When to Call It a Day

July 30, 2020

A very good friend called me many years ago to ask what my secret was for staying up to finish a piece of writing. “Stay up?” I said.

“Yeah. I can’t seem to manage it. I can’t write for more than fifteen hours or so before I conk out.”

He had a pretty severe case of hyperthyroid function, so he was a very energetic soul. “. . .Well,” I finally offered, “why don’t you just stop?”

“Then I won’t be able to finish the story.”

I was mystified. “Why not?”

It took my a while to figure out that he had never been assured that it usually takes more than one sitting to complete even the first draft of a piece—and I do have a secret for ending a session. Never get up from your keyboard unless you know what’s coming next—what scene, what idea, what temperature of the room. Or, to put it another way, never use up everything you know. Never, ever, leave yourself with nothing to return to but a blank wall.

I had a student once—a tiny woman with sharp blue eyes, a very slight build, and a nimbus of white hair—who was still writing books at ninety-seven. She never had a problem picking up where she had left off the day before. Her secret was leaving her last sentence unfinished.

“Really,” I said to her.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “That way, I know that I’ll at least finish one sentence the next time I sit down.”

Try it. You’ll like it.