As I approach 40, I’m coming to terms with several truths about myself:
- I am not going to be the first woman to play short stop for the New York Yankees.
- 5’8.5″ is my full-grown height.
- No matter how innocent they look, cupcakes are my mortal enemies.
- To be a better writer I have to wake up early. Really early—like, before the sun and my 8-month old. Believe it or not, this last one has been the most difficult for me to accept.
I have never been a morning person. In high school I routinely stayed up until midnight and slept (when I was allowed) until after noon. I hung a sign on the door that read: “I Don’t Do Mornings,” which my father still likes to tease me about. (And, mind you, the sign is still hanging, though my old bedroom has become his office.) In college I took afternoon classes and worked the late night shift at the snack shop. If anyone needed to get picked up after last call, they called me. If anyone needed a sunrise drive to the airport, they skipped my number. In grad school I fell in with a crowd of the nocturnally gifted and began to stay up even later. I would regularly watch the sunrise across the San Gabriel mountains after a night spent writing a new story or developing photographs in my bathroom-turned-darkroom or watching Law & Order reruns on A&E while playing Ma-Jong with a group of film school dropouts and jobless musicians. Yes, it was a magical time.
Then, in my early thirties, it all changed.
I’d like to say it was my first “real” job that got me on the straight and narrow, or my father constantly reminding me that luminaries such as W.E.B. DuBois had put in a whole day’s work by noon, but it wasn’t. What finally got me to consider waking up early was motherhood—and the harsh realization that came with it: that writing didn’t fit easily into my life anymore. That it came after my children and my spouse and my teaching job. After housework and exercise and coffee with college buddies and paying bills. After swim lessons and feeding the dog and going to acupuncture. After the library, the post office, the grocery store, the bank.
Suddenly, after years of writing when I was moved to write, I was faced with the prospect of never again working in a quiet house. Soon a successful writing day was one where I snatched an hour during my daughter’s morning nap, typing with one hand and rocking her with the other; occasionally all I could find was ten minutes in an especially long carpool line. Faced with a deadline for the revision of my novel—all 417 pages of it—I knew I needed larger chunks of uninterrupted time. I was a grown-up now, and I knew the horrible truth: I needed to become a morning person. I needed to become DuBois.
This is when I first conceived of setting my alarm for an hour I had previously only seen after an exceptionally good party or to catch an international flight. This is when I made a commitment to waking up early. The first morning I set the alarm for the fairly moderate time of 6:15am, a number I hadn’t seen with any regularity, but at least had seen before. It was tolerable, but by the time I peed and found my favorite writing sweater and made tea and checked my email, I had about thirty minutes of solitude before the rest of the house woke up. I needed more time. Begrudgingly, I set the alarm for 5:30am. Better, but at ninety minutes a day I was still looking at a year before I finished the revision. 5:01am seemed daunting but possible; after all, it was still in the 5 o’clock hour. But truthfully, it wasn’t enough. I finally, horrifyingly, settled on 4:35am. With any luck I’d be out of bed by 4:45 and sitting at my desk with a hot, creamy cup of Earl Grey by 4:55, ready to write by 5:00.
At first it felt strange: why am I sitting up? I wondered. I had a bellyache and a ravenous hunger, simultaneously. Why am I awake? Why am I alive? The house looked weird in the darkness of pre-dawn; the furniture seemed to glare at me. It was cold and the hardwood floors squeaked even louder than during the daytime. The bed I’d left with more than a trace of bitterness was calling to me like an old lover. The couch looked equally inviting, perhaps for a catnap, it reasoned, nothing more. I white-knuckled it those first mornings, and to my great surprise, made it to my desk without detour or delay.
And then it happened—I started to work. The time flew and the pages flipped and next thing I knew I had finished revising a chapter. And then another. And when I looked at the clock, expecting it to be 7:15, time to wake up the troops, a funny thing happened. It was only 5:45. I checked a different clock to make sure the first wasn’t broken. And then another. Finally it dawned on me. The secret my father and DuBois and bakers across the world obviously knew—time moves slower before the sunrise.
Maybe it’s a myth or a lie or a delusion or an illusion, but like the boy who hears the broken bell ring, it’s true because I believe it to be true. And I promise you, folks, it works. I finished my revision and I’ve written another novel and a screenplay and three television scripts. All work I might have eventually written, but without those pre-dawn hours, I’d surely be talking about the truths I’m coming to terms with as I approach fifty.
It is not easy to get up that early, and there are sacrifices along the way—like going to sleep before the movie ends, and refusing that second glass of wine—but what I’ve gotten on the receiving end is something of much greater value: time. As any writer knows, I don’t fear running out of ideas, I fear running out of time. By waking up at the god-awful 4 o’clock hour I’ve tipped the scale in my favor, creating a block of writing time like I would create a character. And in the end, it feeds, dare I say, even sustains me, in exactly that same way as my writing does, the river feeding into the ocean to replenish itself.
Some days, I do hit the snooze button and sleep in. And it feels nice, to wake up with the sun or the baby’s cooing, the big kids climbing into bed to cuddle until breakfast. But I have to admit something: I feel off when I miss my early morning writing session. I miss those hours I give to writing, which we all know, is a gift to myself.
My final confession: I enjoy getting up early. I not only need it, I want it. I’ve actually come to rely on it. My father can keep that old sign. Today, I most definitely do Do Mornings.