Six impossible things

Three things

One of the persistent questions writers get is “Where do you find the time?” This ignores two basic things: first, nobody finds or saves time, really. We all have 24 hours a day, which arrives one nanosecond at a time at the same pace (though how we perceive it changes depending on things like flow and whether we’re having fun or bored).

And second, that “finding time” isn’t enough. There are three things that most would-be writers need to pay attention to: time, energy, and money, and the availability of each varies depending on one’s circumstances. The more of these one is missing, the harder it is to get any writing done.

When I was a teenager, I had loads of time and energy, but no money to speak of. On the other hand, I didn’t need much, just enough to buy books and milkshakes and records and the other necessities of teen life. I could write pretty much as often as I felt like it; the real problem was that I didn’t have focus (and I was easily distracted).

As a twenty-something, money wasn’t a horrible problem, and I had considerable energy, but almost no free time. The day job that provided the money also sucked up a lot of time and some energy. Still, I got a fair amount of writing done on my lunch hour and coffee breaks, and sometimes on weekends.

In my early thirties I quit my day job, and there was a very brief period in which I had all three – energy, time, and money. I think it lasted about ten minutes – that’s how long it took for my newly freed-up time to fill up. Yes, all 40-50 hours that I’d been working at my day job. It’s amazing how fast all those “someday” projects become urgent necessities the minute one’s day is no longer full of job. And of course, without a day job, the bills and the taxes became more stressful and needed more attention, mental energy, and time. In other words, I wasn’t getting very much more writing done than I had when I was in my twenties and working full-time. The money-and-energy demands that resulted from not having a day job ate up most of the time I’d freed up by quitting.

Since then, there’s been a slow but steady decline in the amount of energy I have available, and an equally steady rise in the number of things I have to attend to (i.e., stuff I have to spend time on). Fortunately, practice has made me much better at producing during my writing time. Where I used to sit and stare at the page for fifteen minutes, trying to think of the right word or the best way to phrase something, now I give it five minutes and then shrug and move on, knowing that if I haven’t found something better in that time, what I have is good enough to get me through to the rewrite.

My reason for mentioning all this is that I meet a lot of people who don’t consider all of the demands on their life. They want to know how to “find time” when they have a chronic illness like fibromyalgia or depression that saps their energy and mental stamina, or they’ve lost their day job and have no money, or they have young kids who need attention. I know people in all those circumstances who’ve become professional writers, but all of them did so by paying attention to their money and energy situation as well as how they managed their time.

The only way I know of to deal with these allocation problems is to set up effective systems. What is effective is going to vary from person to person and situation to situation; there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I know a couple of people whose solution to the money problem was to create a budget, but that doesn’t work for most of the writers I know – they resist the whole idea of budgeting and tracking and creating more paperwork. I know at least two for whom the solution was to go back to work. Some use programs like Mint.com or Quicken to get the benefit of automatic expense tracking without the paperwork (but they still have to look at it). A couple have put themselves on an allowance or given themselves a paycheck, setting up one bank account that collects all their income, and transferring a small, set amount to their “working” account to pay bills and expenses from each month. Quite a few have a spouse or partner who handles the money side of things.

Similarly, some writers find building exercise into their day to be the solution for keeping their energy up; for others, it’s coming up with a system that insures they take their meds on time, every time (one I know carries his pillbox with him and has an alarm on his cell phone). Eating right, sleeping enough, and getting enough sunlight are factors for other people. And for some, it’s things like going to conventions, watching old comedy routines, taking a complete break from socializing, or taking a class. This is one area that is really individual – what pumps up your energy is not going to be the same as what gets someone else going.

Time – time is always a trade-off. Everybody gets the same 24 hours, 7 days per week, and it all gets occupied by something. Sleep, laundry, email, day job, Twitter, socializing, TV – the only way to “find more time” is to use some of the time you already have to write in. That means either 1) you multitask (which usually means things like scribbling in a notebook on the bus or in waiting rooms) or 2) you stop doing something that is currently using a chunk of your 24-7 and use the time you’ve freed up to write (cutting back on sleep is not recommended).

One way or another, everybody has to deal with all three constraints somehow. Because if you have eight completely free hours on Saturday to write, but you haven’t got enough energy to turn on the computer or pick up a pen, you’re not going to get anything done. And if you are stressed out about paying the bills or distracted by the taxes or the rent that’s due, you aren’t likely to have spare brain cells for being creative. And if you have plenty of energy and no money worries, but can’t shake loose an hour or two to get your ideas down, no writing will happen either.

6 Comments
  1. Thank you, I needed to hear that today.

  2. I’ve never seen lack of time as a big problem. My biggest problem is dealing with “don’t-wanna,” and especially doing so by some method other than waiting for the Wanna Fairy to come along and take my don’t-wannas away.

    If it were only a matter of grinding forward, I could probably overcome this by sheer bloody-mindedness. Unfortunately, there are times when “damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” is counterproductive. Sometimes I have to patch a hole, lest the plot sink underneath me. Sometimes I need to take soundings and bearings. But sometimes, stopping to do either of those is nothing but an exercise in cat-vacuuming.

    So my don’t-wanna gets reinforced by something akin to choice paralysis. I don’t know which way to point my bloody-mindedness, so I don’t aim it anywhere. Instead, I just drift.

  3. My dad always said he had a lot more “free time” before he retired than he ever did afterward. It’s like the universe took one look at all that time he wasn’t spending at a job, and promptly ate it up like candy.

    I definitely have more energy, and it seems like more time, for writing since I added a part-time job to the mix than I did when I was just freelancing. (Even if it does seem like a work day always comes along just as I was really getting into the writing groove!)

  4. I got more writing done when I worked full time, because each hour remaining was more precious and had to be taken full advantage of.

  5. Seems like a lot of creative writing thought happens when you are doing “something else”. If that “something else” happens to take place DURING your official writing time… it can really eat up productive writing.

    Maybe freelance writers would be helped by setting times to officially NOT write. AKA – times to fix dinner, clean, do laundry. If all those important time eaters are scheduled – they will slop over less in to actual writing time.

    In other words: make your chores an ‘official’ part time job. Also would help to make clear if you are over-scheduling your free time.

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