What are you doing at five a.m.? I used to be sleeping then, and it was glorious. Now, I’m usually at the bar in my kitchen at five a.m. with a massive mug of coffee, trying to write 2,000 words before my four-year-old son wakes up. I’m often a little tired and cranky, and I get even more tired and cranky as the day goes on. But it’s worth it, because it’s the only way—with three kids and a career divided between morning TV and teaching at a college—that I can work on what I hope will be my seventh published book.
My day didn’t always start at five a.m. A decade ago, I was married to a different man than I am today—one who worked a lot. We had decided to put our careers first and not have children. I was very productive, because my lifestyle let me write whenever I wanted and whenever inspiration struck: six p.m., 11 p.m., eight a.m. I could eat dinner later, go to bed later, wake up later. At the time, I was on a schedule of publishing a book every three years, which seems to be the industry norm. And so I thought I was doing the best I could do.
Then I got divorced. After being single for a while, I met someone new—a father of two young kids. I moved in with them. Two years later, we had a whole new life: we were married, with a baby, and all five of us were living in a new house, and my writing took a backseat to my new roles as a mom, stepmom, and wife.
All those times when inspiration usually struck? Those hours didn’t belong to me anymore. Six p.m. was dinner time. Eight p.m. was baths and stories. Then there were the lunches to make, the soccer practices to drive to, and the permission forms to drop off that were forgotten on the kitchen counter—you get it. A parent has little “me time,” never mind time to write when inspiration strikes.
I had two options: figure out a specific time to write or stop writing. The latter wasn’t an option, since I love writing, so I started lamenting to my group of writer girlfriends. It turned out they all felt the same way. What we were craving (more than a full-time nanny, a writing retreat, or a book that would write itself while we slept) was routine: a set time every single day when we knew we could write—without interruption, without other plans getting in the way. The answer, eventually, became clear: five a.m.
At first, we rejected the idea, put forth by writer Karma Brown, as unwriterly. After all, Hemingway had famously recommended writing drunk and editing sober. How could we follow this sound advice if we were writing before sunrise? But Karma said she’d been doing this for a while—that it was the only way she could keep up with her demanding book-a-year publishing schedule. And since I’d just signed a contract with my publisher for a four-book teen series (which I hoped would be published over four years), I tried it.
I figured I had nothing to lose—except sleep, that is. There were immediate cons: being tired and feeling uncreative and uninspired topped the list. But there were pros, as well: there were no online or real-life distractions at that hour. At five a.m., there’s little to do but write.
And so I do just that. I set the coffee maker for 4:55, my alarm for five, and I get up. I don’t check email or my phone. Some days are good, others are really good, and some days are abysmal—but still, I write.
As I was writing this piece, I wondered which famous, productive people actually get up at five a.m., so I could inspire other writers to follow in their footsteps, if not mine. A quick Google search marked Benjamin Franklin, Richard Branson, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz as early-morning writers, as well as... Hemingway. But surely that was only when he was editing, right? Another search revealed that no one has ever been able to prove that Hemingway ever recommended writing drunk and editing sober—that it’s all an urban myth.
There’s a small part of me that is disappointed—the part that held on to the hope that once my kids are grown, I might go back to sleeping at five a.m. and writing (glass of wine in hand) at some other time of the day. I suppose now there’s no point. Besides, I’m now hooked on writing at five a.m.—and I’d prefer to enjoy my glass of wine in the evening while reading a book, rather than with the pressure to write one.
Chantel Guertin’s most recent novel, Golden Hour, was published by ECW in May and is the final installment in the Pippa Greene YA series.