Getting yourself to write

Yesterday, I filled you in on a writer’s trick to get your body to gravitate automatically toward your writing studio. But for a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hard part: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper. It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations. About a third of the writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you — if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of unused leisure time.

I could parrot other advice-givers, and order you crabbily to turn off the TV/radio/other electronic distractions, but my God, there’s a war on. I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you at the moment. And chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc. I have to say, your distractions have my sympathy.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. If you can afford such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention paying your bills throughout this retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have. If you have been able to find an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! You need to make the most of every second — which in and of itself can be intimidating; if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible. (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. Like the light bulb trick, it seems disappointingly simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music EVERY time you sit down to write. Not just the same CD, but the same SONG.

It may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with work — which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. After awhile, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always being with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do this myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. For my recently-completed novel, I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write — and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’ UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without starting to think about my long-completed dissertation. I tell you, it works, if you give it a chance.

If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Always wear the same socks, or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. It actually does not matter, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing — and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write.

If finding the time is the problem, I always suggest breaking your normal routine for a week or ten days. Keep a record of how you spend your time. This lets you get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule. Switch around chores with your spouse; if you pick up the kids after school, try rearranging your carpool so you drive them there in the morning instead; it may well be that this will leave you fresher for evening writing. If you always do the dishes or laundry in the morning, do it late at night; maybe it will turn out that early morning is your prime writing time, and if so, do you really want to fill up that time with housework?

Apart from forcing you to reexamine your habitual use of time, there’s a sneaky reason to disrupt your household for a week or ten days in this way: many writers are too nice or too responsible or too habit-bound to expect their family members to change anything about THEIR schedules in order to make room for their writing. They will probably kick and scream at first, but your writing is important to you: if, say, you were no longer doing the laundry, or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week, or you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s Thanksgiving this year, how much time would that free for your writing?

You deserve this time. You are not being selfish to ask for it. Actually, by making the effort to evaluate your time so carefully, you will be being considerate of their needs, too. But trust me, very, very few writers have the luxury of families, roommates, and friends who spontaneously say, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, you would have two and a half hours of clear time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!”


Having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: when intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood. A professional writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and actually, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me sleepy, speaking of conditioned reflexes), and to this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room. It’s habit, like everything else.
To minimize the resentment of the rest of your household, as well as to gain a more accurate sense of how you would use your untrammeled time, I advise your going on a media fast for that week or ten days. It won’t hurt your worldview to turn off the TV and radio for that long, nor to skip the daily newspaper. Not only will this allow you to assess just how much time every day you are currently spending being entertained and/or informed, to see if you could purloin some of that time for writing, but it will also help you get back into the habit of listening to your own thoughts without distraction.

I go on one of these fasts every year, and it honestly is amazing how much it calms the thoughts. It also arouses the pity and wonder of my household, and reminds my kith and kin just how important it is to me to have inviolate writing time. It reminds them that they, too, are contributing to my writing success, if only by remembering not to call during my writing time. It reminds them that they can actually LOOK for a stamp when they need it, rather than asking me. And it reminds them why I am so strict throughout the rest of the year about not wanting to hear what is happening on the currently hot sitcom. For me, getting sucked into an ongoing plot line is a big dispensable time waster. I have seen a grand total of one episode of FRIENDS, and none of ER, but I have written a couple of pretty good books.

I’m not sure that I could pick Jennifer Aniston out of a lineup, though.

At the end of your week or ten days of messing with your schedule, after your routines are good and disrupted, look back over your account of how you spent your time. What worked and what didn’t? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?

Yes, this is hard, but I would be the last to tell you that being a writer is easy. Still, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing your schedule to make room for you to try.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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