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What do writers DO all day?
“Good God man,” he said. “You don’t mean to tell me you work in the afternoon?”
It’s a good question, although I’ve only been asked it as baldly as that twice in my life and, happily, both times in a positive way. For folk like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg who belittle working from home at the drop of a top hat, the answer is no doubt “shirk like lazy blighters” (although at the risk of sounding like I’m back in the playground again, takes one to know one). The truth is that most people have no idea what most other people do all day.
One thing working from home does allow me to do is spend time actually thinking. I’ve quite enjoyed working in offices but in none of them was any time properly put aside for planning. Naturally we had planning meetings. We had them constantly. But I always felt we would have been a lot more successful and come up with more satisfying solutions if we’d spent that time somewhere quiet, alone, really thinking about what needed doing, rather than a rushed 10 minutes between trying to firefight between other tasks.
As an example, here’s how Charles Darwin’s son Francis described his father’s routine from middle age onwards (my italics). It apparently barely varied day to day.
7am Woke up. Went for a walk.
7.45am Ate breakfast.
8–9.30am Worked in study, the period of the day that Darwin believed was his best working time.
9.30–10.30am Read letters.
10.30–12 noon Back to study to work
12 noon End of the working day. Walked in the garden, sometimes with his dog
12.45pm Lunched with the family. After lunch, read the newspaper and answered letters.
3pm Rested in his bedroom on the sofa. Smoked a cigarette. Listened to his wife Emma reading a novel or similar out loud.
4pm Went for another walk, usually a bit longer and sometimes with other people.
4.30–5.30pm Back to the study to clear up bits and bobs
6pm Back to the bedroom with Emma reading aloud. Then a light tea, followed by a couple of games of backgammon with Emma, some reading (to himself), perhaps listen to Emma playing the piano.
10pm To bed, down by 10.30
I rather like that, and I particulary like knocking off work at lunchtime. So did Maya Angelou, featured in my 2022 book Rooms of Their Own since ‘what writers do all day’ is a major thread running through it. Long story short, she took herself off to a hotel room to work, wrote all morning, then nipped back home at lunchtime and very sensibly took a break from writing until later in the evening, deliberately putting it all out of her mind to concentrate on getting dinner ready which she found relaxing. After dinner with her husband, she sometimes read what she’d written that day to him, or do a little light editing on her typewriter.
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It seems highly civilised to me and is the kind of ‘Oxford Hours’ schedule as outlined in the Idler magazine by management philosophising guru Charles Handy. Here’s the key snippet:
It came about when I was still working a sort of office job at the London Business School. My wife asked me to come home for lunch one day with her father, a retired colonel from the army who was, to me, a slightly intimidating figure. So I said, “of course,” being an obedient husband in those days.
I came home at about half past twelve and at two o’clock I began to excuse myself, I stood up and said “I am terribly sorry, but I have got to go back to the office”. The colonel looked at me from under his eyebrows. “Good God man,” he said. “You don’t mean to tell me you work in the afternoon?”
Apparently this is what the colonel did in the army and Handy liked it so much he implemented it himself – he worked in the morning, had a drink at lunch, then exercised in the afternoon, and socialised in the evening. Isn’t it appealing? I certainly like the sound of it although I think I may have trouble convincing friends and family who believe that I should be looking to double my working week rather than halve it.
But to return to the question of the title, here is what I did on Wednesday this week. It’s fairly typical, except that almost every Wednesday I play snooker with a group of friends and minor group illness got in the way this time.
6.55am Woke up and listened to rubbish news on R4
7.10am Got up, woke up sons 2 and 3, got breakfast for them. Listened to nice music on R3. Had first coffee of the day.
7.45am Sons left for school and internship. Topped up coffee. Quickly checked visitor stats for my Shedworking site and the Fine Books and Collection site on which I work as the online editor. Quickly checked sales rankings of my books on Amazon. Quickly checked instagram, twitter and Facebook. Nothing urgent so back to bed for brief lie-down before doing a few house things, showering, and breakfasting (mixture of muesli and granola with almond ‘milk’)
9am Reheated coffee. Checked and replied to emails. Did wordle (FLICK-LEAST-LAMER-LAYER). Started work. As usual, I spent the first couple of hours working on the Fine Books site, researching and writing stories, sorting freelancers’ contracts and copy, and generally doing some site tidying. I’d also been trying to arrange an interview with a writer – it seemed that they preferred to do it via email so I sent some hopefully not too Alan Partridge-type questions to their publicist.
11.05am More coffee and a bit of admin (including checking and docusigning a contract for a new book I’ll be starting to work on very soon for the National Trust). Quick social media check. Bit more Fine Books work.
11.30am Picked up where I left off working on the manuscript for a literary almanac. This needs to be finished by the end of February for delivery to the publishers, the British Library (technically February 22 but I’m asking for an extra week because, well, you know).
1.30pm Ate lunch (noodles with yesterday’s tea leftovers of sausages, vegetables and potatoes, kindly prepared by my wife). Walked up to town to the post office and for a quick shop for eldest son’s vegetarian tea plus cheese.
3pm Back to work on literary almanac.
4.15pm Mug of tea and a couple of German chocolate lebkuchen that somehow survived Christmas. More almanac.
5.45pm Started getting tea ready. Between now and about 6.30 scampered back and forward from my desk and the kitchen.
6.45pm Began eating tea.
7.15pm Finished tea. Did an online Welsh lesson (preparation for book I’m researching). Quick look at possible places to go to celebrate 25th wedding anniversary this year. Read in the evening. Final pointless check of social media including gawping at houses on Right Move.
10.30pm And so to bed
My two books from 2022 are still very much available from your local independent bookseller, other places which sell fine books, and of course at all the usual suspects online.
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