Consistency and Your Creative Work

Persistance is to sit down and do your work. As often as you possibly can.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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Comments 32

  1. Ana María June 15, 2010

    Maybe it’s not even “as often as you possibly can,” maybe it’s just often enough.

    It’s impossible to quantify creative production by the hour, I find it puzzling as a graphic designer when clients insist I charge them hourly rates, most of the time spent it’s intangible. The time I spent sleeping, taking a shower and watching movies can be the most “productive.” Of course, as you have stated here discipline and consistency are very important.

    It almost doesn’t make sense, but I think it does.

    Anyway, looove this post. Thank you :)

    • Fabian June 15, 2010

      Ana María, I know so well what you mean. And yes, it doesn’t seem to make sense, but in creative work, the unconscious definitely helps in getting things done. I once wrote about this in The Power of Your Idle Brain. That said, of course we also have to sit down and really materialize our thoughts and relevations. That’s the part I’m talking about here, and I’m totally fine with doing it just “often enough”! :)

  2. Jeb June 15, 2010

    An old theme, consistency, but you present it in a very clear and action-oriented way. Makes me believe I could do it…very nice FK.

  3. J. D. Bentley June 15, 2010

    It’s awful to say this, but I’ve never read anything by Norman Mailer. Anyway, this post has really inspired to start writing in a non-blogging way. Blogging is really starting to get stale. I need some creative writing. It’s nothing for me to put out 1500 words. When you break it down to 1500 words a day, I could have a novel in no time. Thanks for this post. Loved it!

    • Fabian June 15, 2010

      I’d love to see that, JD! Hope you go for it!
      Ironically, Mailer himself even published two pieces on the Huffington Post in his late days and wrote: “I’m beginning to see why one would want to write a blog.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/norman-mailer/intelligence-101a_b_1142.html)
      That said, there certainly is a place for both kinds of writing in the world, but the established rules of the professional (or wanna-be professional) blogging world have me a little bored already, too.

  4. floreta June 15, 2010

    I like the idea of the 750 words. They remind me of Morning Pages a la Julia Cameron (“The Artists Way”) only digitalized.. she stressed the effectiveness of handwritten over computer though. I just wrote a post about commitment which was supposed to be me whining about commitment-phobia/love but ended up being more about making the commitment to do creative work, or whatever it is that you want to be doing. There is no magic formula. It really is as simple (and hard!) as making, and keeping the commitment.. being Persistent.

    • Fabian June 16, 2010

      Actually, the creator of 750words refers specifically to this exercise from “The Artists Way” (which I haven’t read yet, unfortunately). I think that handwritten versus digital is very much a matter of personal taste, and the online platform probably isn’t the best choice for many people. That said, it is really beautifully made and well-thought with a lot of details like getting points and medals as rewards for continous writing, so it’s really a lot of fun!
      I read your post, too, and find it interesting that you’re on an 800words challenge currently! All the best for that!

  5. Farouk June 16, 2010

    couldn’t agree more Fabian, at the beginning of starting my ebusiness i was working really hard, now i work 5 hours/day , thanks for the post

    • Fabian June 16, 2010

      Sounds great, Farouk! 4-5 hours a day to me seem very enjoyable and, in many endeavors, doable. As you say, one may have to put a lot more into it to get started, but afterwarts, it’s often a good idea to slow down.

  6. kelly June 16, 2010

    Great post. Checked out 750words and really like the concept – so much – I signed up. As a person who has started at least 4 blogs (or is it 5) I like the idea of having a private place to empty my thoughts into. I still believe in a handwritten paper journal but 750words has it’s place also.

    • Fabian June 16, 2010

      Glad you like 750words, Kelly! I like it for the same reason, and I really find the site to be created very neatly!

  7. Rob June 16, 2010

    Coolio. Apparently Stephen King writes 2000 words a day, even on Christmas day and July 4.

    • Fabian June 16, 2010

      In sales his words probably weigh more than those of Mailer. But EVERY day? Too consistent for my taste… ;)

  8. biofutur June 16, 2010

    really nice article indeed Fabian.
    By the way, what is your average ?
    Is it per day, per week or per month ?
    ;-)

    • Fabian June 16, 2010

      Honestly, I have no average. When it comes to stuff written for publication it’s probably 1000-1500 words a day currently, but this may go down to 500 and up to 4000. After that I’m generally a harsh editor, so most of it doesn’t see the light too soon or, for that matter, ever. :)

  9. IvánPérez June 18, 2010

    I’ve been experimenting with an anti-schedule lifestyle in everything (exercise, diet, relationships, productivity, accountability…). So I’ve created this habit (instead of forcing myself to set it, because that wouldn’t be me walking my talk) where whenever I feel like something is a good idea or I feel the rush to do something I hold myself back. I apply the laziness rule to myself. This creates limits and – as I said here – limits make you focus on the important stuff.

    So, I stop until I would kill myself if I didn’t do it, until I have a burning inferno in my belly and my blood is really pumped. My creations are fewer but way better than before, because they are purposeful.

    (“Don’t try” Bukowski)

    • Fabian June 18, 2010

      Thanks for sharing that approach, Iván. It definitely is counterintuitive, but if it works for you, that’s great. For me, an anti-schedule works more like always having 10 tasks at hand and jumping on the one that really calls my attention. :) It’s similar to the popular Autofocus approach.

      As for this post, I was pointing into another direction, of course. It has more to do with the 10.000 hours thing Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in “Outliers”, and I wanted to highlight the power of small steps over large ranges of time. It doesn’t really matter how you manage to get yourself working: By habit and rule each day of the week, or by following your intuition just 2-3 times a week. Both of these ways will sum up to a great amount of work done at the end of the year!

  10. James June 19, 2010

    For the last six months I’ve been doing 1000 words a day, five times a week, on my book. Works a charm, so this post definately struck a chord with me. Nice to know others have followed this approach because I have wondered whether I was really putting the effort in. Small steps taken regularly…

    • Fabian June 19, 2010

      Cool, James, that book must already be a big fat tome! What’s it about?

  11. Michel J. Gagnon June 19, 2010

    Fabian,
    I agree with the need to be consistent and to get to learn about our brain’s cruising speed. Writing on a consistent basis gets you up and running even though the quality of the content may not always be good.

    We sometimes forget that we’re not machines. We all need our “mid-week weekend.” This is often when we get our greatest ideas.

    • Fabian June 20, 2010

      Absolutely. Idleness and Action have to be comined to really work… :)

  12. Christine June 20, 2010

    To start, I stumbled across your blog courtesy of a comment you left on Carl Honore’s as I was drawn in by your blog title. I have been ruminating on this topic as of late. It is 100% spot on. I come at it from a slightly different angle as I have played sports my entire life and now I am a personal trainer, guiding others to their fitness goals. When I think about who fails and who succeeds in reaching their goals it comes down to the people who are willing to participate daily in changing their eating habits and take a stab at their workouts even if they only last twenty minutes. The point is to make both a consistent routine or the changes and results they seek are less likely to occur. Interestingly my meditation teacher last week ended with, “Meditating just 5 – 10 minutes a day is far more fruitful than coming here once a week for an hour.” :-)

    • Fabian June 20, 2010

      Christine, I’m glad the blog title caught your interest! :)
      Thanks for sharing a view on consistency from your area of work. Small steps just seem to help everywhere! :)

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  18. Solveig June 18, 2013

    In order to think creatively, you must develop new neural pathways and break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. As Mark Twain said, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” – http://www.fastcompany.com/1007044/neuroscience-sheds-new-light-creativity

    Habit and structure result in the reinforcement of experiential neural pathways in the brain. Yet the conundrum is that creative thinking relies on making entirely new and unexpected neural connections. In some ways, the concepts of habit and creativity are thus always at odds in my mind.

    Nonetheless, I do agree that the idea of establishing a discipline of writing is useful. It facilitates the space in which to think creatively. I always have loved the idea of going to church regularly, for example, even though I am not particularly religious, because it when I do go, it creates a space for the contemplation of bigger ideas. Exercise also is a regularly scheduled creative thinking time for me. I do some of my best thinking on the ellyptical. In the same way, creating a set time for writing on a regular basis can help create a space for creativity to blossom.

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