Yesterday, I was discussing ways in which to make it easier to adhere to those New Year’s resolutions about writing more often and more productively. At the end of my day’s ramblings, I advised jump-starting your writing time by playing the same piece of music at the beginning of each writing session, to alert your body that it is time to write.
And the instant I posted the blog, I swear I heard whimpering out there. “But I don’t write to music!” the small voices said plaintively. “I find it distracting. So how do I get myself started?”
Simple. If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try always lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Or always pull on the same pair of socks (laundering them occasionally, of course). Or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. Or eat a Satsuma. Or turn on that nifty light box you picked up at Ikea that makes colored patterns on the wall.
It actually does not matter what you do, 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. Consistency is the key: otherwise, it isn’t going to work.
And sensual experience is the operative term here: your rational mind already knows that you want to sit down to write. These little rituals are for the benefit your subconscious, that deep, deep well where the hobgoblins of self-doubt like to hang out. No matter how much you tell them that this book needs to be written, those little demons have a comeback. But if you set up a mechanism that teaches them that regardless of how much they poke you after you’ve put on that Run-DMC CD or wafted a lily before your face, you’re going to remain sitting in front of that computer for the next couple of hours, they generally learn to get out of your way, at least for the time being.
If finding the time to write is the problem, pay attention to your normal routine for a week or ten days. Keep a written record of how you spend your time – not just the hours, but the minutes as well. This will help you gain you get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule.
Once you have a fair idea of where the time is going, deliberately break some of your major patterns, to figure out where you can squeeze in time to write. Keep records of how you spend this time, too. 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 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?
At the end of a week or ten days of seriously 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? What drove you nuts, and what seemed like a dream come true? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?
Most importantly, did you find that any of your usual time-takers were disposable? Or might you cut back on their frequency? Chances are, you’ll find a few. Be imaginative. If no one actually needed to be hospitalized for ptomaine poisoning because you didn’t scrub down the kitchen like every other week of your adult life, for instance, could you perhaps do it only once per month?
Discuss the results with anyone who happens to be sharing your house, bed, or significant portions of your non-work time. Apart from forcing you to reexamine your habitual use of time, there’s a sneaky reason to do this: many writers are too darned nice or too indelibly responsible or just too habit-bound to expect their family members to change anything about THEIR schedules in order to make room for a loved one’s writing.
Stop blushing. You people know who you are. C’mon, admit it: deep in your hobgoblin-ridden subconscious, you think it’s selfish to ask anyone you love to make even the most minute sacrifice in order to support your life’s work.
Okay, so perhaps no one in your immediate vicinity is spontaneously offering to take a second job so you can quit yours and write full-time. Perhaps you live with people who snarl nastily if you are 45 seconds late in putting their dinners on the table. Or perhaps – and this is far and away the most common cause of the I’m-in-this-alone assumption – you have never actually asked your kith and kin to help you make time to write.
Your writing is important to you, isn’t it? Important enough that you would make sacrifices for it, right? If you suddenly decided to train for the Olympic clean-and-jerk competition, no one would expect your schedule not to rearrange itself a little. So why would writing a book dear to your soul, which is roughly as time-consuming, NOT radically affect how you spend your time?
Or – and this is the rub for a lot of people – how your household spends its time?
Let your mind reel with the possibilities for a moment. What if, say, you were no longer the household resident doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week? Or you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s Mardi Gras dinner this year? How much time would that free for your writing?
You deserve this time. You are not being selfish to ask for it, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. Actually, by making the effort to evaluate your shared time so carefully, you will be being considerate of other people’s needs, too, because you open up room for negotiation.
But trust me, very, very few writers have the luxury of families, roommates, or friends who spontaneously say, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and 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, please let me do this for you!”
Once people who love writers come to understand that writing isn’t a hobby or a whim, but a practice as necessary to the writer’s happiness and well-being as regular exercise, they are often surprisingly accommodating. This is not to say that they won’t kick and scream at first: they probably will. And they may well try to trespass on your time, to see if you really mean it. This is especially likely to happen if you have not yet proven by day-in, day-out effort that you are committed to taking the time to work, rather than getting distracted. If you expect your kith and kin to take your writing time seriously, you need to take it seriously, too.
And that, in case you’re wondering, is why my fiancé’s mother is absolutely petrified of me. She called once too often during my writing time — and she still has the burn marks on her ear to prove it.
Having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: when intensive writing schedules work, it’s because EVERYONE in the household is actively 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 groggy, 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.
Yes, it is hard to change ongoing patterns — but in the middle of a major, editor-induced revision, I would be the last person on earth to tell you that being a writer is easy. But think about it: if I had not put down my wee foot years ago and said, “Look, if you love me, you’re going to need to change a few things to accommodate my writing,” and didn’t keep stomping that foot to make sure it happened, what kind of a fix would I be in now? The day you suddenly receive the edits that are going to take you three weeks of 16-hour days to finish is NOT the best time to say for the first time, “Um, honey, I think we need to talk.”
Selfish? Maybe, but I think not. And you know what? I’ve made dinner a grand total of once in the last two weeks, and my revision is proceeding right on schedule. And no one, with the possible exception of my prospective mother-in-law, seems to think this makes me a bad person. And she’s getting over it.
Ask for some help. And keep up the good work!