Welcome to another edition of A Day in the Life. Here, creators share some insight into their daily routine, informing how they create and what structure they need (if any) to make a little magic happen. It’s sort of like the comic book version of MTV Cribs, only no one says, “This is where the magic happens.”
Today, writer Christopher Cantwell takes us through his daily routine amid a global pandemic. (Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time for coffee and vinyl records). In comics-dom, Cantwell is best known for penning Dark Horses’ She Could Fly, The Mask, and Everything as well as Doctor Doom and the forthcoming Iron Man for Marvel. Outside of comics, Cantwell is the creator and writer of the hit AMC series Halt and Catch Fire.
You can find him on Twitter @ifyoucantwell.
What’s the first thing you do as part of your daily routine/workday?
My weekday mornings used to be a very well-choreographed ballet of my wife and I getting our two young sons (6 and 2) ready for school that day while we both got ready for our jobs. That meant multiple showers, breakfasts made and served, lunches prepared, homework folders assembled, screaming fights stopped, all of it. My wife is a teacher so she would take off around 7:45 in order to drop my older son off at school before arriving at her own job where she’s on the faculty of a boarding school. I would take our younger son and drop him off at preschool latest 8:20 so that I could then make it to the train depot and hop on the 8:42 a.m. commuter train to Los Angeles, where I’d then spend an hour and a half riding that and then navigating subways to get to a TV writers room I’d be running, arriving between 10:10 and 10:20. My life was perfectly timed to the minute.
Sometimes my wife and less occasionally I would get up around 5 a.m. before the boys woke up in order to get pressing things done for work—extra grading, maybe another writer’s script I needed to review, that kind of thing. For me that rarely included comic work, which I always saved for the two hours of train commuting time I had every day.
NOW… well all that went into the trash. Sort of. Our boys still get up pretty early—between 6 and 7 a.m. most days. That means we still have to be up, too. There’s less of a crunch on breakfast but it still needs to happen and our older son still has to be showered and seated with brushed teeth latest 8:30 or 9 or else his whole homeschooling day gets all out of whack. The younger one has nowhere to go… which usually means he begins his destructive ornery missions for the day around 8 a.m. and continues on those quests through 8:30 p.m. bedtime, often having caused multiple family members to cry, few toys to be broken , and several timeouts to be suffered.
My wife and I are usually showered by 10, 10:30 a.m. latest as she will have to teach over Zoom and I will have to run a writers room over Zoom fairly quickly after that (for her often even before), or I need to catch up on script rewrites and drafts for said television job(s).
All of which is a long-winded way of saying, the very first part of my workday is figuring out a plan for how to get everything we need to get done for the day by crafting that plan with my wife the previous night, hopefully by 9:30pm if we’re lucky, before we crash from exhaustion somewhere towards the end of an episode of Unsolved Mysteries on Amazon Prime.
Do you keep to a set schedule or just wing it during any given week?
Zoom writers rooms are scheduled by my showrunner partners and me, but usually around the same time each day—between 10 a.m. and noon and then we go for four or so hours (Zoom rooms just can’t go as long as in-person rooms… the fatigue is astounding). In the “Old Times,” I physically went in to the room and that was very regimented. The commuter train was essentially my comic book office.
Now, things have to be blocked off in one to four hour chunks for the day and agreed upon with my wife the day before. During my allotted chunks I have to try and get done whatever I need to and it’s up to me to prioritize. Usually I go with the thing that has the most pressing deadline first. I also steal time here and there if my kids happen to be acting well (rarely)—say one is caught up in a coloring book and one is building Legos… well that’s some golden time right there to have a laptop on my lap even if it only lasts for fifteen minutes.
That said, that elusive magical time is rarely available, and I almost never work on weekends because of the kids’ demands and also because I want to be there for them in their lives so they know who I am in pictures that they see when they’re adults. My wife is also not afforded that no-work weekend privilege because of the demands of her job so often I’ll need to cover solo while she’s grading or making lesson plans over hours-long chunks that dot Saturday and Sunday.
I don’t pretend to make my writing time sacred. That whole “nice cup of tea, sit down, do some Vipassana breaths, nod to the photo of Proust on my desk ANNNnnnD BEEGGGiinnn” s--t went out the window a long time ago for me. I get it done when I can—on a subway, in an airport, with a two-year-old on my lap, while an episode of PJ Masks is blaring, on set while shooting, 4:45 a.m. … whatever it takes. And if it doesn’t get turned in or isn’t good enough, well, then it’s my ass, isn’t it? So I can’t afford to slack off or be precious at all.
Is there one particular place you work, or a specific set up to be most productive?
Well, see, now I guess I am particular about a few things. I am fortunate enough to have three office areas in which to work. One was until the pandemic my office in Koreatown in LA where I spent every weekday on my current TV show job. That office has been vacant since March 14th. I also have an office that I lease maybe five minutes from my house in the town we live in that’s about an hour east of Los Angeles. Finally, I have a desk in my bedroom for true at home work (that’s where I’ve spent all my writing time since the pandemic hit).
I’m VERY specific about my desks and the surrounding area. The space needs to feel like mine —that means nothing from anyone else can be on my desk at all. My TV office desk has an external monitor so I can look at multiple drafts at a time. I have a bookcase where there are binders containing each delivered draft of every episode. I also have binders containing every day of the writers room notes going back to the very beginning. I usually ask my assistant to have the notes binder on my desk before I get in, with the the previous day’s notes on top inside so I can review them before going into the room.
Then of course there’s the fun stuff. In a TV office I always try to have some good alcohol handy for the really rough days. One of my current showrunner partners got me a bottle of whiskey called “WRITER’S TEARS” that has been helpful. Because I have what my therapist calls “healthy regressive tendencies,” I have LOTS of toys in all my offices, usually little clusters of action figures old and new. At my TV office, I had a smattering of just cool ones I liked—an old Mego Spider-Man, a bootleg Lego Mister Miracle, some Secret Wars guys. I also had Marvel Legends figures of every Marvel character I’ve gotten to write in books—precocious, but also nice to look at when I was feeling like s--t. I also used to keep my CGC graded books in my TV office. I’m a practicing Zen Buddhist as well so each of my offices has a modest shrine with a Likeness, a water offering cup, and a cushion to sit on and face the wall for meditation (usually during lunch).
Really it’s just the toys that are different in each work area. At my office near my house I’ve got some Star Wars and Captain Power things, and a couple members of the JSA. I rigged up a Miles Morales to hang from the ceiling. I tend to have framed things for inspiration, too, whether that be my family, or the final slate from the movie I directed, or a poster for Donnie Darko or Jaws. My desk at home is the most cluttered—more action figures, Buddhist texts, Dungeons & Dragons guides (even though I’ve never played), the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and one of my favorite pictures of my mom and me. All of the comics I’ve read or need to read or copies of my comic comps lay stacked high right next to my desk, and I have saved copies of every issue I’ve written bagged and boarded in a plastic case underneath. You know, in case I die.
Anyway, my f----n’ desk, who cares.
What’s the absolute highlight of any given workday?
Getting a page of anything finished, or better yet, being able to send off a polished draft of something as a file attachment.
What’s your least favorite part of any workday?
I’d have to say the nearly crippling existential dread, personal anxiety and doubt I experience basically from moment to moment. The world news, my lack of self-confidence, or just being aware of my own death can grind me to a halt at anytime. It doesn’t matter how much of a groove I’m in. Also, the worst part of any day is starting. Just starting anything, especially something I don’t want to do. But once I’m in it, it’s totally fine.
Are you listening to music or podcasts throughout the day?
No. There are rare occasions where I might listen to something instrumental or ambient in order to work on the rhythm and tone of a sequence that has no dialogue—something for TV, film, or comics. But even then it can’t have a hard beat. Lyrics or beat disrupt the sound of dialogue in my head, which usually needs to go at a rhythm that doesn’t match whatever music I might have available in that moment.
I can’t imagine listening to podcasts while writing. What is that? It must look like garbage on the page.
Funnily enough, I don’t even really listen to podcasts because I love music so much. I’m always listening to music when I drive, and the music immediately evokes images and scenes in stories. I almost consider that part of my process of writing as well. In the car I come up with ideas and I’m very specific with my music. I go all over the spectrum with it as well depending on what idea I’m turning over in my head. It could be ’80s hip like Talking Heads or early Robert Palmer (Halt and Catch Fire), 70’s folk rock like Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot (which I heavily listened to when putting together this feature I’m trying to write and direct… it may come together at last because we recently scored an actor for the lead!), early R.E.M. and Daniel Johnston for something like She Could Fly, weird Brian Eno tones for my comic book Everything or this band called Stars of the Lid… maybe even something like Roxette for a nutso video game adaptation I’m doing as a movie.
When you work, do you have a daily “quota” to reach (number of pages, word count, etc.)? Are these “metrics” important or not?
I need to get at least one major scene done or else to me the day is s--t. In comics, if I get one “comic book” page done, I’m happy. In screenplays I’m looking for a major scene or sequence. Hopefully I hit above that benchmark, though. I forgot who—Hemingway? Bob Villa?—said don’t write all the way until you don’t know what’s next, so that you have an easy place to pick up the next time. I can’t do that. I write until I go “Oh s--t, okay, now what?” And then comes the fun of thinking up the next sequence in my head—either when lying down to sleep at night, showering, or driving and listening to music. That allows my writing to have a spontaneous quality I feel it needs to keep me engaged. If something is fully outlined to death it’s a dead document to me and I get bored. Mostly, I know at least in general where I’m headed and it’s always best if I have a final sticking point, but that’s how I prefer to write. I also use this program called Evernote on my phone that also syncs to my laptop. I outline in extreme shorthand on that—maybe a sequence, maybe the whole thing—while I’m on the subway or juggling the kids at bathtime. That’s as far as I go because I don’t want to kill discovery.
Now TV episodes have very clear outlines. The outlines we do in our rooms usually come out anywhere from 20 to 40 pages. That’s a lot of writing. I think that’s also because the shows we’re doing have a lot of nuance and specific tone and it’s tough to nail that in a document that isn’t the actual story, especially for a network or studio executive. Sometimes we joke that our outlines are “just add water” scripts. But if I’m going off a TV outline, I’ve still left room for myself to have fun. The fun comes in the dialogue of those scenes, the back and forth and the revelation of jokes or hard-hitting lines that for me have to be thought of in the moment or they’d never come to be.
Do you have any habits or special routines that are essential for a truly productive day?
Well I have OCD so anytime I get up from my desk chair I have to approach it from the side other than the one I got up from. I don’t know if that counts.
I have to use specific pens if I’m writing longhand. I use Pentel EnerGel 1.00mm black pens. A lot of my friends and colleagues hate these pens because they just gush out ink. But these people are usually righties. Pens were designed to draw ink out off the ball or metal point as it’s dragged across the page. When you’re a leftie like me, you’re pushing the pen forward and the ink is constantly getting backed up within the catridge and creating uneven lines. With a 1.00mm, the ball is wide enough that ink comes out freely. I still smudge up my words though with my hand. Like a stupid child.
Other than that I usually check Twitter to see if someone has validated me in that cheap and s----y way before I fully commit myself to writing something actually substantial.
How important is diet during the day? Do you drink 10 gallons of coffee or a bowl of cinnamon oatmeal at 11 a.m.?
I have a cup of coffee as soon as I get up. I have to with my sons. I will usually have a second cup somewhere late morning. When I was commuting I knew where the coffee stops were that wouldn’t hold me over too long. In my town, pre-train, there is the Last Drop Café. There is also the 100-year-old bakery Some Crust. Post-train there is Tentera in Union Station, which has a really good a green tea scone that’s basically a cookie, but I can tell myself it’s breakfast because I’m very good at lying to myself. If not there, there’s the hazelnut latte at Coffee Bean on the walk to the office. If not there, our room P.A. goes out to Sanctuary Coffee on Wilshire and gets short but intense lattes that nail your ass to the wall with caffeine.
At home now I either make a second cup of coffee, have a canned ice coffee that sucks, or if I’m feeling really tweed and leather elbow-patched… a pot of loose leaf tea. But be careful with black tea, it can give you kidney stones. I got one once in Atlanta a couple days before directing a Halt episode and I’ve never experienced anything like it. I was on the pain medication they give gunshot victims.
Breakfast has to be light. The best days I do the other half of the bagel my 2-year-old eats, with just a little butter. On the worst days it’s like, leftover birthday cake. I swing a sandwich on pumpernickel rye at home for lunch. In the writers room I have the same vegetable and banana smoothie almost every day for lunch. I don’t deviate. It takes care of lunch, is healthy, and I don’t waste time looking at a menu. I only get what the rest of the room gets on days where the restaurant choice is really good. But please don’t confuse me with the Silicon Valley dopes who want to remove food in order to increase productivity. I just want one less decision to make and to know I’m eating healthy; I don’t want to hook myself up to a f-----g creatine plasma bag and upload my consciousness into a digital cloud.
Dinner is usually healthy. We get box subscription meals two or three days a week. Of course there’s always pizza instead, which just ends the night like a New Orleans funeral. I try to keep the snacks healthy—popcorn cakes, a yogurt… but I also can go f-----g apeshit, too. I could be buried to death in cookies and be happy. I manage to eat at least two wrong things a day, and way too much of them.
Do you read/consume comics or other media during the day? Or do you need to keep a distance from that while working?
The honest answer is I don’t really have time for anything else other than work or my kids or house things. I do have a weekly pull-list—or did, I guess—and I would read on the train, mostly on the return trip home. I also always have assignments from my Zen teacher so I’m usually trying to work through chapters of books in my spare time and realizing how s----y and wrong I am when it comes to actual spiritual human life.
I miss comics so much right now. There are so many titles that are current that I love. I also have a stack of graphic novels and other books I just haven’t gotten to, because again, I’m usually writing. Or taking a nap.
Are you working steadily with breaks or do you tend to work in spurts?
Like I said, I have to work in one to two-hour chunks. Sometimes I miraculously have four hours. I can’t just stop writing immediately though, I have to find some completist moment to let go, like the end of a scene or sequence, or if I have someone say something particularly funny, or is I’ve described something particularly visually f----d up, like “His head shatters like a jack-o-lantern in the heat of July.” Something like that is a win for me so I can push away at that point.
How do you usually wind down the work day — emails, more reading, etc.?
If I need true mindlessness, I read Twitter. My screen time average is atrocious. At least I’m not on Facebook. Sometimes I’ll have the energy to open a few comics in between my kids being down for the night and my wife and I turning on the TV.
Emails may come in, but if they’re work-related they usually piss me off in terms of content, because most often it means something has gone wrong, or notes have come in late enough that the network or studio is hoping you won’t see them until the morning.
My wife and I usually have one to two hours a night to watch TV. That’s about it. Sunday nights is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which is always funny but then immediately depressing once you turn it off and think about the actual state of the world. Although there was a Halt and Catch Fire joke on it recently, which brought me out of my 9:30pm depressive stupor for four seconds.
We’re in between new shows right now so a common thing is to pick a random episode of Unsolved Mysteries off Amazon Prime and watch that. We laugh at those and talk through them… unless the stories are so incredibly f----d up that we can’t, like, “This child was turned into a kite and flown at a crowded summer festival.” Most often it’s a husband going “I don’t know where she could’ve gone” and the update is she’s been under the cement pool for twenty-five years. But most of the reenactments are pretty funny and the true crime stuff stays fairly light. I love Robert Stack in it, too. We’re always trying to guess where he is when he’s talking. Is that a train station? Is that a real office? Is that an opera house?
The funniest and saddest segments you get are the older guys who are treasure hunting in Nevada, ruining their lives to find some mythic Spanish silver cup or something, and God it’s funny. They always put up the title “Treasure Hunter” underneath their names and it’s so humiliating. I feel like the Unsolved Mysteries people had fun.
Speaking of which, I have the Unsolved Mysteries soundtrack on vinyl. It glows in the dark. Except I left the record at my Koreatown office!