About half the writers nationally aren’t doing this work as their day job, according to a survey of 5,000-plus book authors from 2018. Regardless of your paycheck realities, finding time to make writing a priority can be challenging amidst the demands of family, friends and more. Here are some of my tips on feeding the writing beast enough to keep your prose projects percolating and satisfy the desire to express your knowledge and creative bent.
Make The Most of “Found Time”
I first heard this term used in a movie that was talking about how some people approach being stuck in lines or in other waiting situations that would make others’ blood boil. The idea is to treat waiting as a gift where you choose to focus on the moment you’re in or on something you want to accomplish.
Say that you expect to have an hour-plus wait at the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new car’s license plates, for instance, or you’ll be stuck with in-laws for a long holiday soon. Instead of stewing in your own juices, why not practice doing character sketches by copying down observations of others around you, sneak in some time to flesh out a challenging scene of that memoir you’ve been working on, outline a chapter in that self-help book, or add some layers to the backstory of a character in your short story?
Along the same lines, consider carrying a small notebook and pen around to capture random writing thoughts, things you hear
people say or quotes you’ve come across
(or install a voice recording app and note-keeping software on your smart phone). Just be sure to set a schedule for revisiting this content every few weeks or months so the extra time you’ve put in doesn’t get wasted.
Set Writing Goals
Publicist, novelist and non-fiction author Claire Cook has stated her daily goal to be finishing two manuscript pages seven days a week; for Stephen King, it’s about getting to a mostly clean six pages. No matter the target, having one allows you to gain a sense of accomplishment and see the “light” – the finished work at the end of the writing tunnel once you’ve figured out your routine. Cook has noted that on her timeline, a novel takes about five months, whereas King cranks out a 360 pager in a head spinning two months. Knowing that endpoint not only helps with staying motivated, but lets you plan related activities such as when to start marketing outreach.
Create a Writing Schedule
To meet your daily or weekly goal, you have to build writing time into your life. Maybe the only moments you can fit in are a few uncommitted hours on Sunday afternoons, or the first thirty minutes at the crack of dawn on workdays. Rest assured that you are not alone in having to steal moments for writing. But know that professional writers pretty much all have some writing routine. The thirty-minute morning approach, for instance, is how Richard Morales wrote the book-turned-film called “The Hundred-Foot Journey” over a span of ten years. Emily Dickenson is said to have often written poetry before the sun rose, and writing guru Jane Friedman reported that Claire Cook, wrote “Must Love Dogs” in five-minute increments while in a van waiting to pick up her kids from their activities. What matters most is doing what you can to get at the keyboard or put pen to paper.
If you have flexibility and don’t know what will best fit your writing muse, you can play with the possibilities! For a few weeks, or a few months, see what time of day works best when it comes to factors such as having the least distractions and letting your creative juices flow. That may be around 5 a.m., midafternoon or midnight.
Give Yourself Breaks
Regardless of when you hit the starting gate, stick with your writing schedule most of the time, while accommodating an occasional day when nothing can get you to write or family commitments hold sway. If there’s no impending deadline and you're blocked, you might stay on schedule, but do something else, like reading and dissecting other authors’ works, editing your own writings, fact checking dates or other details, or reviewing the status of a project overall. Other writers would go ahead and play hooky, with the understanding that it's back to work the next day.
The important thing is to acknowledge that life sometimes gets in the way, and your focus will falter sometimes. Go ahead and allow yourself a break when your body/mind strongly rebels against the solitude and concentration required of writing. It’s not a bad idea to take a break after a certain number of hours each day as a reward anyway. Mayo Oshin’s review of 20 famous writers’ work routines highlights Charles Dickens taking a three-hour walk every afternoon, which is something I’d like to try (He supposedly came up with new writing ideas on those walks, after all).
Simplify If You Can Justify
The truth is, making writing a priority will likely put something else on the back burner. In “The Art of the Personal Essay,” Phillip Lopate asked author Annie Dillard to cover writing schedules, and she instead depicted her “discovering” that it was Independence Day one year by being aroused to the sound of fireworks while holed up working on “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”
In some cases, writers struggle between family commitments and their desire to write, and not all of it ends swimmingly. James Wood wrote a piece for The New Yorker in 2013 about books by children of famous writers such as John Cheever; the children consistently described their fathers’ less-than-ideal parenting. When I attended a writing panel last year sponsored by The Writers’ League of Texas, several of the published authors (in this case, female) lamented the fact that their teens’ needs and other family factors meant they weren’t writing at all at the moment. As Wood noted from an 1863 diary entry by Tolstoy, “Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.”
Chekhov’s supposed fix, Wood noted, was to marry late and spend much of his marriage far from his wife. Not a choice you’re prepared to make? Perhaps you can consider a job change instead, maybe switching to a company that has more of a 9 to 5 approach to your field, unloading some work responsibilities on a colleague who’s itching to impress higher ups, or finding another way to lighten your mental load for the sake of your writing craft.
Take Charge of Your Inner Demons
If you can’t seem to carve out writing time no matter what, there might be a gnarlier factor at play. In particular, that little critic that sits on most writers’ shoulders may be carving up your sense of literary self-worth into too many shreds to move forward. As Maya Angelou said once, “Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’ ”
Writers aren’t alone in struggling with feeling inadequate. I practice a martial art called Aikido that involves mastering those fancy rolls you see in many martial art movies. My first instructor used to tell a story in which the founder of the style I was training in, Roderick Kobayashi Sensei, asked his instructor for advice on his rolls. The story goes that Koichi Tohei Sensei watched this dedicated practitioner of Aikido perform several rolls and couldn’t find anything wrong with them. Tohei simply encouraged Kobayashi to keep practicing rolls to work out the rough edges he believed were there.
Overcoming writer’s angst is the same way. Although I’ll offer tips later, the main thing is to let your inner critic blather about how you’re not any good, how other writers have an easier time with craft, and so on. As you dig in to what you’re doing, that voice will become less noticeable.
It may also feel self-indulgent to immerse yourself in prose — as if it benefits only you; but remember, that’s not true either. The more aware you that the writing process ultimately produces will likely add healthier layers to your worldview, and to your relationships with others.
By Barbra Rodriguez
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