As a young working mother, I aspired to write but couldn’t see how I’d ever have time. Then a business professor at the college where I taught gave me this advice: No matter how busy, devote ten minutes a day to your passion. Everyone can find an extra ten minutes, he said.
Ten minutes isn’t much, but it’s enough to keep a dream alive. In 1997, while I was still a working mother, my first novel was published. Sixteen books later, I find myself addressing again and again at writers’ gatherings the question of how to find the time to write. We’re creative people, so it makes sense to take a creative look at how we find and use our writing time.
Image source: Flickr CC / alancleaver
Everyone can afford a few minutes a day to scribble in a journal, write a line or two of poetry, or map a character. Be consistent with those minutes and the effort becomes its own reward. Soon you’ll likely find yourself carving out even more time to write.
Author Annie Dillard advises a schedule, saying it “defends from chaos and whim.” During the ten years between when my first book was published and the point when I could finally devote myself to writing fulltime, I rose early to write before the demands of my day job took over.
Pay attention to when and where your best work happens. Maybe you write better in the afternoons or late at night, after everyone else is in bed. I have friends who are at their creative best in a coffee shop, where the noise drives me crazy. I have one friend who swears she does her best work curled up on the floor of her bathroom.
Energy and momentum are part of the mix. If your day job demands creative energy, you may need to set aside weekends and vacations for your creative work. Figure out what you need to achieve momentum and build your schedule around it. Then stick to it.
Know yourself, but don’t set conditions that allow you to put off your writing. Too often I hear aspiring authors say they’re planning to start their books as soon as they have time. If you wait for “free” time to fall in your lap, you’ll never begin.
Highest and Best Use of Your Time
Subconsciously, we resist writing even as we crave it, because deep inside we know that to create is to risk failure. A ritual can help you ease past this subconscious barrier into your writing routine. I begin each writing session with reading a poem, plus ten minutes of reading from a book I admire, using a timer so I don’t get carried away. Then I launch into the draft of whatever I’m working on, beginning with quick line edits of what I wrote the previous day.
Be as creative with your ritual as you are with your work. If time is short, one minute of deep breathing can help clear your mind and steel your courage for the work ahead.
Once you’ve established your writing routine, respect it. Use it only for genuine creative work—journaling, writing exercises, plotting, character development, drafting, and revision. Interruptions will come, but limit them where you can. Unless a call’s urgent, silence it. Don’t check your email. Schedule appointments around your creative time. Put off your need to research by inserting into your draft the publishing abbreviation “TK,” meaning “to come.”
As you engage in your work, it becomes its own source of pleasure. Keep your focus on process. This means acknowledging that your first thoughts aren’t always your best thoughts. It also means allowing yourself to write badly in early drafts so you get your work on the page. As you give yourself over to the act of discovery, as you commit yourself to revision, your project finds its legs.
Once your project gets rolling, it acquires its own momentum. Then life happens—vacation, illness, family obligations, a big project at work—and the momentum is lost. But it can be recovered. Dust off you project and pick up where you left off.
Sometimes your momentum stalls for what seems to be no good reason. Approach these stalls as a creative problem-solver. If you’re bored with the project, it’s likely your readers will be bored with it too. Jump ahead. Write a scene from the end. Do a writing exercise or two. Get out of your linear rut and you’ll likely discover great material lurking within your subconscious.
Bear in mind that of the words you write, few survive the revision process, and even fewer make it into print. That’s fine. No one ever said creative work was efficient.
Outside of your scheduled writing time, take time for reflection, ideally during repetitive activities like walking or ironing (yes, ironing!) that silence the overly analytical parts of your mind. Important also is the study of great work by authors you admire. Pen in hand, indulge in reading (or re-reading) a great book, asking yourself with every page, “How did she do that?”
Once published, writers tend to feel pulled in more directions than ever. While it’s easy to obsess over marketing and promotion, it’s important to keep in mind that for most of us, our first obligation—and our first love—is the page. I’ve heard others say that published writers should spend 80 percent of their time on marketing and 20 percent of their time on writing. That’s the reverse of what I think it should be. I do my best to spend 80 percent of my writing time on actual writing, with 20 percent devoted to promotional activities, including social networking and email.
One of the joys of the writing life is that you get to be as creative with your time as you are with your words. So don’t sell yourself short. Get writing!
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books, including Cold Spell, a recent novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.