Craft Lesson: Time is on our side

Craft Lessons

“When do you write?” asks a writer friend who juggles family, a demanding university teaching job, and studying in an MFA program. 

Implicit in the question, I believe, is another, more pressing one: “How do you find time to write?”

That’s a question I’ve often been asked, not because I’m the most productive writer in the world.

I am not.

But the question misses the mark. It’s not about finding time to write, but making it. 

For inspiration, I turn for inspiration to busy people who have made time to pursue writing dreams that may lie outside their day jobs or family lives.

Best-selling author Scott Turow also had a demanding day job — as a federal prosecutor in Chicago — when he wrote the first 120 pages of his first novel, “Presumed Innocent.”

“I used to write on the morning commuter train,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “It was sometimes no more than a paragraph a day, but it kept the candle burning.”

Anne Tyler sat down to write her early novels in her Baltimore home after her children went to school.

In the 19th century, Anthony Trollope wrote novels in the morning before he set off to work from the English countryside to his job as a postal official in London. His discipline was astounding.

“I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing, and on Friday I began another,” Trollope wrote in 1880. “Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books even though they be not published, I think I can be happy.”

Many years ago, influenced by Scott Turow’s commuter approach, I adopted it on my morning Metro ride from suburban Maryland to the National Press Building in Washington, D.C. The early ’90s was the busiest time in my life. I had a consuming job as a Washington correspondent, and at home, my wife Kathy and I had a toddler and infant twins. I suggested Kathy and I wear tee-shirts emblazoned with the title of the Warren Zevon song, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”

Instead of trying to make up zzzzz’s on the subway, however, I was able over a period of several weeks to draft and revise a short story about a Mom forced to take over as coach of her daughter’s Little League team. “Calling the Shots” was published, after a year of waiting, in 1998 in Elysian Fields Quarterly, a literary baseball journal.

These days, as a freelancer and retiree, of course I have much more flexibility. I check the news, listen to The New York Times podcast “The Daily,” and then write several times during the day, juggling assignments, drafting content for my newsletter, hanging out with three precious grandchildren, dog walking and working on fiction and memoir.

By the evening, I’m usually too tired for anything but YouTubeTV. That was the case years ago in Washington, too. I never had the energy to look at the short story that captured my attention that morning.

Still, brief daily sessions of 15-30 minutes, as Turrow proved, demonstrates the value taking advantage of every free moment to wite. 

Writing regularly, even if only a single paragraph at a time, develops critical mass over time.

So what are ways to make time to write?

  • Use the mass-transit or another incremental approach. You don’t climb a mountain with one step, but with many.
  • Decide what matters — watching, for the tenth time, the “Soup Nazi” Seinfeld episode, or taking the half-hour to write.

I’ve always loved this quote on the subject from essayist Annie Dillard (who wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”). “You can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, ‘I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.’ “

  • Exercise. Even a brisk 15-minute walk can pay off with relaxation-producing endorphins and an energy boost.  
  • Lower your expectations. Large blocks of time you dream of can prove useless if you agonize over the quality of what you’re producing. Every time you realize your fingers are poised over the keyboard, start banging away. It’s called freewriting and is best done in timed bursts, anywhere from a few minutes to, my preference, a screenfull. 
  • Manage your time, as I wrote in the most recent “Chip’s Writing Lessons.”. Examine your schedule, daily, weekly, even monthly, for pockets of time and energy. Be mindful of your circadian rhythms, those times of the day when you have the most energy.
  • Wake up 15 minutes earlier. Take a bite out of lunch.

At the beginning, quantity, not quality, rules. What sounds counter-intuitive — to  write well, I must first write badly — reflects the reality that the writer, especially at first, is not the best judge of the material.

Writing is a process of discovery. You need something to revise, however awful you think it is. Writing can’t take its final shape until you have enough distance, psychic or temporal, to see the holes, the flaws, unanswered questions and flabbiness that can be stripped away with a writer’s helpful friend: the “delete” key.

Finally, I take heart from the words of Robert B. Parker, the late master of detective fiction.

“There is no one right way. Each of us finds a way that works for him. But there is a wrong way. The wrong way is to finish your writing day with no more words on paper than when you began. Writers write.”

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