Writing Routines

Emily St. John Mandel’s Writing Routine: “I find the book in the revision process.”

Emily St. John Mandel is a Canadian author and essayist, best-known for her novels, Station Eleven, which was adapted into a HBO mini-series, and The Glass Hotel.

My first draft took two years because I had a baby, and was touring for Station Eleven. And then I just couldn’t find my way to the heart of the book. It is something I usually do, I find the book in the revision process. And that was incredibly difficult with this book.

Knowing and Not Knowing: An Interview with Emily St. John Mandel | The Los Angeles Review of Books

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In 2015, Emily St. John Mandel was still working as a part-time administrative assistant to the Cancer Research Lab at the Rockefeller University. It was almost a year after her breakthrough novel, Station Eleven, was published and she had won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

It never occurred to the Canadian writer that she’d need to leave her day job. That is, until she was trying to juggle doing her job remotely while on a book tour.

“It was an interesting environment, working with scientists doing breast cancer research—my colleagues were brilliant, my boss was great—but it was getting a little ridiculous trying to be an administrative assistant remotely during my book tour,” she recalled in an interview with Willow Springs Magazine. “I realized I had to quit when I found myself in a hotel room in London at mid- night on a Sunday, booking plane tickets for my boss.”

Born and raised in Merville, British Columbia, Mandel left high school at the age of 18 to study contemporary dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. After graduating from the program two years later, Mandel came to the realisation that she didn’t want to do this anymore. “It just felt like more of a chore than a joy,” she told Jane Gayduk.

So she relocated to New York and started writing. After two years and countless rejections from publishers, Mandel published her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, in 2009. By the time her debut was published, she had already started working on her follow-up, The Singer’s Gun, published a year later.

Mandel continued to grind away at her writing while juggling various day jobs. She published The Lola Quartet in 2012, and then struck gold with Station Eleven in 2014. The book was an instant hit with critics, appearing on several best-of-year lists, and was also a commercial success, having sold well over 1.5 million copies by now.

Although she’s now far removed from dancing, Mandel has revealed in past interviews that the discipline she gained from her previous background has helped her with writing.

“I think if you’re a dancer first, you might go on to become a more disciplined attorney or anything else you do in your life,” she told Adam Byko. “But it definitely helps with writing. So much of writing is just forcing yourself to sit at your desk and write a novel.”

Emily St. John Mandel’s daily writing routine

These days, as a full-time writer, Mandel doesn’t need to balance her work with a day-job, although she does have a young daughter, who much of her daily writing routine revolves around.

For the author, getting enough exercise and sleep are two priorities for her to get the most out of her writing day; she exercises every day and gets about 7 hours of sleep each night — going to bed by 11pm and waking up around 6am. In a 2020 interview, Mandel described a typical day in her writing life.

My routine doesn’t vary much from day to day. The day always starts with walking. Every morning my daughter and I walk to preschool together—which takes some time, because she needs to stop frequently to collect acorns and random leaves for her “collection”—and then I drop her off and go to the grocery store, where I pick up dinner ingredients and whatever else I can carry home without putting my back out, then once home I make some coffee and start working. I have a treadmill desk, so sometimes if I’m doing the kind of work that I can do while walking, like emails or scheduling or certain kinds of editing, I’ll be able to get a reasonable amount of exercise at my desk; other days, if I’m doing the kind of work I can’t do while walking (e.g. actually writing fiction, which requires way more concentration than email), I’ll take a break at some point to go to the gym. Either way, work stops at 3:30 so I can pick up my daughter by 4pm.

Emily Mandel: Finding the Focus for Uninterrupted Writing | Freedom

While having a daughter no doubt takes a lot of time away from her writing, Mandel credits parenthood for helping her to focus. “A condition of parenthood is that there’s just much more to do in much less time, so by necessity you get good at snapping into work mode pretty quickly,” she said. “I waste much less time than I used to.”

On combating the dreaded writer’s block, Mandel has a couple of go-to strategies. The first one is to work on something else if she finds herself stuck at some point and come back to it later. “There’s always something else you could be writing: a different chapter of the novel you’re working on, notes for a new short story, an essay,” she said.

Another way is to put the writing down and do something completely unrelated to her work, like a long walk, bike ride or a sewing project. “Sometimes the solution to your problem will come to you when you least expect it,” she explained.

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