She went home and drew up an official document, using contract language she'd picked up at her day job where she was writing contracts all the time, only this one, instead of enacting some corporate agenda, was for her alone.

A few days later, we met at Philippe's famous French dip sandwich shop in downtown L.A., and she showed me the rules she'd chosen.

She would write five days a week for an hour. As a firm reminder, every day, when she finished her hour, she would e-mail me one word: Done, and at some point during the day, I would e-mail back Check. No other words were necessary. All that was being acknowledged was that she'd sat at her computer for an hour with the intention to write, whether or not she did.

The contract would run for three months. She was allowed five vacation days, which she would mark by e-mailing me Vacation (1), Vacation (2), etc. If she was actually out of town and couldn't e-mail, we'd work it out. No Internet allowed. No phone. We bit into our drippy sandwiches and marked up the page, and both of us got a bizarre amount of glee, looking at that piece of paper. The more details the better. She must e-mail me by 5:30 P.M. She could write in a journal but never e-mail. She could revise, but only fiction. If she fulfilled the contract, she would give herself a reward. Many people might find this kind of rule-creating revoltingly constraining, but for both of us, happily adding details as we drank wine and ate coleslaw, it was joyous. We signed and dated it, and laughed and made fun of ourselves, but beneath it all was something solemn and powerful. The next day, when I received the first Done, I felt a little thrill. Check! I wrote. I added an exclamation point, which I later amended. No exclamation points. No commentary except acknowledgment. I found I started to wait for her e-mails in the back of my mind, around 5 P.M., as it underlined my own commitment to my work when she sent me that one word.

Once she'd been on the contract for a couple of weeks, she told me her whole concept of weekends had shifted. "I can actually enjoy the weekend now," she said. "Because I am not allowed to write on the weekend."

I understand completely. If left to my own devices, a blank page and a free day and that meadow, little will get done and I'll feel awful about it. But put me in a box for two set hours and say go? It is one of the most steadying elements of my life.

Many psychologists have devoted time and writing to the concept of the therapy "frame," that set box of 50 minutes in a room where a person comes in, sits, talks, emotes, and leaves. It has been made fun of often: "Your time is up!" says the therapist, checking the clock, just as things get good. But aren't they related? Don't things get good sometimes when a person knows the time is almost up? Isn't it easier, right at the 45-minute mark, to say something of import, knowing you're soon allowed to go?

In my experience, this seems to be true for writing as well. At readings, audience members sometimes ask if I keep writing past the two hours if I'm on a roll, but I don't. I figure that if I'm on a roll, it's partially because I know I'm about to stop. I believe Hemingway's great advice, about leaving the work when the going's good so that there's excitement when the writer sits down the next day. Plus, if I start modifying the rules, the whole system begins to erode, and with erosion comes the fast return of dread and guilt. The integrity of the system itself is actually more important to me than the daily content, because content will return, and it mostly needs a reliable container in which to put itself. Our preoccupations do not go away, much as we might like them to.

In an essay called "The Analytic Frame, Abstinence, and Acting Out," Robert M. Young, a psychotherapist, takes it even a step further. Yes, he says, you need a set and specific time and space to explore, but why that's important goes very deep. "The analytic frame," he writes, "is the place where the madness is held so that the therapist and patient can have a space to think and feel about matters felt with a degree of intensity which is painful but still bearable."

Although psychotherapy and writing are distinct in many ways, they are two fields whose great resource is the vast plains of the unconscious mind and how this landscape gets translated into words. As a writer, you are often asking your mind to dream while awake, and if remembering dreams is difficult in general, then it seems to follow that it would be sometimes grueling to conjure up the murky depths on call, eyes open. Young calls it madness, which is a strong word, but it's not a bad one in exaggeration, because he's talking about creating a safe and bound space in which to explore all sorts of darknesses that collect in the recesses of the mind. He's talking about what we do not understand, or know about, or have control over. And the unconscious, if treated well, is the writer's very good friend. Allowing it room is crucial. Allowing it structure can be the safest way to access it without feeling overwhelmed.

Next: What the contract taught me


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