Respecting Your Natural Rhythms

PhotobucketWhat are your natural rhythms–in life and in writing? How well does the reality of your life support those rhythms?

I am writing this from Breckenridge, a very small Colorado village in the Rockies.  It’s known for skiing, but I don’t ski and dislike the heavy crowds in the wintertime, so I come now, in mud season.  The trails are closed because everything is so muddy. There is no on one here except the odd day-trippers.  A lot of restaurants are closed, too, but I don’t mind because I have an apartment with a kitchen.

I’m here alone, after an insanely busy two months of promotion and publicity for my new book, The Garden of Happy Endings, complicated by two months of pinch-hitting with the new baby until full-time day care came through.  My last gig for Garden was on May 15, the same day I had to mail progress materials on the new book to my agent and editor.

Stick with me.  This is not about me, although I am using my particular life and work rhythms to help you think about yours.

Here’s the thing: right now, it’s not even 7 am.  I’m looking out on the most serenely quiet vista of half-melted snowy peaks and baby green aspen leaves. A raccoon trundled by, then a molting fox who was pretty sure I might toss him scraps. I was eating my breakfast out on the balcony, contemplating the day, what I will write, when I might get in a long walk along the river.  There’s no hiking because of the mud, which suits me just now–I don’t, actually, want to work that hard.

I was awake and working by 7 am yesterday, too, because I woke up naturally and cheerfully at 5:30 after falling asleep at 8.  Now I’m at the computer, working happily, and at home, I’d still be getting breakfast for myself and my beloved, then taking the dog for a walk.  Do I need to change my routines?  Maybe.

The other thing about this retreat is that it IS a retreat.  All of us want to do more now than we can possibly get done, a model heavily endorsed by American/Western culture.  You can never be successful enough to feed the yawning mouth of American expectation. You can never get far enough ahead to rest easy.

The demands of the machine on writers are higher than ever.  That two months of external demands on my time were non-negotiable. No one stood over me with a gun and said, “do this, or you are fired,” but the great flux of the market makes me feel like I cannot say no to any possibility of selling more books, and there are people who are working hard for me behind the scenes.  I don’t want to let them down

And that doesn’t touch the possibilities and potential available through the emerging markets.  I’m publishing traditionally with Bantam, and with Belle Bridge Books, a (once-small, emerging-force publisher) in June, and I have a lot o f backlist and coming frontlist for the electronic market.  And still, whatever I do, it doesn’t feel like quite enough.

I’m not alone. We’re all “running to stand still,” or so it seems.  A recent article in the New York Times addressed the pressure writers now feel to write more than one book a year.

But here I am, going to sleep at 8 and waking up at 5, getting to work by 7. I am relaxed.  I easily get the work done.  I am away from the dog and the cute cats and the man and the trainer and the pressure to go to the gym and the people I love in my life who all bring something rich to my life, but also take time away from the actual work.

That for me, is what has been lost in recent months–the work itself.  Writing is the thing, the source of satisfaction and a sense of productivity.   Writing is what gives shape to my days and, by extension, my life.  Writing, day in and day out, about whatever is on my mind, whatever has meaning, whatever questions are intriguing me at the moment (“what is wisdom?”, “how do women find their work and how does that give them better lives?” “why are the outdoors so nourishing?” “why do we travel?”) is what makes me feel whole.

In the past two crazy months, I did write, of course.  There were several articles and interviews I felt were good pieces of work.  I managed to snatch a few days of actual pages on the book in progress each week. Sometimes I managed to write something authentic on the planes or in hotel rooms.

Mostly, that’s all it was, however–snatched from the clutter of my days.  And that’s completely backwards.  It only took two days of sitting in the quiet here to recognize that, to see how I had allowed external things to shove writing out of the way.

Let me say that again: how *I* had allowed external things to shove writing out of the way.  I said yes to everything but the work–to publicity and going to the trainer at times that would interfere with writing, and babysitting at times that would interfere, and a couple of lunches with friends who needed me and have far less flexible schedules than I do.

Which all left me a grouchy, highly emotional, exhausted wreck.  I am a writer.  I need to write, a fact that has almost nothing to do with the market and everything to do with what makes me feel centered and right and whole.

This week, I am mostly alone.  I’ll read and polish a Sunday project that’s been waiting for several months, and let it fly into the world.  I’ll collage the book in progress and mull over the notes from my editor, who pinpointed a problem I do need to fix.  I’ll take long walks in the afternoons and nap to let the girls in the basement do their work. I expect I’ll feel a lot less scattered by the end of the week, and I suspect I will also have what I need to move forward on the book.

When I return home, I will put strong boundaries around my writing time again.  I’ll go to bed as early as I feel like going (I always feel embarrassed that I’m such a lark in a world that is full of vampires) and get up at four if I am so inclined, so I can do the work in the still quiet of the world before it roars in to grab my attention.  I’ll incorporate long walks back into the schedule, and tell the trainer mornings are my sacred writing time.

It’s so easy to get off track.  How do you get distracted from the work you want to do? What kind of natural rhythms do you find support the work best, and are you respecting them?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s ToniVC


About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    I always let studying get in the way. Studying, exercise, and then I say “I don’t have time to write.” It’s terrible. But that’s wrong; I do have time, I just need to find it and use it.

  2. says

    I remember running across a blog where the writer proclaimed that if everyone wasn’t writing their book at 5 am in the morning it wasn’t “real” writing. I thought that about the silliest thing I’d heard because it didn’t allow for natural rhythms of when writing is best for us. I usually save the early morning for social media because my muse isn’t awake enough to do any writing before ten am.

    I also take a break once a week. Much is made of writing every day, but I’ve been a position where I wrote so much I burned out because I didn’t take any time off. So taking a break is as much a part of natural rhythms as writing is.

    I’m going indie, which I’m glad of given I’m seeing the publishers push for more than one book a year. At the length books are, that is insane! I have been thinking of producing short stories in addition to the book. There’s no length requirement for epublishing, so I can do much shorter pieces and stay visible that way without killing myself. I’ve certainly seen the quality suffer in the writers struggling to keep up.

    • says

      Those pronouncements drive me crazy. As if there is only one way to work!

      I like to have a couple of days off every week, too. It refreshes me to do other things, and gives me a chance to fill the well.

  3. Amy Sue Nathan says

    I’m in my zone right now where nothing is getting in the way, where my boundaries are in tact and my vision is clear. BUT, as summer really settles in, the rhythm changes in my house and that usually knocks me off kilter. My goal this year is to hang tough and keep going. I’m finishing my edits for my first novel that comes out next year…and I have pages and pages of notes on two more ideas. I want to harness the momentum and keep going, while also allowing myself to enjoy the weather and my family.

    I’m awake at 5 with my dogs, and usually settling into work by 8.

    I was in Breckenridge once — in June. It was the only time I visited Colorado, but I know that one day I’ll be back. I have a thing for mountains and there are none in the Chicago suburbs, although I like to pretend!

    Thank you for the insights, Barbara!

    • says

      Amy, I remember those days–when the kids were out of school and life suddenly turned upside down. But I also remember how much fun it was, those long days of sunshine and picnics in the park with my sisters and all of our kids, and the barbeques in the backyard. All good.

      But I also celebrated The Holy First Day of School most earnestly. :)

    • says

      Also, June is a great time to come to the Colorado mountains. It’s eye-splittingly beautiful. I’m a mountain person, too, and feel lucky to have been born here.

  4. says

    You said it so well. The writing is the thing. It is our passion, but there are so many distractions. The social media stuff is essential but it drains time and energy. I think all serious writers struggle to achieve that balance. What helped me more than anything was doing NaNo because it is forced discipline. You must write each day and you cannot afford to fall behind. I look forward to reading your new book. Thanks again.

  5. says

    “That for me, is what has been lost in recent months–the work itself. Writing is the thing, the source of satisfaction and a sense of productivity. Writing is what gives shape to my days and, by extension, my life.”

    Ah, yet another post talking about getting back to the core of this thing we do: the writing. Must be something in the air. ;)

    I too am fighting outside pressures, outside forces “conspiring” to keep me from my writing. People telling me I “should” be published. The blogosphere getting me stressed about bridges I haven’t crossed yet. Etc. etc. I can’t go to Colorado to get away, but I think I need my own kind of retreat. I suspect we all do, at times.

    As for natural rhythms, I do find that going to bed when I’m tired and waking when I’m rested makes a huge difference in, well, pretty much everything I do.

    • says

      Right? The universe clearly needed to hammer this lesson home: writing is the important part. Carleen addressed it from another angle yesterday, too.

      Writing is the thing.

    • says

      This this this. There’s so much pressure coming from every direction to do this and that and that to support our writing, and often we forget the thing at the core of it: the writing itself. The writing is the needed thing around which everything else revolves!

      I’ve recently finished grad school, so I’m on an upswing of writing productivity, but even when school and work were pulling on me, I found the best thing was not to get too settled into a predictable rhythm. Lately, late afternoon/early evening has been working well for me, but I try to mix it up so I get used to writing whenever I need to/am able, rather than being stuck only able to write at one certain time or place.

  6. says

    We live in a summer resort area, and the craziness of having our local population quadruple has just begun. It’s exciting, but exhausting at the same time. I know it’s going to detract from quality writing time, and that’s stress inducing for me. I need to find a way to set it aside and give my writing the time and space it needs to breathe, so that I can breathe.

    Something you said really grabbed me, Barbara: “…and there are people who are working hard for me behind the scenes. I don’t want to let them down.” I’ve been striving for publication for a long while, but this aspect of achieving it hadn’t really settled into my consciousness. For a guy who fled the business world to get away from having 60+ employees dependant on him, it’s a bracing thought. I know, when the day comes, it’ll weigh on me. Thanks for the heads up.

    • says

      My town is flooded with summer tourists, too, and it does get crazy. We are not a resort town, so it’s not that kind of crazy, but you can feel the numbers swell starting today, with the Air Force Academy graduation.

      Lots of good people watching, right?

      Publishing is definitely not a one-horse show. There are so many people involved and invested in the process of getting my books (all of our books) out into the world, from my agent and editor to the publicity people and the sales force and the art department and….so many. And they work HARD.

  7. says

    Barbara, I don’t know how you do all you do, let alone deal with pressure to do more! Thanks for asking the questions about how we let life interfere with the work. I thought I knew the answer to that, but I think I need to go deeper. I think the real answers are less about gardening and exercising and more about my own fears and resistance. Enjoy your retreat! Waving up at you from Denver. :)

    • says

      Well, gardening is not dropping off my list–suspect not yours, either. It’s my source and peace.

      But resistance, yes.

      Waving back. Weather is fine!

  8. says

    I love this post, Barbara, because you articulated the struggle we all face. I am not a morning person, but I really wish I were. All my life I have struggled to wake up in the mornings, but staying up late is a natural thing for me. There have been times in the past where I was still typing away at midnight or even 2 in the morning when the world was still, the kids in bed, the husband snoring (which is likely why I was still up. Ha!).

    What I find fascinating is how we constantly have to press the reset button – we make boundaries and we think we got it figured out, but then, BAM, life happens and we get off track. The train derails and we have to set it aright again. I think this is a good thing because it reminds us of what is REALLY important in our lives, and we need to reconnect with it. I see it like this – we cannot know joy without knowing sorrow; laughter without knowing tears.

  9. says

    I love this post so much, Barbara. So many truths, so much wisdom, as your posts always have. I just have no idea how to apply it to my own life, except in tiny stolen snatches! Which kind of defeats the purpose, but with 2 tiny kids home with me full time, that’s about all I get. I suppose the fact is that there are rhythms to the whole of your writing life, not just your writing days. And the rhythms of the early motherhood years are just not often especially conducive to respecting the natural rhythms of your ideal workday! :)

    • says

      Beautifully said, Anna: there are rhythms to your entire writing life, too. Certainly small children have their rhythms, but it is a fleeting period of life. Unless I get up very very early, I don’t write much on the days I have my 3 month old granddaughter with me. Nor would I really want to.

  10. says

    Boundaries around writing time? Most important. Glad you’ve found a retreat.

    Boundaries are not something that my 4.5-year-old is good at. I would love to be writing at 6am, a French press steaming near my elbow, gazing out at…

    …well, currently I see a construction site, the new downtown Whitney art museum. It’ll be great when it’s done, though it will black our view of the Hudson River. And then there’s that other obstruction…

    “Dad, why’re you up? Mommy still sleeping? I’m hungry. Play with me?”

    And so I steal sacred writing time elsewhere, a morning or two away from the office, on airplanes, after bedtime in the dark, sitting at the dining table.

    I’ve learned this: without that retreat, whereever I can grab it, I’m not happy or even human. Who needs foxes and snowy peaks? Give me a dining table at midnight or a cramped middle seat in mid-cabin. I’m fine.

    (BTW, congrats on The Garden of Happy Endings. I loved The Secret of Everything and can’t wait to read this new one.)

    • says

      As Anna said, there is a rhythm to a writer’s life, too. Snagging those stolen mornings, those airplane trips, the midnight writing, all that works, too.

      And thanks on Garden. Honored to hear you liked The Secret of Everything.

  11. says

    I can relate to your post, although I don’t yet have a book on its way to publication… I find that there are some things that can’t wait (food for the children–so needy!), and there are things that I know are good for me (running) that if I miss, I will become a terrible, horrible person.

    The one thing that I am a bit jealous of is that some people are able to craft amazing works far into the night. I have found that if I don’t write before 4 p.m., it won’t happen. Or it won’t be good.

    I tend to have more of your early-bird style. Do it when it’s fresh… but when the day is crazy, I do wish my brain could bend… and crank out superb prose at 11 p.m.

    • says

      Those hungry children!

      I can do some things in the evenings, like edit or read, but not draft fresh material. My brain just doesn’t work after dinner.

  12. says

    Just what I needed to read right now as I struggle to recover from lingering illness brought on by too many hours of writing on a crazy schedule that bore no relationship to anyone’s natural rhythms.

    Thanks you.

  13. says

    Like you, family, home, and friends divert my attention. I haven’t sorted it all out yet, but it is easy to let the writing slip away. It’s not a source of income for me right now, and my cynicism tells me it likely never will be. So writing losing that sense of importance you have if it is what pays the bills.

    I’m trying to bring balance to the situation, but that requires an acknowledgement of and commitment to the need to write.

    • says

      Ah, Christine, no one becomes a writer by accident. Believe in yourself and your desire to do the work. That will make it easier to give the writing the time it deserves.

  14. says

    Defending the productive morning hours is always worth it for me, also. Sometimes it’s hard because people tend not to view writing as a “real job.” Hah!

  15. says

    Love the topic! I’m an owl, my husband is a lark. Life forces me up early and then topples over my inner ryhthms — expecting stuff @ 10 a.m. or even 9, for Heaven’s sake!
    Come evening I want to have dinner and hang out with my guy before he poops out on the early side. By the time I’m ready for pure ‘me’ time I’m often too chilled from the hanging out or too pressured about the coming day to write. I’ll putter, read, maybe make notes and go to sleep.
    Somehow I manage to write, pretty much daily. But it’s scattered and far more flexible than the sacredness I feel for it and know it deserves.
    Obviously I’m still figuring it out — even after 30 years of marriage to the guy I still want to hang with.

    • says

      Lovely that you’ve been married for 30 years to a man you still want to hang out with. And it sounds like you know the rhythms you want to follow.

  16. says

    Thank you. This really made me think about whether I am using any natural rhythms I may have. Generally, I write after everyone is in bed. However, my ideas come during the day at any given time when I am busy or working, so I have now begun to record myself speaking into the voice memo on my phone– plot ideas, conversations, whatever. It would sound very weird to anyone else, which is why I only record while driving and not in public places. Then, when my brain is tired, I still have a place to start and can at least accomplish getting down those thoughts for the day. I’m usually surprised the next day when I go back and see what I’ve written!

    • says

      LOVE the memo function on my phone! It’s great to catch those tidbits before they fly away. I end up dictating a lot in my car, sitting at lights. Siri makes it even better!

  17. says

    “the yawning mouth of American expectation”–love that. I’m also a lark and have embraced my true rhythm.

  18. says

    Oh Barbara, I needed this today! I’m looking at so much activity these next weeks to include promo and hubby retiring from the Navy after 27 yrs. Life events happen, but still, the writing is important. As long as I have my quiet morning time to write journal pages and sip my coffee, I’m good to go for the rest of the day. But when I miss my morning pages, my word count falters on the WIP and then I am a cranky gal. Enjoy the fresh air and time to yourself!

    • says

      Sometimes, it takes making lead with the realities of life as it is, too. I had too much for one person to do, so took some work things off the plate. I will not always have this baby to hang out with, your husband will not always be retiring.

      Enjoy the morning pages!

  19. says

    Oh dear, thank you so much for this: “I always feel embarrassed that I’m such a lark in a world that is full of vampires.” Here’s to embracing the lark and working in the quiet of the morning! I’ve been rising at 4:30 daily since November to get writing done — and it’s done wonders. Sure I’m no fun when everyone (the vampires) wants to stay awake til 2, but boy, it sure does make me happy to be up, putting me and writing first, drinking that first coffee while the early birds sing. Thank you!!

  20. says

    What a reassuring post, Barbara, thank you!
    Morning is when I do my best for writing.
    Retreating on our sailboat is a great place for editing and hand written rough drafts.
    But having a body with unpredictable chronic pain too often zaps my energy and concentration….like right now.
    Time for a new ice pack and trying to get focused once again!
    It’s good to know even you big time writers have your challenges.

  21. says

    You’re my guru todayj, Barbara. I was reading CARE AND FEEDING OF THE GIRLS IN THE BASEMENT this morning on the loo, and now I find you here on my afternoon coffee break. LOL!

    With two kids, 3 and 6, I’m a night owl by necessity. I try hard to put the writing first, but . . .

    Thanks for the reminder that we have to find a way to protect the work. Always enjoy your posts.

  22. says

    This was a much welcome and much needed post. So much has been getting in the way lately… things within my control and many things outside my control. I need to write first thing, before housework, before kids, before breakfast, giving myself only enough time to grab a cup of coffee. But that’s only if I go to bed at 9pm. That doesn’t work most nights. I would love time away to get on whatever schedule would work for me. I used to be a night writer, but then I was a morning writer. My system seems to change with the seasons. Thank you for this post. I am going to be sharing it with others.


  23. says

    Very nice reminder! I am looking forward to the time I won’t have to be working on someone else’s schedule (9-5 job) and can follow my natural rhythms more closely. I find I am a lot more productive when I have a few days off and can reacquaint myself with how my body wants to live.

  24. Lorrie Thomson says

    I’m better in the morning, too, and shut down in the evening. I struggle with the impossibility of wanting to write and exercise in the am. And I too believe we need to get out in nature, get out with friends, in order to feed our minds and souls. I really need to get better organized and discover a way to thrive without sleep. Thanks for the post, Barbara!

  25. says

    Dear Barbara,

    I could’ve written this, except for a few small details.

    Thank you from a fellow lark, for affirming those feelings,

    Truly, Julie

  26. says

    Great post, Barbara, although I don’t think there’s anything unusual about starting work at 7am. Well, I do, personally, but getting up early to write seems like the norm and I think it’s more socially acceptable to do that than to stay up late and therefore sleep in. I’m very much a night owl – my best writing happens after midnight – but I struggle to get up in the morning. Society tends to see this as laziness – getting up after 10 even if you were working until 3 or 4am. It’s just a different natural rhythm. There’s a lot of writing advice that encourages writing as early as possible but I just can’t do it. I need time to wake up. And I feel closer to the ‘dream state’ late at night. With writing, one size does not fit all. I guess I feel like a vampire in a world of larks!

  27. says

    Great post! Thank you!

    I’m having a difficult time deciphering what my natural rhythms are. I work during the day (and sometimes evenings) as a newspaper reporter for a weekly paper. When I get home, I work on blogging. I’m finding I can’t fit in the other writing I want to do plus do the things that I want to do, namely spend time with my husband and animals. I have the feeling that early mornings would be good, but it’s difficult to get up too early because I go to bed so late due to the blogging. Ugh! I’m whining, but what I’m really saying is that I’m trying to find my way to a schedule that fits with who I am. You gave me some ideas to ponder. Thanks again!



  1. […] Respecting Your Natural Rhythms (function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = "//"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, "script", "facebook-jssdk")); Leave a Comment tags: links, productivity, writing advice, writing rhythms […]