Six impossible things

Time and again

“I don’t have time to write” is one of the most common writers’ complaints, both from people who haven’t published yet and from seasoned pros.

The statement means different things to different people, but the most common meaning is “There are a lot of other things in my life that are more important to me than writing, so those are what I spend my time on.”

For professional writers, writing time is too often eaten up by the things required to manage a writing career. By the time you’ve spent time on fan mail, emails to your agent and editor, studying up on the latest twist in the Google settlement, keeping track of which publisher is going out of business or being acquired or just having difficulties (and checking whether any of your backlist is affected), blogging, tweeting, twittering, checking Facebook and MySpace, reviewing writing-and-book-related chat lists and mailing lists, reading enough to at least pretend to keep up with the field … even if there’s time left in the day, it’s hard to muster the energy, let alone the inclination, to produce new words, even if one doesn’t have a family or a day job on top of all that (and many professional writers have both).

For the not-yet-professional writer, the list is a little different, but the basic idea is the same. Work, family, friends, hobbies, and general daily life can take up all the time there is – those things do, in fact, take up all the time there is for everybody who isn’t a writer, after all. Sometimes just getting the laundry done and meals on the table in addition to a job is about all there’s time or energy for.

But. Nobody gets more than 24 hours of time in a day, or more than 7 days in a week. That prolific professional who has six novels coming out next year (and four the year after that, and five more the year after that) has exactly the same amount of total time as the much-admired writer who produces one novel every eight to ten years, the newly sold author who’s trying to juggle editorial revisions and copyedit and galleys while producing his second book, the as-yet-unsold writer who’s struggling to persuade herself that her writing will sell one day in spite of the latest rejection letter, and the one-of-these-days-when-I-have-time “writer” who hasn’t produced two sentences in thirty years on account of having “no time to write.”

It’s not about having time. It’s about making choices.

There are some people whose choices are constrained by circumstances: they have responsibilities (toddlers to care for, elderly parents requiring assistance, family members or friends requiring help during a critical or chronic illness), or their own life has gone pear-shaped due to illness or financial problems or some other disaster. Their time is spoken for and scheduled to the max, and piling on guilt for not-writing is just adding to their stress. I lost months of writing time before and after my mother’s death, first due to helping Dad cope with her illness and later due to the time, energy, and stress of handling her estate … and I don’t feel one little bit guilty about it, even though I missed a major writing deadline three times as a result. Sometimes, you just can’t.

Most of us, most of the time, are not actually in a situation like that, however. Most of us have, during any given 24 hour period, some number of minutes that we can choose to use this way or that. Fifteen minutes relaxing with a cup of tea, or fifteen minutes cleaning out the junk drawer. An extra half-hour of sleep, or half-an-hour of exercise. An hour watching TV, or an hour mowing the lawn (one more day won’t hurt, really…). All that is necessary is to pick some of those minutes, and to choose to use them to write.

“All” I say, but it’s actually a hard choice for many people. Because all of everyone’s minutes are already full of something – hardly anyone I know can look at their last month and point to an hour where they just sat and did nothing at all. Choosing to write means giving up on doing something else – watching TV, socializing, surfing the Web, sleeping, reading … something has to go. And it has to not be replaced immediately by something else that isn’t writing – giving up an hour of TV in order to mow the lawn may be a Good Thing, but it doesn’t get the chapter written.

A popular choice for many writers is to select one end of the candle to burn a little extra on – either they get up half an hour or an hour early and write first, before anything else, or they stay up half an hour (or an hour, or several hours) late to write after everyone else has gone to bed. Each method has obvious disadvantages; either one can leave the writer short on sleep, and it can be hard to get up (or stay up) when you’re tired. If you have family or roommates, sooner or later they start asking you to do things for them “since you’re going to be up anyway,” and if you give in, your writing time quickly vanishes under the weight of all those daily more important things to do.

The temptation to put the writing off until tomorrow and mow the lawn (or whatever) today is strong and endless. Unless someone you care for, or you yourself, is going to die, be in pain, starve, or go to jail if the not-writing thing doesn’t get done, resist. Do the writing and put the whatever-it-is off until tomorrow. If you don’t defend your writing time – even from yourself – no one else is going to.

  1. The `even from yourself’ is the hardest part, I think.

  2. This is a post about life in general, too, I think. We make choices, every minute of every hour of every day. Some decisions made by indecision, some from a physical, spiritual, or mental needs, or some to fill the needs of other people. We are constantly weighing choices and deciding what to do with the time we have and what to leave out. Sometimes our choices stem from what it is we really want, however, other times we lose sight of whatever we have set as our goal and we need to realign ourselves with what’s important to us. Choices.

  3. I don’t think this is the first entry of yours that I’ve read on this subject. My problem is related, but slightly askew of this. I’m not an author yet. I’m just a student who has been praised for my writing since I was little. I’m the type who absorbs nothing without thinking how it could have been better, or how I might have done different.

    But I’m 30 now and all I have are a collection of abstract, provocative ideas, imaginative scenes, and snippets of dialog that bloom in my head without context. I make the time to write. I make myself set the time aside to sit down and frame a coherent story. But all I end up doing is sitting there. I can’t force inspiration, and at best I produce more disjointed notes in need of development. I get very discouraged at this. I feel that I should have something to show for myself by now, and until I do it constitutes my great fear that I never will.

    On an unrelated note, you’re the only contemporary author that I ever identified as a favorite throughout my teens, and you have my continuing gratitude and respect for it.

  4. Prescient as always. Classes for grad school are starting this week, and I need to remember this. Got to keep getting up early and getting down to work before I go into class. Maybe I can’t cut classes down to two days a week, but I can, at least, martial a few hours each day to hammer through revisions.
    Thank you

    • edgarthesnappingturtle – Yes. And reminding each other about that is, I think, a very useful thing to do now and then.

      Jordan – Thanks for the kind words. It sounds to me as if your problem is with developing the story. You’re waiting for “inspiration” to do the work for you, but except in rare cases, the “provocative ideas, imaginative scenes, and snippets of dialog” are all some people ever get by way of inspiration. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of emphasis on inspiration in writing, which one cannot control, and not enough on how and when to do the development, which one can control. Does this sound right to you? If so, I think I have my next post topic… 🙂

      Cara – Often, the more regularly you work at your writing, the less time you have to put in to show a reasonable amount of progress. If you only work once a month, you may need a whole day; once a week, a couple of hours; once a day, every day, one hour or half an hour or even fifteen minutes. The problem comes when folks set unreasonable goals (“I’ll write every night for three hours, even though I’m going to be exhausted from my day job and have kids to take care of”) and then, when they blow it, they give up completely. Whereas if they’d said “I’ll write for ten minutes during my lunch break,” they’d have done it. And even if all you get is a sentence or a phrase, doing it always trumps not doing it. Every time.

  5. I think about this all the time. I’ve finally figured out how to carve out 2 hours of writing time every day, but it goes into my morning pages (personal journal) and my blog. So the next step is expanding it to my other writing projects: stories, novel, and so forth.

    And I have to do the same for drawing and painting. Sigh… it’s such a constant struggle, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have at it!

  6. Patricia, thanks for your response. It’s a real delight to connect with you. 😀 Yes, it’s plain that development is my problem. I do realize that I can’t simply rely on moments of inspiration, but putting it all together is a terrible (insurmountable?) barrier. My own reams of notes overwhelm me, and when I force it, my brain refuses to go online.

    In an earlier post you mention the importance of “mulling over” things during activities that appear to have nothing to do with the writing process. I relate to this, as my ideas seem to flow best peripherally, when I’m not looking at them directly. But this, too, is not something I can rely on exclusively. In any event, I need to adapt the ability to move beyond these steps into the more productive, action-taking phases of writing.

    I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this. 🙂

  7. Your encouragement to make the time to write, even if it’s just a sentence, has helped me to keep plugging, and to avoid panic if I only have a small amount of time in which to write. At this point, if I have half an hour or an hour, I tend to think “Great! I can get another chunk done.”

    Thank you for choosing to use your time to share what you’ve learned.

    • satsumabug – It can be a tad counter-intuitive, but blogging and journaling are among the things that count as “not writing,” or at least “not writing fiction.” The trouble is, they look and feel a lot like writing, so it’s easy to use up precioius writing time on them. Again, you have choices; this time, the choice is “what kind of writing do you want to do most?” Nobody has time to do everything. These aren’t easy choices, but one way or another, they get made. I tend to think that it’s better to consciously choose to blog or journal instead of writing fiction (or vice versa), rather than to not think about it and then feel guilty when the blog or the journal is the only thing that happens.

      Jordan – OK, watch this space… 🙂

      Lynne – Good! Grabbing bits of time here and there is one of the reasons lots of writers carry notebooks (or PDAs or other small electronics) that they can use in the doctor’s waiting room or the line for movie tickets or whatever. And you’re welcome, but remember, it’s no big sacrifice for me to do this. I really, really like talking about writing. 😉

  8. I’ve found that it’s something of “a fire in the belly”. I wrote a lot in college but after that was convinced that I didn’t have “a novel in me”. Then suddenly at age 56 I started writing again and had a first draft in 4 months. (I’m a fast writer, but a tremenously slow rewriter) But I did the journal writing etc., which in retrospect was a bit of honing the craft with words. But I did make the time of at least an hour a day to write, even if it was only going through what I had written and “fiddling”.

    It did help that I had the quote that “All first novels are garbage”. Permission to fail always helps..;-P

    I’ve been reading your comments for over a year and they always give me information or inspiration to keep plogging along. Thanks


  9. Yes, blogging/journaling vs serious writing has been on my mind too. Right now I’m in a place where for a long time I wasn’t writing anything, so blogging and journaling every day are at least a step up from that — they keep the ligaments loose, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, and they certainly make the thought-to-pen-to-paper connection a lot faster whenever it happens. But you’re right, I have to make choices, and I weigh them all the time as I go.

    • Elaine – I’m glad you find the blog helpful. Yes, a lot of getting started as a writer seems to have to do with giving oneself permission; I think that’s why so many writers either start when they are very young (and don’t know that they’re not supposed to be able to do this) or else when they’ve fully matured and are more sure of themselves and who they are and have the self-confidence to recognize the risks and take them anyway.

      satsumabug – What works, works. If blogging and journaling are keeping your hand in, and that’s where you are right now, that’s good. You just have to remember two things: first, don’t beat yourself up for NOT writing fiction if you’re at a place where right now that just won’t work, and second, check back with yourself every couple of months to see if things have changed and it’s time to make different choices, so that you don’t wake up five years from now and realize that you really ought to have been back to writing fiction for the last four of them or something.

  10. The “even from yourself” part is one of the hardest for me, too. I can defend against most of the fun stuff, but oh dear, those things that I ought to do!

    I hope I didn’t sound whiny in my last post, btw, on POV. It’s actually easier now to find writing time than it was for several years. Maybe I should say, “less difficult” rather than easier. That doesn’t stop me from wanting more!

    • Jane – It’s especially hard for those of us who were carefully and wisely trained to take care of our responsibilities first, and only then indulge in what we just want to do. Writing only ever really gets anywhere if one is motivated – i.e., really wants to do it – which means that it gets mentally filed with indulgences instead of with responsibilities. It gets a little easier when one starts actually making money from one’s writing, but even then it’s awfully easy to put it off because it has fewer constraints. One can write anywhere and anywhen, as long as one has pencil and paper; the lawn can only be mowed in daylight when it’s not raining. Like that.

      Recognizing the problem helps, but it’s one of those things that never really gets easy.

  11. I’m just coming off a month of purposefully not writing (I’ve been on holiday from work so took a holiday from writing) and now I’m itching to get back to it.

    Fortunately I have a short work week (25hrs) so can squeeze in between 1 to 2 hours a day of writing with weekends off and still manage to fit in time for fun and family.

    Plus I’m lucky that my partner supports my writing and sees it as another part of work, and not something extra that can be interrupted whenever he wants to spend time together.

    • Alex – You’re really lucky. Training one’s spouse/partner/housemate not to assume that one’s writing time can be preempted by errands, housework, or whatever else seems more important to them is really hard; training them not to interrupt is, in my experience, nearly impossible. (Of course, my current housemates are both cats, which may have a little something to do with it).

  12. The interruption thing is impossible which is why I stay at work or go to the library to write (plus the fact that we’re two people in a 250sq ft apartment).

  13. I’d like to bring up the topic of students who don’t have time: I know, everyone says this, but being a student, not only do you have to worry about school from 7 to three, there’s homework, which often takes up about two hours, then extracurricular activities, and then they have to get enough sleep and prepare for the day ahead. Some days, it seems literally impossible to even find the time to turn on the computer/find a notebook. Do you have any advice for the teen going through this?

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