Zombie hours. We all have them. You know, that stretch of time when you feel about as vibrant and intelligent and insightful as a stick figure of a sleepwalking corpse. You dream of napping under your desk. You eat chocolate chips by the handful. Your five-minute Twitter break turns into a forty-five minute Twitter break.
For me, the zombie hours most often strike midmorning if I'm sleep-deprived or in early afternoon on a normal day. Sometimes I can turn the zombie hours into good hours by granting myself a 10-minute nap, taking a brisk walk, or brewing some tea. I recommend trying these solutions first.
Okay, you tried that, and you are still struggling to remember how to spell your own name and biting your tongue to stay awake. Do you just give up? Are you done being productive today?
My trick at this point is to go to my zombie task list. This is the set of jobs on any number of current projects (creative, academic, personal or otherwise) that require very little creativity or intellect but nevertheless need to be done at some time. Instead of feeling crappy about the fact that I am not producing as much as I'd like on the day's "real" task, I give one of my future selves a gift of time by taking care of some boring task now so that I won't have to waste productive time on it later. Some of the items on my zombie task list:
(1) Format bibliography for Silva paper
(2) Look up articles on glossaries in YA fiction
(3) Find swim lesson options for Liam
(4) Organize file cabinet
(5) Follow up on articles that have been submitted for over 3 months
(6) Check for emails that I haven't answered
Sometimes by embracing your limited capacities during the zombie hours, you can still get a task done. Often, sometime toward the end of the zombie job, I realize that I'm feeling a little more alert, and I can go back to "real" work. Other times, I'm still little better than an animated corpse, and so I keep working my way down the zombie task list.
So there. Put your zombie hours to work.
I'm not talking about the phone directory. I'm talking about what my son brings home, without fail, from his Montessori preschool each day: a small rectangular piece of white paper completely covered with yellow paint.
The first few days he brought home the yellow page, I thought it was cute. Then it started to seem a little weird. Liam's school has this slightly big-brother feature of a one-way mirror that lets you observe your child in his or her classroom (not that that factored into my ideas for The Knife and a Butterfly, ahem...). So we watched and saw that painting the white page yellow was the first thing that our son did every day. Not the only thing, mind you. But the first thing. A first thing that inevitably opened onto many other tasks which changed from day to day.
It seems that this yellow page is a kind of starting ritual for our son, something he does to settle himself into being at school. And it's pretty damn smart, actually. I'm thinking maybe that I need to start painting a page yellow at the start of each day as a way of saying to myself, here we go, let's get down to writing, you've got some shit to accomplish. Maybe not literally painting a page yellow, but establishing a ritual and preserving it's definitive significance: Now I Am At Work.
He's a smart guy, our Liam.
I'm addicted to my writer's notebooks. Have been since college. My writer's notebook is where the ideas that matter (to my books and to my life) start percolating.
How I use the notebooks has changed over time. In fact, when I flip through them, I can tell a lot about where I am in the writing process based on my handwriting and how I use the page. Loose script dashed diagonally across the page? Definitely a sudden inspiration, probably jotted down while walking. Tight lists with page numbers? I'm trying to get unstuck by analyzing a novel I admire. Entry that begins, "why do I always forget how hard this is?" Self talk during a first draft. Crazy cartoons and doodles surrounded by quotations? Me, at a reading (probably after a glass of wine)...
Now that I've been doing it for almost 10 years, keeping a writer's notebook is kind of like clicking on the Time Machine function on my Mac. I can see all those different writing Ashleys--and how they led me to my current place.
I have changed through these notebooks, but the most crucual benefit they offer me hasn't changed. My writer's notebook lets me take my writing anywhere. It turns every park bench, bus seat, or cafe table into a workable writing space.
Even when I'm working with Scrivener on my Mac, my writer's notebook is open. I move back and forth between the two, using the physical notebook as a safe space to think out an idea (and question it) before or even as I draft a scene.
My notebooks also save my butt via the reading lists I tuck inside them, lists of (with secret notations) every book that I read or listen to. They save my butt because I'm one of those people who blanks when asked their favorite book (I have too many!). Having the lists makes it easier to track down the right recommendations when asked, too.
P.S. Just click on the "writersnotebook" tab for my blog to see bits from many different notebooks. One of my favorite posts is here.