The big magic of an hour a day.

I just finished reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert.

At 264 pages, it’s not a short read, but it’s an easy one. I finished it in two days (which was handy, because I grabbed it off my library’s 7-day checkout shelf last week).

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and think the State of Wonder story alone makes it worth the cover price. (Read it: you’ll see what I mean.)

I had been warned by several fellow readers that Big Magic was equal parts tough talk and woo-woo. I’m an INFP who’s generally pretty comfortable with mystery and crazy talk, but I think I enjoyed the book more because I knew this going in. This bit of foreknowledge seriously minimized any subsequent eye-rolling.

I finished the book a few days ago, and my mind keeps circling back to one specific passage.

In one of the tough talk, butt-in-chair portions of the book, Gilbert tells of how she wrote every single day through her twenties—long before it was clear if she’d “make it” as a writer—even when the work was going badly, even when she felt no inspiration at all.

library haul 10.29.15

She says this:

“I had read an interview with John Updike where he said that some of the best novels you’ve ever read were written in an hour a day; I figured I could always carve out at least thirty minutes somewhere to dedicate myself to my work, no matter what else was going on or how badly I believed the work was going.”

Intellectually, I believe that there is exactly enough time for everything I need to accomplish, and everything you do, too. But I have a hard time trusting that belief in busy seasons, when there are so many things I would dearly love to do and so little available time to do them in.

I am a fervent believer in chipping away at big tasks, one little bit at a time, but sometimes it feels as if I’ll be chipping forever, with little to show for it.

I wonder if that method works, and if it’s really worth it. How much can one really accomplish in thirty minutes?

According to Gilbert (and Updike), the answer is: plenty.

“It’s a simple and generous rule of life,” Gilbert writes, “that whatever you practice, you will improve at.” We don’t all want to learn to write, and that’s fine. Maybe you want to bake bread, or play the guitar, or speak Portugese.

As for me, I want to write—and hearing that some of the best novels I’ve ever read were written in one hour a day makes me want to do just that.

Sometimes I need a little woo-woo magic talk, but sometimes I need someone to tell me to put my butt in the chair, and to tell me why it’s worth it.

P.S. Put yourself on the clock, and the 6 best books on deliberate practice.

How much can you really accomplish in an hour a day, or even 30 minutes? The answer is PLENTY, if you do it diligently. This is great inspiration to actually tackle those projects you've been dreaming of.

Books mentioned in this post:


Leave A Comment
  1. Interesting advice. I think we make time for the things we really care about. I think I could accomplish a lot in an hour a day. I know I write most of my blog posts in only about 20 minutes. So I could probably write a good amount of fiction in 60 minutes if I really put my mind to it.

    Some advice I heard from Lev Grossman at NerdCon was to always be thinking about your story, so that when you sit down to write, you can produce a lot during that time. I think those two pieces of advice combined would result in a pretty good novel written 1 hour at a time.

    Good luck!

  2. Jessica says:

    Did you listen to the podcasts she did to accompany the book? They are only a few of them and they are in two-part formats: someone who has a creativity “problem” and then someone who can help with that particular issue. I really enjoyed the second part of each segment, and I was a skeptical listener.

    I’m going to give the book a try next. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Amy says:

    Oooh, ooh, Anne, maybe you oughta join up with NaNoWriMo? It has just started and you could probably write for an hour a day and nearly get that 50,000 words in!

  4. I loved Big Magic so much—even the woo-woo parts—and I’m completely on board with her 30-minute a day philosophy. I loved Gilbert’s emphasis on doing the work because it’s worth doing, not because you want a book deal. Having goals and being productive is all well and good, but I think many of us lose sight of why we started in the first place.

    • Liz says:

      Yes! Create because the act alone is worth it, not because you want to write the best song, take the best photo, or write the best novel. This is such a great message from Elizabeth Gilbert! Here is another wonderful interview on an NPR program from 2010 with creative writing teacher Lynda Barry talking about how adults think working on a creative project isn’t worth it unless they know what to do with the result. It really struck me when I first heard it how true it is for me, so I listen to it periodically to remind myself that creativity is its own reward.

  5. Tim says:

    I find that once I start setting aside time for something it gets easier to put the time into it every day. It’s that initial setting aside that always seems so tough.

    • Liz says:

      You’re the second Nanowrimo comment here. I suggest we start a Modern Mrs. Darcy groupie support group. 🙂 I have 5,000 words so far–3,000 of them were written on my bus commute! Never would have thought I could write a novel on the bus, but why not? I’ve crocheted stuffed animals there.

      • Allison says:

        5,000 words is awesome, Liz! I’d love to buddy up through the nano page. Just made a thread under the All Ages Coffee House forum called “Modern Mrs. Darcy website reader thread!” (My name there is Jeanie2015.) Hopefully others will join us! Write on!!!

  6. My husband began playing the bass guitar around five years ago, at age 41. He now practices one hour daily and is extremely talented, and a member of two bands … all because he determined to do something.

  7. Laurel says:

    I firmly believe in this notion of ‘giving just one hour a day’ (or even 15, 30 minutes) to make happen something that is important to you. When I was burning out on reading in college because of all the difficult, intellectual reading I was doing, I made myself pick out a book for pleasure reading and give it 15 minutes each day. Sometimes I read more if time allowed, but I realized I could make time for ‘enjoying’ my reading if I made it an appointed task every day. Amazingly, this also helped me avoid burn-out with my class readings. I needed to have that lighter reading to make me see that pleasure could still be found in it when I was overwhelmed.

    I’ve practiced similar things with learning languages, making time for crafting, etc.–whatever it is I really want to happen in my life–by carving out the time. It’s an aspect of that balance of self-care that is so essential to our well-being.

  8. Karen S says:

    Thank you for that amazing perspective and review of this new book. I have it by my bed and I am going to block 30 minutes tonight to start it!

  9. Hannah says:

    Thank you for the double shot of soul espresso. I’ve been doing this for two years now and I have two novels to show for it. I shall keep on keeping on–one hour at a time (sometimes thirty minutes).

  10. Sarah M says:

    I just recently finished it in 2 days as well and reallllly loved her anecdotes. I felt very inspired by it, which I haven’t been given a good pep talk in awhile, it seems. I’m glad I really had no expectations of it, though, woo-woo and all 😉
    Sarah M

    • Liz says:

      You’re the third Nanowrimo commenter here. It’s awesome that so many Modern Mrs. Darcy readers are participating. I think we should support each other on the nanowrimo site.

      • Heather says:

        I’m doing NaNoWriMo, too. I am featherblue on the site. Yes, let’s connect and support each other.
        I like the idea of having enough time to accomplish the things we really want to do. Every time I have to wait in the car while my DH runs an errand, I study Spanish. It’s slow, but if I did nothing I would learn nothing.

  11. Andria says:

    This sounds like a great book. And yeah, it’s crazy how much we can accomplish with only a little bit of time, if we put our minds to it. People say that if you take 30 minutes a day to exercise or walk, you’ll be in great shape the rest of your life. Guess it’s the same principle. If you do enough of one thing consistently, you’re bound to be amazing pretty soon.

    Thanks for the recommendation. Let’s keep writing. 🙂

  12. Torrie says:

    One of the greatest lessons I learned a couple years ago after trying to incorporate some new habits as part of my new year’s resolutions was that I totally underestimated how much I could accomplish in a year by devoting just a small amount of time each day to something. (I actually devoted a whole post to it, which I’ll include a link to in case you’re interested.)

    My husband and I are also doing NanoWriMo for the first time, which I’ve been wanting to do forever but which just seemed too daunting. We’re basically just doing a challenge where we see who can write the most words on their novel by the end of the month, and we have a reward for the winner and punishment for the loser. Only a couple days in, and I can definitely see that as long as we’re consistent, our novels WILL get written, even if we just write for a half hour a day.

    It’s kind of mind-boggling.

    Here’s that link in case you want to take a look:

  13. Julie says:

    Thank you for the recommendation – I loved Big Magic so much. My usual underlining favorite passages were not enough – I found myself doodling, scribbling notes to myself, and even getting out my watercolors to highlight my favorite passages. I think what I loved most is how she encourages the reader to take your art Seriously, but not SERIOUSLY. Create for the joy. Good stuff.

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