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“My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk[.]”
—John Keats in a letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley, August 16, 1820
Each night, I go to bed with the kids. Johanna stays up for another three hours, researching and editing our essays, or working on her projects. Then, at five, I go straight from bed to the living room table where I read through her comments and write for three hours before breakfast.
These pre-dawn hours are my core work. On the days when I don’t go into the art gallery, I usually write for another few hours during the day. But that feels more like preparing the ground for the morning. It is the morning hours that keep me inside the work.
There is something hermetic and sealed off about the pre-dawn hours that appeals to me—the sky slowly shifting, the animals living up as night ends, the skylarks, the deers, the pheasants with their clapping wings. There is nothing human between me and the work.
When you have kids, especially when you raise them at home as we do, getting extended focus can be a challenge. When I did my main writing during the daytime, I would often mess up my routines if the 2-year-old changed her sleep pattern or some activity forced me to reschedule. This made me feel restless. I would end up writing after the kids fell asleep, sometimes typing from ten in the evening past midnight. But if I have been busy with work, chores and parenting for 13 hours, I am not my deepest self. I slog. It feels better when I set off time before work, and before anyone else is awake. (The only drawback is that it makes me sleepy in the late afternoon.)
Writing essays is unlike any other work I do. It requires a deeper, more patient focus. It is not a task that I solve. Rather, it is a problem I sit with until it solves itself. This means I often make no publishable progress for weeks; then I write ten pages in three hours. The erratic progress can be hard on the nerves.