However, there are creative people whose day jobs, kids, etc. don’t allow for that kind of rigorous daily practice; and there are times when it feels like a super-concentrated burst of work is what you need to get a project going. The four-hour day is an ideal, and I think even if we can’t adopt it we can learn from it about how to do better work.
Today I ran across a tweet by Dublin-based author Sinéad Gleeson linking to a 2014 Kazuo Ishiguro piece about writing The Remains of the Day. He didn’t write it in four-hour days; in fact, he explicitly rejected that method, in favor of an immersive four-week period that he and his wife called “Crash:”
Many people have to work long hours. When it comes to the writing of novels, however, the consensus seems to be that after four hours or so of continuous writing, diminishing returns set in. I’d always more or less gone along with this view, but as the summer of 1987 approached I became convinced a drastic approach was needed. Lorna, my wife, agreed.
Until that point, since giving up the day job five years earlier, I’d managed reasonably well to maintain a steady rhythm of work and productivity. But my first flurry of public success following my second novel had brought with it many distractions. Potentially career-enhancing proposals, dinner and party invitations, alluring foreign trips and mountains of mail had all but put an end to my “proper” work. I’d written an opening chapter to a new novel the previous summer, but now, almost a year later, I was no further forward.
So Lorna and I came up with a plan. I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash”. During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one….
I kept it up for the four weeks, and at the end of it I had more or less the entire novel down: though of course a lot more time would be required to write it all up properly, the vital imaginative breakthroughs had all come during the Crash.
It would be interesting to note whether Ishiguro still goes into Crash to write books, or whether that was a one-time thing. (It sounds like it hasn’t been a consistent feature of his working life, but I’m not sure.) I still look back on writing my dissertation as one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, in part because I was simultaneously doing a ton of research, learning how to write something that large, and going through all the work of self-fashioning an academic identity*. In contrast, in some ways writing Distraction Addiction and Rest was a lot easier, because even through I was learning to write in a new way, the fundamental mechanics of writing had long become a sort of muscle memory, and I felt like I had a better handle on what I was doing, and I knew I could learn how to write for this new audience.
Ishiguro also talks about how a Tom Waite song inspired him to change the end of the story, and to introduce a twist that I find so brilliant and devastating (it remains my favorite of Ishiguro’s books).
The rest of the thread is also worth reading through– lots of other authors replying to talk about their experience.
*Which as a faculty brat was probably a lot easier for me than for other people. My attitude to a secure place in the academic firmament was rather like the one Lady Mary expresses in an episode of Downton Abbey when her fiancé asks, “Where does your class of people get your furniture?” She replies, “I suppose we inherit it.”