On Patricia Lear’s “Pomodoro Technique” (With Regards to Francesco Cirillo)

I was confused by what a “Pomodoro,” an Italian word for “tomato,” could possibly have to do with writing. In my third of five residencies at the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA in Writing program, I attended a lecture by Patricia Lear, a fiction mentor and author of Stardust, 7-Eleven, Route 57, A&W, and So Forth. Her lecture, titled “The Pomodoro Technique,” expanded on the time management strategy of Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s. The time management strategy involves the idea of utilizing 25-minute blocks of activity, split by 5-minute breaks, measured using a cooking timer (Pomodoro shape optional). Patricia Lear applied the idea to writing, even claiming to have recently finished a novel using the technique. As a poet, reviewer and fiction writer, “writer’s block” is the taunting finger wave of the pen’s shadow, the inevitable buzz of a fruit-fly in an otherwise-silent study; needless to say, any technique claiming alleviation was considered both welcome and overdue.

Though still skeptical, I decided to employ the technique to my poetry writing, blocking time for a single, three-block Pomodoro a day. I wrote for twenty-five minutes, allowing the “spontaneous overflow” Wordsworth once claimed to be the foundation of poetry. I didn’t worry about line-length, superfluous wording, or crowded imagery. I dimmed the screen, and, mumbling to myself, let the mind flush. I started with nothing: no in-mind-metaphors, no memories or images, no predetermined epiphany. I abandoned the structured process with which I habitually approached the poem. I wrote what the mind churned and chased tangents like locusts from cattail to cattail. I wrote with the fascination of a child.

I stopped mid-sentence to the shrill rattle of the oven timer, reset it to five, did dishes and walked the dog to the mailbox and back. Lear stressed the importance of “detracting from the creative” during the five-minute breaks, severing, for a brief moment, the attachment between writer and words. It was frustrating. I didn’t yet understand the purpose behind the breaks, the withdrawal from the tunnel vision of the creative conscious. “The zone” had always served me well, and I felt a strange tinge of guilt in abandoning its rare presence. I wondered if it’d return when the buzzer ended the break.

It didn’t, and I spent the next 25-5-25 offending the page, bar rants and flowers, even the dead-horse cliché of a first love under moonlight. It was pitiful, each word less visual than the last, each line stacked on the next like a toddler with a Jenga set. It was perhaps the angriest and most betrayed I’ve ever felt while writing. It was the first day.

Former Missouri Poet Laureate William Trowbridge once told me the strongest writers experiment, their persistence driven by a need to explore, and our own flaws, our own failures are an excellent place to start. So I tried again. And again. I slipped in and out of the “creative mind.” I cursed loudly over spilled cups of coffee in an empty apartment, but on “Pomodoro 12,” they aligned. I wrote six poems in six days. I started a novel. I understood.

The strength of Lear’s technique wasn’t strictly the frequency of the writing. It was a training mechanism, a lock-pick to the natural compartmentalization of the “creative” and “at rest” minds. Writer’s block was an illusion, a self-imposed limitation rooted in a fantasy of first-draft greatness. A detrimental habit had been broken by a basic oven timer. As a writer, the technique was liberating. As an educator, I am left curious.

I wonder if the “Pomodoro Technique” could be adapted to breathe on an analytic level, perhaps find a place in the brainstorming and prewriting stages of more formal writing, take root in the often non-linear thinking of the modern college student. Surely, the tangential results wouldn’t flow as the essay form demands, but the exploratory process could help a student narrow a topic, sift the most resonant subtopics, or even discover personal cohesion to the topic, the attachment that so often births the strongest essays. And, of course, there’d be drifting and overflow, detached details and irrelevant narratives, young minds building webs instead of lines, but perhaps it’s better to have overthought. Perhaps it’s easier to trim the tree than water a seed and wait.

– Zach Drees




Zach Drees is an adjunct English instructor at Northeast Community College and Wayne State College in northeast Nebraska. A recent graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA in Writing program, he resides in Wayne, Nebraska, with his girlfriend, Tabetha, and their four-year-old Jack-Russel, Theo. He spends his time writing, sipping coffee to jazz-blues and locust-hum on his front porch.  To contact Zach, please email davidd@northeast.edu.