are some blog posts you’ll be reading this week that are longer. (Though, unfortunately, they’ll be rarely as good as what Mailer wrote.) And yet, it was enough for Mailer to write a total of 40 books, 11 of them novels, over a span of 59 years in his life. Apart from that, he co-founded The Village Voice, published other articles and essays, engaged in political causes, and even created a few movies.
What’s the secret of his success, then? Many people believe that, in order to get somewhere, you have to work off your ass, constantly putting in 12 or 14 hours a day. Just to be able to succeed. But Mailer wasn’t the only author who made it, even though he didn’t write all day long. John Grisham wrote his first novel an hour a day in the morning, over a timespan of three years. Haruki Murakami wrote his first two books in the middle of the night, after closing and cleaning the jazz club he was running to make a living. But even as a professional writer, he wouldn’t write more than five hours a day, as he explains in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Steven Pressfield is interesting in that he’ll sit down and do one large session to get his work for the day done. This session generally will be around four hours long, as he points out in The War of Art.
Of course, most authors will have some other stuff to do during the day, just as everybody else. But they won’t spend their whole time trying to write. You can see a pattern here. Of course, there are exceptions, and it is possible to become a writing workaholic. Balzac claimed to once have spent 45 out of 48 hours writing – and he died at 51 years of age, probably a victim to excessive strain and too much coffee.
But the real essence to succeed, be it in writing or arts or during the creation of your business, is to be consistent. You don’t have to stress yourself out. You just have to get going, as often as you can. If you write 1.500 words a day, four days a week, you end up having more than 300.000 written words at the end of the year. More than enough for not one, but a whole bunch of novels. If you go for a camera walk three times a week and take at least three great shots, you won’t find a gallery big enough to expose your resulting 468 masterpieces at the end of the year. (Hint: Try Flickr.)
Inspired by this post by Michael Nobbs, I signed up on the wonderful 750words.com a few days ago. The main idea of this small web application is to sit down to write 750 words first thing in the morning. The goal is to get all the stuff out of your head that may have accumulated during the night.
750 words. That’s a daily output of Mailer on a bad day. Of course, these 750 words are more like a journal and thus not comparable with quality content written for publication. But really, writing them is a piece of cake. It takes me about 15 to 20 minutes, and as I don’t have to focus on the content too much, procrastination doesn’t get a chance. The 750 words really get me moving and make it easy to switch to more serious things later on: If I am able to write 750 words without any trouble, writing another 1.000 or 2.000 of higher quality during the day proves to be a lot easier.
So success in your field of work, in the end, is about consistency. It’s about showing up. Not even every day. Just as often as you possibly can – let’s say, at least a couple of times during the week. As explained in Mighty Micro Productivity, you don’t need a whole day to get your important work done. You can do it right now, taking advantage of these ephemeral 20 minutes you might otherwise use to hang out on Twitter. Do this 200 or 300 days a year, and you will see the difference.
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