While science tells us that building a regular writing habit is best for productivity, creativity and happiness – it’s just not possible for most writers. For a long time Cheryl Strayed denied her binge writing tendencies but now she champions it. Her honesty helps people to stop judging themselves as failures to form a regular practice. Once you embrace the reality of your over-committed schedule you can realistically plan to write. Get ready, it’s time to binge.
The science is clear: binge writing is not good.
When you binge write you have fewer ideas, are less productive and more likely to be depressed. What writers should do is stop bingeing and build a regular writing habit, ideally an optimum of 90 minutes a day. So far so ideal.
But life is not ideal
Hearing that advice can make us feel like we’ve failed as writers. Cheryl Strayed certainly felt guilt and shame about her writing process.
“My name is Cheryl Strayed and I am a binge writer”
Wild author and Dear Sugar advice guru Strayed spoke to author Tim Ferriss about her feeling of inadequacy on his award-winning podcast.
Strayed told of how in her 20s she would go and see writers give lectures and readings. It was usually an old guy, who would tell the assembled wannabe writers: “of course I write every day. If you don’t write every day you are not a writer.”
For a while Strayed believed him. In the same way that the research tells us daily writing is optimum. But then she scratched beneath the surface. She explains:
“And then you would look deeper and see that this man would be in his office and his wife would be bringing him lunch and then he’d have lunch. I would be – ‘that is just not my life, no one is catering my life.’ I mean I was bringing lunch to other people, I was a waitress.”
Over her career as a writer, which has seen her top bestseller lists, win awards, and have Hollywood clambering to bring her story to the screen, Strayed has come to accept her binge writing. She now shares her once dirty secret and in so doing has helped countless writers schedule time to write in a way that works for them. Her liberating advice is that with writing, as with everything in life, you have to do it in a way that works for you.
“It is really liberating to say, writing, like with life, you have to do it in a way that works for you.” Cheryl Strayed
The dream – and reality – of a mini-retreat
I’m on a deadline. I’ve just signed with an agent which is amazing and exciting and cause for huge celebration. I need to deliver some sample chapters but I’m too busy to write them.
I have a job and a side project which uses up every spare moment of every evening and weekend, add in family commitments, a dog that needs walking, and sometimes it’s nice to exercise and have a social life.
How do I find the time to write in my over committed schedule? I’ve been getting up earlier and earlier, but I’m not making progress – all I’m doing is getting tired.
With Cheryl Strayed as my inspiration I booked two nights at Gladstone’s Library, a sanctuary for writers and researchers. It was my opportunity to escape from my commitments for a couple of days so I could write.
The dream was writing, interspersed with a creativity-inducing exercise, and nothing else. I packed my laptop, reams of notes and interview transcripts, my yoga matt and running kit.
The reality wasn’t quite so ideal.
I had so much to finish off beforehand I triggered a migraine. By the time I arrived at Gladstone’s I could barely see out of my right eye. Add in the missed train and stopping for a meeting on route, and distractions of my own making including scheduling three interviews for the book during my stay, and a three-hour dev session with a coder on the first night. I was my own worst enemy. Oh, did I mention Twitter by the way?
But, once the faffing was out of the way I got into flow and by the afternoon of the second day I was on a roll. And my God it was bliss. Words on the page, breakthroughs in thinking, total absorption, just me and my book.
Four tips from Cheryl Strayed to master productive binge writing
1 Schedule it (and stop feeling bad)
The key to binge writing is scheduling. Not only is this a super practical way to organise your time, it helps you squash any feelings of guilt. Sometimes you’re too busy to write, so get over it, and stopping fretting.
Strayed first works out when she can’t write, then finds times that she can write. She explained to Tim Ferriss:
“This is the block of time that I’m not going to be able to write, even if it is a couple of days – sometimes it’s a couple of months – therefore I release myself from any kind of guilt or shame that I should be writing when I’m not writing. And the counterpoint to that, is to say I am going to write on these days or these months. I try to arrange my life so that happens.”
2 Make an intention and make it happen
It can be depressing when you realise how little time you have available to write. But if you can find some time you need to make it happen. Strayed advises making an intention to write. Whether it’s a goal, a target, or just a mindset, you need to follow through. She says:
“It doesn’t matter what you should do, just make an intention and follow through with it. So, if all you can do is write one day a month, say ‘I’m going to take one day a month that’s all I’m doing’. That’s twelve good days a year, there’s a lot of writing you can get done.”
3 Find your retreat
Strayed writes at other times, fitting it in around the edges of life. However, she finds there is something hyper-productive about uninterrupted time writing.
“that immersion it is incredibly fruitful for me” Cheryl Strayed
I know what she means, I can write every day at the crack of dawn, but it’s not my best work, and certainly not very creative. Finding a writer’s retreat for an extended session can make all the difference. It doesn’t need to be some hallowed cabin in the woods either – around the corner is just fine. That’s exactly what Strayed did:
“I said to my husband that I am going to check in a hotel down the street for two nights. I’m going to be gone for 48 hours – don’t call me unless somebody stops breathing. I’m going to work and I’m going to get more work done in those 48 hours than I got done for weeks at home … There is something about that uninterrupted time that makes something happen that works far better for me than that every day.”
4 Get into flow
You’ve found the time and the place, it’s cost you money and favours owed to those at home and work who are keeping everything ticking over for you. Embrace the time limitations, stop faffing and get into your groove.
“There is something about it, when you only have 48 hours, and your time is limited and therefore it was really valuable and I got into the flow… And it’s really hard to dip into that at fifteen minutes at a time. I just knew I just had to go all the way there during those hotel stays.”