These statistics represent pretty much every book I’ve read since January 1, 2009. There are numerous idiosyncrasies in this data. For instance, for awhile I marked magazines, but then I stopped. Other notes:
“Female” is, obviously, to the best of knowledge–I don’t know how the authors identify. The table on ‘identity’ is also pretty inaccurate, especially for queer writers, since sometimes I forget or don’t know that writers are queer. And, obviously, people can be queer and something else, and when there was ‘something else’ I normally marked that. For instance, I marked Oscar Wilde as Irish rather than as Queer.
Each table is divided into two areas. The first two columns are the total number of books that fit into this category and the percentage that represents out of the total number of books I’ve read. The second two columns represent just those statistics for this year. I include the second set since sometimes the two vary significantly. For instance, I’ve read way more female authors this year than is typical.
And it is phenomenal. First of all, it’s full of insane anecdotes, like how Patricia Highsmith was such a misanthrope that she’d bring her pet snails to parties with her so she could be entertained whenever she got bored with the guests. Or how Kierkegaard would literally fill a cup full of sugar and then pour coffee over it and drink the resulting concoction (which actually sounds pretty amazing). Or how Proust (supposedly) lived on a single croissant per day (sometimes two).
But, more importantly, you also get a sense of exactly how and how much these writers and artists worked.
Generally speaking, there are four types of people described in this book:
The workaholics: these people don’t need schedules because they don’t find it too hard to work and they’re always working. This category includes George Gershwin, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Kierkegaard, Voltaire, Henri Matisse,
The extremely orderly: these people kept to rigid schedules that they followed every single day. They also tended to be somewhat reclusive (which makes sense, since a rigid schedule doesn’t really allow for the interruptions caused by a social life). Examples here include Simone de Beauvoir, Kant, Benjamin Franklin, Proust, Flaubert, Juan Miró, and Philip Roth.
The 2-3 hour a day folks: These are people who were content to do just two or three hours a day (and, usually, they believed it was counterproductive to do more than this). Examples here include: Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Martin Amis, Thomas Mann, Richard Strauss, Henry Miller, and Graham Greene.
The hopelessly disorderly: people who write according to no fixed schedule (and often suffer months where they produce little or nothing). Here I also include people whose writing habits are incredibly bizarre and idiosyncratic (Gertrude Stein, for instance, would drive out into the country and look for a cow, because she liked to look at cows while she wrote. Then she’d sit on a rock and maybe get half an hour of writing done before she was tapped out for the day). Examples are: Jane Austen, Frederic Chopin, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ann Beattie, and Tom Stoppard.
(Personally, I fit into the third category, though I wouldn’t say it’s impossible that I might someday fall into the second).
What’s comforting about the book is that it confirms something that I already sort of knew: many writers are extremely orderly in their work habits. They eschew partying and irregularity of all sorts, and they subjugate everything in their life (including their social relationships) to their writing. Philip Roth, for instance, described the relief he feels now that his wife has left him, and he could finally be alone at the end of the day:
My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing.
For me, it’s also nice to know that a person can have a very successful literary career and produce exceptionally good work even if they only write for 2-3 hours a day. Personally, I spent years hovering around 1.5 hours per day, and I’ve only recently managed to work myself up to 3 hours per day, so I’m not sure I’m ever going to be a person who sits down for 7 hours a day.
Second of all, it’s interesting to see how reclusive some writers are. Personally, I found myself admiring some of these secluded lifestyles. It would be nice to be in some tiny place in the middle of nowhere and not even be able to distract myself with (or make myself anxious about) interactions with other people. It would be lonely, but I think it’d be very interesting to be alone with my work for such an extended period of time. I had a taste of that over the winter break, when I was writing the first draft of my crime novel, and it was a very powerful experience.
For some reason, I’ve decided to go through my log of the books I’ve read and start adding a bit more information for each entry. Right now, I’ve been adding binary categories for gender and queerness, and more detailed fields for national identity / ethnicity, original language, year published, and genre.
I’ve just finished categorizing the 914 books I’ve read by genre, and here are the results:
*Epic refers to national epics, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, not epic fantasy.
**Broke out paranormal romance as a different category from speculative fiction, because it feels like most people treat it as a different genre.
In creating this list, I was most concerned with genre categories as they’d be in the book store, not with the normal science fiction fan’s game of recategorizing various classics and works of literary fiction as being genre novels. So, for instance, I counted The Handmaid’s Tale as a novel.
The only major surprise here, for me, is the number of nonfiction books that I’ve read. I would not have thought that one in five of my books would be nonfiction.
For as long as I’ve been keeping records of my daily writing time (which, admittedly, is only like fifteen months), I’ve been clocking an average of about 11 hours a week. And for an equally long period of time, I’ve been trying to increase that average to 15 hours a week. Now, plenty of you are scoffing right now and are like, “Whatever, I write three hours a day.” To which I have to say, “Do you really?” Because until I started keeping records, I thought I was writing a lot more than I actually was. For years, I tried to write about 2-3 hours a day, which is a total that would easily give me about 15 hours a week.
The truth, however, is that while I did have plenty of 2-3 hour days, I also had plenty of 5-minute days. And, over time–unless you counterbalance them with a bunch of 4-6 hour writing days–those 5 (or 20 or 30) minute days will substantially bring down your averages. So anyway, for about a year, my daily writing time has been about 95 minutes a day and 11 hours a week and I have reason to believe that my productivity was similar for the 2 years prior to when I started keeping time use statistics.
In order to improve upon this, I set a goal of writing 15 hours a week and I sketched out a plan for doing that (it basically involved writing 3 hours each and every day). But the plan always failed. On any given day, it was too easy to not do anything. I wasn’t able to keep myself honest. My existing tools for achieving productivity are all about preventing absolute inertia from setting in (I write every day, I aim to write 1000 words a day, and I aim to write 5000 words a week).
These goals work because they’re achievable each and every week (even during really terrible weeks). And because I never fail at them, I never get into a horrible slump–a stretch of days or weeks when I write nothing. However, their very achievability prevents them from being used to increase my productivity beyond a certain level. If I start demanding that I write 10,000 words in a week instead of 5,000 then there’ll be weeks when I realize that I’m going to fail. And once I realize that I’m going to fail anyway, it’s very tempting to just write nothing. By trying to stretch the old system, I risk breaking it entirely.
However, if I try to layer a new set of goals on top, then I run into a kind of informational overload. For awhile, I tried setting too targets: a minimum target (5,000 words in a week) and a good target (15 hours in a week). But then I was suddenly dealing with too many goals and too many targets and it becomes hard for me to answer a very simple question: “Did I have a good week?”
At that point, I’d defaulted to the standard I’d been using for a long time and would spend months pretty much ignoring the ‘good’ target.
Clearly I needed new tools.
In developing productivity methods, I do have a few principles.
The core of any system (for me) is that it should be based around an easy-to-measure indicator and a clearly-defined target
The key to productivity is habit formation, so targets should be designed so that failure is extremely rare: I should get into the habit of meeting them every single day.
There should be no concrete reward for success (money, treats, privileges, etc). Success is its own reward.
It should be easy for me to tell when I am succeeding and how often I’ve succeeded
The heart of the problem was that the 15 hour a week target was not achievable every week. I could hit it some weeks, with great effort, but the next week I’d fail. There was a circularity there that was frustrating. In order for a goal to work for me, it needs to be easy to achieve. But if it’s easy to achieve, then there’s no point in setting it.
However, in the end, ‘easiness to achieve’ did turn out to be the key to the problem.
First, though, I needed a string of conceptual breakthroughs.
My initial insight arose when I was revising one of my novels. I worked on the revision for ten straight hours. And, as a result, I easily achieved my 15 hour target for that week. I realized that if I worked one 8-hour day every week and worked 100 minutes on each of the other days, then meeting my target would be a snap. However, when I tried to set that as a goal, I consistently failed. I would push my planned 8-hour day later and later into the week and, more often than not, something would come up and I’d discover that I couldn’t do it.
My second insight came after I discovered a feature of Excel called Conditional Formatting. This tool allows you to program certain cells to change their formatting if certain conditions are met. In this case, I decided that I would use the feature to tackle the problem of the 5-minute writing day. I would program my spreadsheet to light up if I’d written for more than 30 minutes today. Furthermore, if I’d written more than thirty minutes on the previous day, that day would light up too. And so on and so forth. The result is an immediate visual reward. Whenever I reach 30 minutes of writing for the day, a whole ladder of cells lights up. For instance, I’ve met the goal for 27 days straight, so the ‘writing time’ column for the previous 27 days is lit up.
Then I expanded this system to other columns. Thus, I have multiple ladders–with different lengths and different criteria–operating side by side in my spreadsheet. The tallest ladder is the ‘Words’ column. Here, it lights up if I’ve written anything at all. This ladder is 841 cells high, since it’s been 841 days since I’ve missed a day of writing. And then there’s the aforementioned column for Writing Time (and a whole bunch of other ones that aren’t important here).
It’s incredible how powerfully this very simple reward system operates. I almost immediately stopped having 5-minute days, because doing so would result in a break that’d reduce my ladder to only 1 cell in height. Other than the pleasure of seeing an expanse of green, there’s no other reward for success. But that’s enough! That’s seriously all it takes to motivate a human being!
The third insight was that I should make sure I get my writing done in the morning, because the longer I put it off, the more likely something is to come up and make it difficult. So I added a column called “AM Writing Hour” and I started awarding myself an ‘X’ if I wrote for an hour while it was still in the AM. As of now, my AM Writing Hour ladder is 18 days high.
The final breakthrough was realizing that I could simply create individual writing goals for each date and award myself an ‘X’ if I met that day’s individualized writing goal. Thus, if I decide to write 30 minutes on Friday and I do write 30 or more minutes, then I get an X. And the ‘Writing Goal Achieved’ column also lights up in green if I meet it for multiple consecutive days. On the face of it, this seems like a stupidly simple system, since I could win it just assigning myself a 1 minute goal for each day. But that ignores the fact that these are my goals and I legitimately want to achieve high productivity. Thus, I constantly try to set myself goals that are high, but achievable. However, I am allowed to take into consideration each day’s travails! If a day is very busy, then I give myself just a 1 hour goal. Otherwise, I usually assign myself 2 hours. One day a week I set an 8 hour goal and one day a week I set a 4 hour goal. But even this is not set in stone. For instance, yesterday I had another commitment, so at around midnight on the day before I decided–at the last minute–to lower its goal to six hours. This was a good decision. I’d never have achieved 8 hours, and, in failing to achieve it, I’d probably have ended up only writing for an hour or two. Getting to six hours, however, was difficult but doable. Thus, I’ve decided that up until I wake up on the morning of a given day, I am still allowed to alter its goal.
That was the final piece of the puzzle. Now I have the flexibility to have different goals on different days while still allowing myself a target that I can achieve on every single day. And the result has been an unprecedented string of 15+ hour weeks. And these haven’t been particularly easy or hassle-free weeks. They’ve been weeks of school and travel to DC and partying and teaching. It’s pretty exciting. I’m getting a _lot_ done. For instance, I’m finally clearing my backlog of to-be-revised stories.
Oh, I did make one other modification. I also added two rows at the top of the spreadsheet. One gives the height of the current ladder; the other gives the height of the longest ladder I’ve ever built up in that column. If the two rows are equal (meaning that I am currently building my longest ladder) then the bottom of them turns blue. I just added this because I noticed that when I fall off a ladder, I sometimes have a tendency to slack off for a bit, and I wanted to encourage myself to get right back on there.
I am the king of personal holidays. I have so many private anniversaries marked into my calendar that they often flip past without me noticing. And it’s not surprising that I forgot one as inherently unstable as July 6th…the anniversary of the last day–two years ago–on which I didn’t write anything.
Yes! I have gone over two full years without missing a day. Now, I’m not saying that all of those days were high quality. At least 50 of those days were days on which I only wrote 50 words. But still, these two years have been an 1.5 times more productive than the seven and a half years that preceded them. And part of that is because I never forget that there’s something I should be doing.
Yep, although I do sometimes allow myself a string of 50 word days, I’m not really a big believer in taking breaks. I’ve found that breaks aren’t really refreshing. It’s like when you go on vacation: you’re over on a beach and you’re having a good time and you’re so relaxed and happy. But when you come back, it’s instantly gone, like it never happened. That’s because you can’t really store up emotion. Sometimes really really strong emotions leave behind a shadowy wisp of themselves, attached to this memory or to that smell. But by and large, you experience them and then they’re gone.
So I don’t really think that staying away from the page “recharges my batteries.” On some particular day, I might not feel up to writing very much, but I don’t think that not writing on that day is going to make it easier to write on some other day. On the contrary, I think that the habit of not writing is easier to form than the habit of writing, and that every day on which one doesn’t produce makes it harder to produce on some subsequent day.