Calisthenics for Writers

On good writing days, I sit down at my laptop and know right away what I want to say and how I want to say it. Those good days are rare. I usually need fifteen minutes to half an hour before the synapses start firing and my head gets back into my story. Several strategies help me get into fiction-writing mode, the least useful of which are to check the baseball scores and read the New York Times and the Guardian. Sometimes, like today, I write a blog post. The most useful strategy, and, I hope, the most enduring for my family, is to write a diary entry about my son, who recently turned four and a half.

I began this diary the day after my son was born, in 2007. Some of the entries are as banal as you might expect—his first steps, his first words, which were “What’s that?”—but most are mini-narratives that describe his emerging personality. There are long passages on his obsession with volcanoes, the elaborate Lego sculptures he has invented, his ability to read at a first-grade level when he was three. Many of the entries involve parental bragging, but there is also plenty of parental self-deprecation, such as my account of the first time I sang the Mikado song to him; he was two. He cocked his head and looked at me as if to say: So you’re my one and only father, eh? Could you possibly be more of a nerd?

Since the beginning of 2007, I have written 750 single-spaced Word pages about my son. The goal from the start of this project was to chronicle his first eighteen years. If I maintain this pace, I’ll have written 2900 pages by the time he’s ready for college. My wife and I often jokingly refer to this diary as our family’s In Search of Lost Time.

I plan to bind all eighteen volumes, one for each year, upon my son’s high-school graduation and give them to him as a present—assuming, that is, that the art of bookbinding is still practiced in 2025. It’s likely that his reaction will be amusement and a polite thank you, after which he’ll stick the diaries in a box and forget about them. But I like to think that, sometime in the second half of the 21st century, when I may or may not still be around, he’ll pick up one of the volumes, flip through it, and enjoy reading about the experiences that made him the adult he became.

I have a great deal of fun writing these entries. And they help me prepare for the day’s foray into fiction. Once I finish an entry, I’m ready to resume my narrative from the day before. The writing comes easily, or as easily as it ever comes for me. By the time I stop, usually three hours later, I feel a double sense of satisfaction: I’ve made progress in my novel or short story, and I’ve recorded another moment in my son’s life.


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