Building Habits, Becoming a Morning Writer

When I was seventeen I spent a summer working construction for a local general contractor. The hours called for early mornings and long, exhausting days, but the work was good, physical, and pure. Each morning at seven o’clock I’d trudge into the break room where the small assemblage of carpenters, my professional mentors, convened to smoke cigarettes and listen to droning talk radio. “Morning,” they’d say to me and to one another as they unwrapped greasy breakfast sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil. I never heard, “Good morning.” Just plain, straight, “Morning.” For a quarter of an hour we would sit in silence listening to the voices on the radio and the electric ceiling vent overhead clicking irregularly like reports from a cap gun as it sucked up the cigarette smoke. This was morning. After a few weeks it became routine to me.

Whether their brevity was just a symptom of their brusque deportment or a subtle lament of the collective drudgery offered us each morning I could not decide. At that age morning to me felt more like mourning. With a simple “Morning,” one utters neither a lie nor a truth, neither an overt pun nor a tacit endorsement of one form of the word or its homophone. In my seventeen-year-old mind I convinced myself that the carpenters I worked with, having many more years and experiences behind them, must have seen enough early mornings to discern between which is a good morning and which is simply morning.

I was much better suited to waking up at ten or eleven. On the job site, ten o’clock usually signaled lunchtime. Something about those early, long days working construction must have etched itself into my character as I grew up. Or perhaps it was simply that I grew up and sleeping late lost its appeal. Somewhere along the way I began to appreciate the value of a sunrise seen directly after waking up rather than directly before going to bed. I don’t sleep long like I used to. Call it insomnia, call it a little old-fashioned-Ben-Franklin moxie. For me, rising early has become a habit, and I’ve learned to make the most of my early mornings by writing. I still have good mornings and not-so-good mornings, but the goal is to make morning writing as essential to my day as breakfast.

When it comes to writing consistently, it helps to develop good habits. It helps even more if the habits you develop fit well with the rest of your daily routine. Lately, I’ve had better luck when I start writing early in the day. Sometimes inspiration strikes me as things are winding down in the evening, but I don’t like the feeling that I need to rush to finish a thought or risk losing a full night’s sleep. Other people do better as nighthawks, or lunchtime writers (Frank O’Hara wrote an entire book of poems on his lunch breaks). If you find a writing routine that works, stick with it as long as you can or until it stops working. The day-to-day consistency will lend consistency to your writing.

Now some mornings I run down to the grocery store for milk or eggs or bread before writing. I pass by an elementary school where the kids are beginning to gather for morning recess. Every time, without fail, the same little girl hails me from a distance. “Good morning, sir!” she says in a singsong voice. I do my best to shake the habit, but I can’t help it when I reply, “Morning!” and hope she forgives my apparent brusqueness.

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