Productivity, Process and a Little Dinty Moore

I sat down with the Nov/Dec Poets and Writers magazine to read an article called “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity,” only to discover it was written by Ellen Sussman, whose novel French Lessons I’ve just posted a blog about.  Quelle coïncidence!  I’m always interested in how other writers get it done, and hey, I’ll try anything.  I didn’t resonate with the word “productivity,” but I suppose that’s what it comes down to.  And I liked the promise of four steps.  Four EASY steps, I was hoping… ((

Well, the article got off to a slow start for me, as in YAWN.  There was the old saw about how you have to “claim” (or is it “own”?) that you’re a writer.  I don’t seem to be at many parties period, let alone ones where I’m put on the spot about what I do.  I’m not sure how important it is to actual writing to say you’re a writer.  Hopefully she was just warming up.

Next came “write every day.”  Okay, I agree with that, if you can.  And I was interested to see she sets a word minimum of a thousand words.  I try to do that when I’m drafting, but revising is a whole different ballgame.

She starts her writing day with five or ten minutes of meditation, to calm and clear her mind.  But the next thing was new to me.  She recommended a software program called Freedom that blocks the Internet!  It was actually a relief to see that she shares my addiction.  You can buy Freedom for $10.00 at and when you sign up, it asks you how many minutes you need to block at a time.  Maybe I’ll try the Freedom thing, since I do find the temptation of the Internet and email quite a distraction.  I remember being so impressed that Jonathan Franzen cut himself off completely from the Internet when he was writing.  But then I remembered I’m no Jonathan Franzen, writing or otherwise.

Now here was what interested me the most in the article.  Sussman calls it “the unit system,” and the idea is based on research into how to help graduate students structure their time while writing their theses.  “Divide your time into units.  Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write.  You do nothing but write.  You don’t stop writing.  Then, no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk.  You take a fifteen minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work.”

Don’t do things like write something else, critique writing, make a phone call, email.  Just do stuff like fold the laundry or clean up the morning breakfast dishes.  Water the garden or do a few yoga poses.  This release from the effort of concentration gives your unconscious (or whatever it is) time to do its thing, and you return to your work with some new ideas or insights, according to Sussman.

Dinty Moore

This advice reminded me of a quote Dinty Moore posted on Facebook recently: “The unconscious mind takes the germ of an idea and develops it, but usually this happens only when a writer has tried hard, and logically, to develop it himself. After he has given it up for a few hours, getting nowhere, a great advancement of the plot will pop into his head.” ~ Patricia Highsmith.  (You too can be friends with Dinty Moore on Facebook where he posts a lot of great writing quotes (just ask him) or check out his website: . Moore is a non-fiction writer and professor at Ohio University, and the author of Between Panic and Desire [love the title], The Accidental Buddhist, and a writing guide, The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Non-fiction.  He’ll be giving a reading at The Loft, our literary center here in the Twin Cities on this coming Friday, Nov. 11, as part of The Loft Mentor Series.)

Sussman says the unit idea helps pace you, so that you don’t burn out your wrists and arms typing (as I am wont to do) or, in her case, it gives her bad back a break (my sympathy, Ellen).  She also says that if she’s stuck or in a rough spot, knowing she only has, say, thirty more minutes in that unit lets her know she won’t have to sit there forever, struggling, like for the next two and a half hours.  There is the reward of the fifteen minute break on the other end.  “The unit system breaks down the long block of time I’ve set aside for writing into manageable segments.  And it seems to break down my resistance to doing the hard work.”

I thought this advice made sense and I thought I’d try it today.  But I forgot to set the timer for forty-five minutes, and I got lost in the funhouse of my novel revision for about two hours straight, coming to feeling slightly delirious, but happy to have forgotten about time, units and productivity.  I had just been in the zone.  One of the things I like best about writing is experiencing what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, that is the correct spelling and don’t ask me to pronounce it) calls “flow,” a state of consciousness that removes one from everyday existence, takes one to another place where one’s attention is focused solely on the matter at hand.  I’m lost in the work, and when I “come to,” I feel a sense of pleasure and satisfaction.  Csikszentmihalyi’s discussion of flow in his seminal book by the same name is fascinating and dense, way too much to do more than just touch on here, but this will give you a little taste of it:

“In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality.  It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness.  In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex.  In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.”

I’m not suggesting that I achieve flow in all or even many of my writing sessions.  Far from it.  But I think the desire to achieve this state is one of the main motivations for me for writing, as well as for other activities that require concentration, skills and the development of a more complex self.  It isn’t just the fame and fortune I’ve achieved that I’m after!

I will try Sussman’s “unit” system tomorrow, if I can remember to set the timer.  But I’m not sure I need it.   For me there just seems to be a natural amount of time that I can actually concentrate and be in the “flow” of things, and then I pop out.  But I think her idea is practical and probably worth a try, to see how it goes.  I also think people are so different in their ways of being and writing that they have to find their own rhythms and ways to write.  It’s good to hear how Sussman does it, but hey, maybe you’ll be like Kazuo Ishiguro, who has this thing that he calls “the crash.” According to Alan Hollingshurst, “He takes a lot time to prepare a novel, just thinking about it, and then he draws a line through his diary for three or four weeks.  He just writes for 10 hours a day and at the end he has a novel.”

No units for him, I suspect.

6 Replies to “Productivity, Process and a Little Dinty Moore”

  1. Before I forget, say hi to Dinty for me! He is a truly nice guy and former colleague.

    I like Annie Dillard's answer to an interviewer who asked her if she writes every day: "When I'm working I do." In other words, if she's writing a book or essay or article, which she pretty much always was, she wrote. But she was taking a kind of practical view of that dictum; in other words, I doubt she journaled.

    The unit system sounds great. I got into three-hour daily sessions in the last year on my memoir, and didn't break unless I was driven to by bladder or stomach. I mean, it didn't occur to me, but obviously should have, since often my breakthroughs were after I stopped and got in the shower or something. It took me the first hour to reenter the world of the book, the second to start really getting stuff done, and the third for good stuff, if it was going to happen. After three hours of this, my brains were mush, and I seldom went beyond three hours even if I could.

    1. hi, Richard,

      I don't know Dinty personally, so I'm eager to meet him and hear his reading. We are friends via Facebook, and I enjoy his quotes and info there. I'll tell him you send greetings!

      Wow, three hours — that's good. I do think working every day cuts down on how long it takes to re-enter the work. A lot of creativity studies show that the breakthrough or insight comes after a period of hard, conscious work, and then letting go, getting away from it, letting the mind relax, and voila. Or we hope voila! Do you know the book The Creative Process, ed. by Brewster Ghiselin? It has essays or pieces by various artists from mathematicians to dancers to sculptors to musicians to writers. Makes for interesting reading.

      I do find other people's work habits interesting. Thanks for telling me about yours on the memoir.

  2. Hey, I tried the unit system this morning!

    It was great, working on an experimental segmented essay I'd just begin. The work was going well, so it was hard to make myself quit after 45, but wow, when I did insights poured in. I had to force myself to not run back to my laptop. I had time for only two hours, but each time the result was wonderful.

    I think unit system works for many reasons, including the fact we do need a physical and mental break by then, but essentially it seems to free the subconscious to rush in once the writer's overly dominating conscious intention drops back.

    I have not read that book, but have heard of it…

    1. That is so interesting and GREAT, Richard! You put me to shame, because I have yet to try the unit thing. I will on Monday. I'm thrilled to hear your results, plus it's probably easier on your bladder! Keep up the good work! Best, P

  3. I too read about the 'unit' method, though, "Hmmm" and forgot to try it. I'm inspired by Richard's post to give it a shot today. I'm one of those one-track bloody-minded writers who will sit at my desk and bash my head against a problem instead of getting up and taking a break.

    After having a novel accepted by a publisher, I opened in yesterday, and man, it's a mess. My editor wants me to re-shape it and even out the pacing, and it's going to take all my limited skill to do it. To quote another post of yours, I'm now back in the 'shaping' stage, but luckily with fresh eyes.

    So three hours and units it is!

  4. Hey, Amin,

    First I want everyone to know that you've started a wonderful blog on creativity and writing, so tune it in at It's really wonderful!

    And next, I want everyone to know that Amin's first novel, The Caretaker, will be published by St. Martin's Press in 2013, followed by its sequel in 2014. Way to go, Amin!! I am not spilling the beans on this, I read it on his website. I'm really thrilled, and it's fun and encouraging to read about Amin on his "about" page. Some of his writing is also posted on the site.

    Let me know how the unit thing works for you, Amin. I yet again failed to try it today, only using my timer for a nap (30 minutes). I am working on my novel revision, and it involves a lot of rereading from the top, trying to see if the thing flows, and so I'm not really writing as such. I thought it was great Richard tried it and reported in on how well it worked for him. I also might mention another piece in that Poets and Writers, that I just read today, called "In the Absence of Yes," about (trying to) handle rejection. Nothing new, but I dunno, it's nice to have company and see how another deals with it.

    best, Paulette

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