Somewhere a few years ago I read in an anthology that you can’t write in the afternoon. It has to be in the morning or at night, said the author, but the afternoon was a dry landscape without inspiration. Nothing worthwhile grew there. Or if it did, it was weed-choked and gravelly, like a forgotten sidewalk.
I’ve always remembered that piece of advice. But here I am, writing in the afternoon.
What’s it like? Somewhere nearby birds chirp–robins, I think–and a drier rattles with its cargo downstairs. The day is quiet and cloudy, like a teenager not quite ready to face the sun, rolling up a gray ruffled blanket over his eyes as the sounds from the road–the sounds of people awake for the past five or six hours–filter in. Already, I’ve been to a graduation and eaten two meals. I’ve done some cleaning and exercised. I did some work and read. I still have more to do later on today: write a press release, clean more, cook dinner, do some thesis research.
And that’s the odd thing about writing in the afternoon–the part that makes it hard: you are mid-stride in your 24-hour step through life. Stopping to write, you feel adrift. You’re drowsy from a morning of tasks, and a stomach of food, but you know you can’t rest, realistically, after you write. The day must go on.
But despite these difficulties, it has a certain thrill.
I’m normally a morning writer. Wake up, finish my routine, get a cup of tea, lock myself away, and pound out some words–whether it’s a press release, a school essay, or (those rare, sweet moments) a piece of personal writing. Writing in the morning I feel like an athlete or a craftsman, honing my skills in the foggy mists of dawn, with the fresh new taste of daylight in my mouth.
Evening also has an appeal. A chance to settle in, close out the day’s business, and transition to that other side of our life, the cool, mysterious, somewhat more private end. It even offers a chance to catalog the day, or let its images settle into your words like sediment in water. Yes, writing at evening has its appeal, as Lord Byron and many others noticed.
But, as I said, afternoon writing has its own thrill, and I think that’s because it breaks the pattern. It breaks the day, like a crack widening in a board stretched over too wide a gap, and in doing so, allows a new space to open up and breathe. Writing in the afternoon lets one step back and take stock. Because, for me that is one of the chief pleasures of writing: making sense of things. Some composition theorists even see that as its primary aim.
Like the pleasures of afternoon tea or a Mediterranean siesta, pleasures that lie largely outside my American milieu, writing in the afternoon brings a certain respite, and with that respite, comes joy. It’s the inn in the middle of the journey–and not just any inn, but the one with the familiar old benches, welcoming service, and your favorite stewed mutton, or whatever else one eats at inns.
I don’t like to disturb writing rituals. They are like canon laws, ancient curses, or royal decrees: break them at your own peril. And sometimes it is a peril. Sometimes I stare at the page, write a few mealy, ugly things and try to bury them away in a mismatched sock drawer of a file, running from the title, and wonder why I didn’t just take a nap or watch Food Network or clean.
But now and then, I’m happy. Now and then, I’m left with something worthwhile. So while that author was probably right about afternoon writing, the creative process sometimes breathes more when it breaks beyond the turtleneck of its dictates.