At dawn, we attack! by
(49 Stories)

Prompted By Dawn

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Attacking the enemy of the blank page can work best for writers if they launch their assault in the early-morning hours. (Photo by Rene Rauschberger)

For this career writer, the blank page has always been the enemy. It must be attacked and subdued, and it’s best to do that as the enemy still slumbers.

Attacking the blank page in the early-morning hours can give us more of a chance of winning the battle of writing.

That’s how a lot of my writing has survived on the battlefield of crowded days.

Case in point: one night in 1990 as I lay dreaming. I’ve always been a dreamer, so it wasn’t surprising when an inaudible voice appeared that night uttering the enigmatic phrase, The Shadow World.

Excuse me?

I had no idea what it meant, although as a journalist, I figured it had something to do with the world I was presenting through my reporting and writing.

I rolled over and wrote that phrase down, knowing if I didn’t, I would forget it by morning.

Dawn came early that day, but I was up before the sun.  I climbed out of bed and went immediately to my desktop computer to start expanding on my dream phrase.

A book is born

Before I knew it, a few hours had passed and I was 25 pages into creating what would become my third published book: The Shadow World: Life Between the News Media and Reality. 

The publisher’s description shows what I came up with: “This book looks at the news media’s portrayal of reality and seeks answers as to why this portrayal often falls short of reality itself. Jim Willis examines the factors that contribute to the journalist’s often faulty perception of reality, factors that are beyond the immediate control of the reporter: errant sources, competitive influences, the embedding process of storytelling, marketing’s influence on the news, and the structure of news stories.”

The dream meets the dawn

So now you know what a fun guy I must be to be entertaining such adventurous and romantic dreams as that. But the fact that this untethered thought became a book is more credited to the effect that dawn has on a writer’s creative juices.

The dream may have given me the subject, but the early dawn hours gave me the verb. Along with those verbs came, as the late commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”

(Photo by Engin Akyurt)

I’ve always loved the early pre-dawn hours, feeling that my mind was at its clearest, my filters were at a low point, and so were the mental distractions that the rest of the day always brings. When I am jumping into an idea, like The Shadow World, I don’t need distractions and I don’t need filters. The latter are very useful when it comes later in the editing process, but not in the initial draft of my work. This is a time to just let it all flow and, for me, the hours of 4:30 to 7:30 a.m. have often been those best hours.

But why?

I’ve done a little research to discover if that holds true for other writers, and I’ve found it does for many of them. Here are two reasons cited by fellow writer Naomi Pham:

(Photo by Gerd Altmann)

1. Early morning is the time when you’re most energetic. Working in the first hours of the day can, therefore, improve your productivity and performance. You’ll have a better creativity flow, greater focus, and resilience, which translates into much faster-writing speed.

2. Your willpower is at its highest. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister once conducted an experiment testing willpower. Two groups of people were led into a room filled with the aroma of freshly-baked cookies. The table before them held a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes.

One group was asked to taste the cookies, and the other, the radishes. Then both groups were given a complex geometric puzzle to solve.The cookies were left on the table with no instructions not to eat them.Those who ate the radishes and resisted the cookie temptation gave up within 8 minutes, while the cookie-eaters hung on for 19.

The conclusion

Baumeister concluded that our willpower is a limited source. It runs out as we make use of it. The longer that day goes on, the more we have to use our willpower. So it is strongest in the early-morning hours. As the day progresses, we’re more likely to put off writing out of laziness and mental exhaustion.

Then comes age

Now at 77, I dream about getting up early to attack my writing, but the flesh has become weaker than the spirit. it’s just harder than it used to be to get out of bed early. So I start writing a little later, then a little later than that, then — some days — it’s time for bed again.

Still, it doesn’t mean my writing doesn’t get done. Just takes a little longer, as do most things as we age. Happily, there is more free time in retirement than when I was writing and teaching for a living.

Work expands to the time

So, I’ve spent the past 14 months writing my memoirs. At 400 pages it’s one of the longer books I’ve done, but it’s also taken about 400 days and nights to finish it. There was a time I would have knocked it out in half that time.

It’s just that, these nights, my battle-hardened troops need all the sleep they can get before attacking that dreaded blank page once again.

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love that one of your books came to you out of that dream phrase, written down so you would remember it in the morning. I agree that we are fresh and do our best work in the early hours (even if I’m not a social psychologist; I’m just going by instinct and personal observation). “The Shadow World” is also a great turn of phrase – good way to start a book, Jim.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Impressive literary output! Definitely a professional. Like you, I find I tend to get going later as I age. Now I get up reasonably early to make coffee and read the paper/e-mail—but then loll around for hours. An indulgence I am happy to be privileged enough to complain about..

  3. As always Jim your stories are wonderfully written and full of insight! Indeed I have heard many fine writers discuss their writing habits and they often involve an early rise and the discipline to keep the fanny on the chair!

    As our fellow admin says, Write on!

  4. pattyv says:

    Jim, I too reach for just the right words in the early morning light. Because it’s poetry it’s less of an attack, more like an appeal. Through the years I’ve awaken with bits n pieces of the poem but not delivered as forcibly as that fascinating title of yours. I would love to explore this much further by tapping into my ‘my higher self’ before sleep. But I guess my fur children licking my face awake in the morning would definitely break the spell.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I can totally relate to this, Jim. I used to keep a notebook next to my bed and write down thoughts that came to me during sleep. Sometimes, they didn’t make sense, but often I could generate something early in the day. At our shared age, memoirs are both time consuming and yet fulfilling.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    A very inspiring and interesting tale. I plan to buy the book.

    I am naturally nocturnal. My best creative hours are between midnight and pre-dawn. Unfortunately I have enjoyed very few periods in my adult life wherein I was free to live that schedule. Most of the time I have had to cram my square peg into the round hole of the diurnal working world, so if I am up at 3:00 AM, I have been up since early the previous morning and am freakin’ exhausted.

    LOVE your accompanying pic, btw!

  7. I lave your title. It reminds me of the ancient radio program “The Shadow” who knows what is the hearts of men.
    Your morning adventures are admirable. They have inspired me to begin writing in the morning rather than reading my emails.

    IBTW, I do not think I would want to make my dreams public. I do a lot of outlining and composing in bed throughout my sleeping hours. Just before morning, I disappear into the darkness.

    I am also writing an autobiography. On page 200 plus. I would love any suggestions about writing, style, narrative, etc.

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