Write with Brutal Efficiency

by | Dec 17, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

I learned the word wintering yesterday. There’s a book by that title, and I listened to a wonderful episode of On Being that was an interview with the author, Katherine May. Here is the part that really enchanted me:

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential.

It’s uncanny, how much of this I’d been thinking about already. How much I’d already been plotting a long wintering, before I knew the word. A withdrawal, and a metamorphosis in a cocoon. My head has been too hot, too full of fire, so I’ve been drawn to the icy cold. I want to prepare and to get my house in order, in every way you can imagine. I’d already decided: 2022 is the Year of the Chrysalis. (2022 is also the Year of Infrastructure, which is probably a prompt of its own.)

I’m reminded of Michaela Coel’s oft-quoted Emmy speech, in which she offers some incredible advice to artists and writers: 

I dare you — in a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to in turn feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success — do not be afraid to disappear from it, from us for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.

At first, I thought I’d winter until March 1. Then I thought I’d winter until I’m 45. Then I thought, maybe 45 is midwinter, and I’ll emerge when I’m 50. A decade of wintering. 

These winterings (two months versus five years versus ten) will obviously be different kinds, some literal, some symbolic. For now, for this prompt, I’d like to encourage one particular strand of wintering: brutal efficiency


Write with brutal efficiency. 

Ignore this prompt if you are filled with ideas and time and devotion to writing. If that’s where you are, by all means, stay in your glorious summer. Sprawl out, sashay around, splash into your paragraphs and stanzas.

If that’s not where you are, if your cupboards are looking bare, if your cup runneth not at all over, if you’ve got one little nub of candle left for the dark ahead, then it’s time for wintering. 

How to winter, in your writing? Make everything work double duty. Write an email that you could also hope to publish. I worked out this prompt via some texts to friends about wintering, and then worked it out more in an Instagram post. 

And in the brief glimmers of daylight, when you have a little energy to learn or listen, read or play with your kids, or cook a meal, keep a simple log. Always have a notebook (or Notes app) handy, and jot down an overheard line (even if you overhear yourself say something clever), a passing idea, a sensation. Write down the little change you made to the recipe you’re cooking. Look for the lesson in everything. Scratch together anything you can. 

And hoard it, ice it, let it ferment for awhile. Don’t tweet it, don’t even commit to it yet. Winter is the time to gather. It’s a lean time. If you find a dazzling word, hold it close and let it warm you. 

Brutal efficiency when you’re working; real, deep, dark, intensely quiet, wintry rest when you’re not.