Making Time to Make Things
If you want to write, and you have a busy life, you need tell that To-Do List who’s boss. (It’s you, you’re the boss.)
But how, writers are always asking themselves, each other, me, their Google calendars, can I find time to write? There’s work and family and household and being a citizen and the car needs a new muffler and the cat barfed on the rug and also I’m tired, I’m just so tired, and there’s so much good stuff on TV, have you even seen TV.
I *have* seen TV. It’s tremendous. And of course television seems positively quaint now, as digital distractions go — how about the endless scroll, the clicking and swiping, the everything contained in the tiny computer that lives in your pocket. It’s miraculous! It’s fascinating! Twitter is dying and you want to watch it twitch and shudder, you sicko!
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I understand, I really do. And I think the real problem here is really two different problems. And by two I mean three.
Here’s how it breaks down:
- The Obligations. Oh, there are so many! Especially if you are a parent, and the children are small, or if you have other caretaking responsibilities devouring your time and energy.
It’s really tough to make time to write when there are other more urgent things. It’s really really really tough. But that’s what it really is, making the time. I think one key here is to remember: you don’t actually need that much time. You actually only need a sliver of time. I’ve had eras when I wrote on my lunch break from office jobs, or for an hour in the morning before going to work. You don’t even need an hour! Call it 15 minutes. My friend, the very brilliant novelist Siobhan Adcock, wrote a very brilliant novel this way while juggling a full-time job, spouse, and kid: 15 minutes a day.
And you don’t even need to do it every day.
And you don’t need to do it when you’re exhausted.
Okay genius, you might be saying, I’m always exhausted, what then? Well, if you’re truly always exhausted, maybe this isn’t the time in your life to take on a big writing project; maybe it’s a time to assign yourself smaller, more doable work: journal entries, a sketchbook full of notes and doodles, haiku. But if you’re only mostly exhausted, then grab time in those moments when you’re the least mostly exhausted. Early morning is my best brain time, but yours might be 3pm on Saturdays, or midnight during the full moon. Set aside that time for 15 minutes of creative work. In 15 minutes, you can write one page of a story, an outline of a novel, a scene of a memoir, one perfect sentence.
2. The Distractions. This one… it feels a little less noble, honestly, so often we prefer to say the problem is the first thing (but WORK! And the KIDS!) when it really is actually this. Of course the Obligations can lead to exhaustion, which weakens the brain, making it easier to fall prey to the sweet sweet embrace of Distraction. And thus a person finds they have 30,000 hours a day to scroll through TikTok, but when I say, “try writing for 15 minutes a day,” they will strenuously deny that they have 15 minutes a day.
Of course you have 15 minutes a day. The question is — do you have the willpower/energy/confidence to fight the cozy self-hypnosis of mindless distraction, and devote that time to creativity instead? Maybe this will help: at the end of this year, would you like to say to yourself, Gosh did I comment on a lot of Instagram posts this year, or, Wow, I wrote the first draft of that essay I’ve been afraid to start?
But Ames, you might say to me, because we are friends like that, what if the thing I devote time to writing turns out to suck? Or: I have so many ideas that I don’t know which project to focus on. Or: I want to write but I don’t have any good idea worth writing about.
And I will direct you towards your REAL real problem, which is:
3. The Doubts.
Brenda Ueland writes in her great, encouraging craft book If You Want to Write, “Everybody Is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say” (In fact, it’s the name of the first chapter):
I HAVE BEEN WRITING a long time and have learned some things, not only from my own long hard work, but from a writing class I had for three years. In this class were all kinds of people: prosperous and poor, stenographers, housewives, salesmen, cultivated people and little servant girls who had never been to high school, timid people and bold ones, slow and quick ones. This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.
But how do you convince your inner editor, who is so good at telling you the opposite, to shut up for long enough to let you get a word in edgewise?
A couple ideas:
- Make like Julia Cameron and write those Morning Pages: every morning, freewrite for 3 pages. You might be surprised at what will bubble up before your defenses have had their coffee.
- Make like Joan Didion and keep a notebook, full of observations and ideas and details and overheard snippets, so you’ll always have a place to start:
I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be…
I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check counter in Pavillon…
Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.
- Finally, if you simply aren’t internally motivated, find a way to be accountable to yourself. Set a goal that’s both attainable and inspiring. You might want to connect with an accountability partner to check in with. You might need to hire a writing coach — nothing like devoting money to a project to make it feel like you’ve got some skin in the game. (And no I’m not just saying that because I do coaching, but I do, FYI.)
All that said, I want to acknowledge that the sparkly slog of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s can be busy and overwhelming. Give yourself some grace. And stay tuned, because I have some Unsticking stuff up my sleeve for the new year.
In the meantime, if you can’t write, read something fun, or something hard, or something beautiful, or something silly. Oh, and let me know in the comments if you have a particular writing-related issue that you’d like me to address in next month’s newsletter.
Exercise: Set aside 15 minutes a day to write, for the next 5 days. Each day, set a timer and sit down to freewrite, without judging what appears, and don’t reread it. Stop in the middle of a sentence, so the next day you’ll always have an easy place to start.
Part 2: On the 6th day, reread what you’ve written, and make a note of themes, images, characters, sentences, or ideas that spark your interest. Use those the next time you’re feeling stuck.