Penny Zang Wilcox
5 a.m. Morning shocks itself into focus, the sky coffee-dark and thick with silence. The hopeful kind.
I am a 5 a.m. writer. Judging from others’ faces when I tell them how early I wake up each morning, on purpose, I must be a masochist. The question of “why” floats over their head like a cartoon dialogue bubble. Why sacrifice sleep? But also, perhaps: why bother writing at all?
My reasons are easy to explain. To write, I need the luxuries of both time and quiet, spread out before me, clean and unbroken. With a full-time job and a family, stretches of uninterrupted quiet time only exist in my house before sunrise. The other answer to “why” is one I rarely say out loud, but one I am always thinking. For me, writing is worth the sleep deprivation, worth the early bedtime on a Friday night. I’ve written whole novels (at least the messy first drafts of novels) in that sliver of morning before anyone else on my block is awake. I brew the coffee, feed the cat, and get to work.
I started waking early to write when my son was a baby. For the first year of his life, D woke every two hours (and didn’t sleep through the night until he was four years old). I would cradle him to back to sleep and then lie awake, lamenting my sleep deprivation and my inability to write. During these bleary-eyed mornings I started to revise old work, piecing sentences together and deleting scenes without mercy. Since I was already awake, why not use the quiet time for something besides laundry and Facebook scrolling? Many of my memories of my son’s first year are blurry, but I do remember returning to writing after a long hiatus, and how miraculous it felt.
On Twitter, the 5amwritersclub hashtag brims with donut and dance party gifs, unbridled encouragement, and sometimes more enthusiasm than even I can handle so early in the morning. I check in and cheer on the other writers, motivated by all of the early morning writers who are also sacrificing sleep in pursuit of getting a few words on the page. 5 a.m. is our time. We work past the exhaustion. We drink all the coffee.
Here’s the thing: 5 a.m. writing isn’t for everyone just like daily writing isn’t always necessary (or feasible), no matter how many craft books tell you otherwise.
As a creative writing teacher, I am the first to tell my students that they need to find their own process. Some writers prefer silence and some need a carefully curated playlist. I know many writers who work through the night. Good for them. Not so much for me. What is most important has been developing healthy writing habits, creating a realistic type of discipline in the midst of work and family and the thousands of ways a day can fold in on itself without warning. On the hardest days, the days filled with self-doubt and rejection, I remind my students there isn’t one path to being a writer. Give yourself time to figure it out. For the most part, I think they believe me.
I have woken up at 5 a.m. to write through illness, family deaths, holidays, vacations, and weekend mornings when all I want to do is sleep in. There have also been plenty of days (and years) when I have not written at all. The difference is that now I no longer feel guilt over non-writing days because I know I will make up the time. If it isn’t my body’s internal clock waking me up the next morning, it will surely be my son, his eyes wide and eager to start the day. He’s been an early riser since he was born. What can I say? I’m pretty sure he gets it from me.
Penny Zang Wilcox is from Baltimore and now lives in Greenville, SC, where she teaches English at Greenville Technical College. She graduated from West Virginia University with her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) and her work has appeared in publications such as the Potomac Review, Pank, Iron Horse Literary Review, Baltimore City Paper, and New Ohio Review. She is currently working on her first novel.
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