Author’s Note: The Cultural Myth of Self-Made Hours

A newly made friend—one, I suspected, that was about to be lost—stood outside my door, looking at me suspiciously. I had just told him that no, I couldn’t go get dinner. I had to go to bed soon; I had to be up and working the next day.

“So do I,” he said, still giving me that angled looked. “But I’m going out. And Doc [a mutual friend] is going, too. And you write. You can sleep in and write later!”

Under the words was the subtext: You aren’t coming out because you don’t want to. A moment later, it was less subtext and more text.

“You’re just being a hermit again, aren’t you?”

Now, it’s true I’m an introvert, but I’m not shy. I enjoy going out and seeing people as much as the next woman. His accusing tone, however, combined with the fact that it wasn’t the first time he’d said this, sealed the deal. Even if I could have gone out, I no longer wanted to. At least not with him.

What was more disturbing to me, though, was the fact that he wasn’t the first acquaintance to take personally my inability to go play. In fact, he was the rule rather than the exception, no matter how many times I explained.

In our culture, we’re taught that creative people are creative all the time, that creating something from scratch is an ability we can turn on and off like a hose. In fact, most artists have a sweet spot. Some write better at night. Others during the day. Some at two a.m. with a pot of coffee. “Isn’t that just a matter of better self-discipline?” I hear you cry. The simple answer is, “No.”

A friend of mine came up with a very good analogy. She can go to the gym in the morning. If she doesn’t go in the morning, she won’t go at all. It’s not a matter of self-discipline, but more a matter of when is right for her mind and body. My older sister goes in the morning, but she goes an hour after she wakes up or the physical exertion will actually make her ill. I know other people who can only go at night. Sure, all these people could, if they really had to, make themselves go at a different time. But they wouldn’t feel good, it would create rather than abate anxiety and stress, and they don’t get the helpful benefits they get otherwise. And some people—like myself—hit a compulsion: it’s morning or nothing. Think of this as a gym sweet spot: the best time to go is a time only you understand about yourself.

Writing is very similar. Creating from scratch isn’t something I can do at will. There are times of the day when I’m at my peak, and that’s when I need to write. After five o’ clock, I know that my creative brain is going to turn off. Before about ten a.m., I can jump start my creative side, but it takes more effort. Being creative is, for me, the easiest between ten and three. That is the creative sweet spot, and no amount of self-discipline is going to make my  brain magically work better than it does in those hours.

Last month, I talked about all the things I do to bring out the best in myself, to make sure I’m up and ready by the time that creative sweet spot hits. Today I’ll talk about dealing with other people. Take “Bob,” above. His reaction is very typical of what I face most of the time. If I do choose to go out with a group, I’ll probably leave early–and then the Bobs of the world not only hassle me, but they get wait staff and anyone nearby involved, as well. I can only assume that even though I’ve explained that my creative sweet spot is ten to five, and therefore I don’t really make my own hours but rather am chained to those ones, and that I therefore can’t sleep in and write later, they still take it personally that I’m leaving.

I can’t blame them. Most jobs, even creative jobs, you can muddle through on less than ideal sleep. They look at me leaving early, compare it to their job, and wonder why I don’t just stay out. After all, they can. On top of that, I personally need more sleep than the average person and it takes me longer to calm my mind to get to sleep, so I end up leaving early and still sleeping in to eight or so, when most people stay out later and get up earlier. To an outside perspective, it probably does look like I’m not self-disciplined enough to work when I’m tired or just bull through it. It probably looks like I’m leaving because I don’t want to be around them. I know all of this, and I know that the person hassling me is only doing so because, no matter how often I explain this, many people still don’t understand it. Their feelings are hurt.

Just because their feelings are hurt and I understand it, though, doesn’t make it any less of a pain. I cannot baby them to save their feelings: I have to go to bed. Luckily for me, I’ve learned some tricks to dealing with these people.

The simplest solution is that if what I do for a living hasn’t come up, or if I have a second job, I can say, “I have to go. I need to work early tomorrow.” “Early” is the key word, there; no one gets hurt if they imagine I’m getting up at whatever they consider “early.”

Another option is to take thirty minutes to explain to this person that no, I really can’t make my own hours. This may involve starting out being teased about not having enough self-discipline to write later in the day, but if it’s someone I want to socialize with later it’s worth the time. I might have to explain several times before they understand, but that’s all right. (If I do explain several times and they still don’t understand, I tend to back away from that friendship.)

If I really feel the need to go out, then I’ll often go out for half an hour and then try to make a graceful exit. This means I’m still out later than I wanted and I’ll likely still have to deal with the jabs and explaining to people, but if they’ve been feeling neglected then this usually makes them happier.

The thing I do most often, though, if I can’t just say I need to be up early, is to tell people I simply can’t go out. Among those who don’t know me well I get a reputation for being the person who always bails–but at least I don’t have to spend thirty minutes explaining every time I want to leave.

The biggest thing I’ve learned, the biggest “trick” I can pass on to you, is to stand your ground. I explain myself only to those who matter. Those who continue to pressure me anyway, I stop seeing. Those people who aren’t important in my life, I smile and excuse myself and let teasing comments roll off my back. I expect that any new acquaintances with whom I’d like to become better acquainted, I’ll have to explain—several times. I even assume that I’ll have to remind good friends periodically.

When Bob refused to understand why I had to be in bed early and couldn’t go out several nights a week (I try to keep my socializing to earlier in the day), I stopped trying to make friends. Doc, on the other hand, has become a good friend, and understands my inability to stay out late. I have a handful of friends who understand this, and I love them.

In the night I described above, Bob eventually went sulking away. I closed the door and went to bed shortly thereafter. The next morning, I woke bright eyed and bushy tailed in time to hit my creative sweet spot, ready to make new worlds. I also made plans to see Doc later in the week. I may be an introvert, but I enjoy spending time with those people who understand, and who don’t pressure me to stay out for “just one more drink.” It’s nice to be able to enjoy myself, and still be able to create the next day.

Jenna B. McDonald is a working romance novel and fanfic author. You can check out her website at

Posted on September 20, 2010 at 14:08 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Columns · Tagged with: , , ,

One Response

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  1. Written by Nezu
    on 2010-09-20 at 19:37

    Oh man, sing it sister. You know me, I’m one of those afternoon-evening-night writers, and explaining to someone that no, I really can’t go out and start the weekend early Thursday night, because I’m working, or in fact explaining that what looks like slacking all day in pajamas with my laptop is “work”, is a never-ending struggle. Plus there’s the baffled looks I get if I have some evening commitment, and I lament that means I’ll get nothing done that day. Interestingly, I get another flavor of it, too, from the early-risers. “It’s ten in the morning! You’re still asleep?” (You lazy bum, geez, you have no discipline or ambition at ALL, do you?) “I work nights,” I explain, to the ones who don’t really need to know more. But some, even some close friends and family, just don’t get it. “If you’d set an alarm and get up earlier, you’d get so much more done.” Yeah, no. If I set an alarm and get up earlier, I still don’t start writing before eleven at the earliest, and I’m cranky and less focused all day.

    Good thing for us our sweet spots have some overlap, so we can work together sometimes. And good for you for letting the Bobs of the world go. You don’t need friends like that.

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