For all the creatives out there with an unfinished novel lying in a drawer, Dr. Sanjay Gupta should provide some inspiration. If the neurosurgeon, nonfiction writer, CNN chief medical correspondent, and father of three could find time to complete the novel Monday Mornings, you too can figure out how to block out some writing time (even if it means giving up some extra minutes falling down the Facebook rabbit hole).
Just this year, Gupta has taken on yet another new role: TV writer and executive producer. Monday Mornings, which follows five surgeons at the fictional Chelsea General Hospital, is now a drama on TNT starring Alfred Molina and Ving Rhames. Because Gupta may be the busiest man in America (or at least south of the Mason-Dixon), we decided to kick off a new series about creative processes by asking him about how he works.
Dr. Gupta squeezed in a phone call while riding in a car from the airport and discussed how he schedules time for fiction writing, how he resets his brain when he hits a snag, and his secret for insane productivity.
For me there was a big difference between nonfiction and fiction writing. Nonfiction I could write very early in the morning, just at home. I found I could schedule nonfiction writing much more easily because I had a very clear plan of what I wanted to do and what I was working on. With fiction, just because of the nature of what I wanted to write, sometimes I’d wake up early to write and sometimes [the ideas] weren’t there. But sometimes when I wasn’t scheduled to write, it would be all in my head.
It took me over 10 years to write [Monday Mornings]. I spent a long time on outlining and character development. I wrote on a lot of plane rides and at night. I carry my laptop everywhere. With nonfiction, if I had a thought I could make a note to myself, and I would keep those notes and use them when I was writing. With fiction a note didn’t do it, I needed to get it all down at the time. Worrying about the organizing would come later. My notes were often [hard to read]; doctors have terrible handwriting!
My parents are very hard workers, and to them, the metric was always, if you could work hard, your opinion mattered. My mom always told me that a change of activity is a form of reset. If you’re feeling tired, the answer is not necessarily to go to sleep, it’s just a question of changing activity. My toggling around comes from that lesson.
One thing I will say is that for me [being a doctor, a writer, and a producer], while they may seem like individual silos, it’s always been very important for me to still do things that are in the health/medical space. It’s a pragmatic time consideration, but it’s also a mental capacity that goes away when you’re going into a totally disparate topic. I’m writing about things I’m truly fascinated by and I do my own research. I’m very busy, but there’s a real cohesiveness for me, it makes sense in my own mind how these various things tie together.
I would do one of two things [when I got stuck writing]. I’d either do something completely different, like a long training run (I’m training for a triathlon). Or, sometimes if I was sort of struggling, just a couple people, my wife being one of them, knew what I was working on at a given time, and I would run a couple different choices of storyline by them, just speak out what I was thinking. I would not tip my hand about which storyline I preferred, I’d just observe their facial expression and go with that.
I don’t give myself unlimited amounts of time to do things. If I suddenly had a burst of inspiration to write, I wouldn’t give myself the rest of the afternoon to do it. An open-ended time has a counter effect. It makes you lose efficiency. If it’s 1, I’ll write until 2:30. Putting a little pressure on myself cuts down on procrastination.