No Time to Write?

By Sherryl Clark

It’s a familiar complaint. Everything else seems to get in the way—family commitments, work, sports, the need to sleep—and nowhere is there time to sit down and write.

People often say to me, “How do you find the time? You’re so prolific.”

Well, no, ‘m not. A lot of the time I feel guilty because I don’t spend as much time on writing as I could. Notice that I said could, not should.

Should is like the stuff we got told as kids—you should eat your veggies because there are starving children in Africa. If we think of writing as a should task, where is the incentive to do it? You’re trying to work out of a sense of created guilt.

I say could because I know that I waste time. And even more importantly, I know that I procrastinate. Why? Because of fear, I think. Fear that I will have nothing to write and I will sit there for hours producing zilch. Or more often, fear that anything I will produce will be terrible. Despite all I know about rewriting, and how the first draft is nearly always either bad or just not what you wanted (because you wanted to create that miraculous story in your head, and what happened to it between your brain and the page, darn it?), I still have to convince myself anew every time that all I have to do is sit down and write.

Usually I get there by telling myself that I only have to do one page. What’s one page? Even if it’s an awful page, just write one. And eventually I do. And most of the time I write a lot more than one. But I still have to talk myself into that first one.

How do I waste time? The way everyone does. I read, do housework, e-mails (they’re a time killer), catch up on paperwork, do class preparation (because I teach), talk on the phone . . . you just add in your favorites. And it’s always time in which I could be writing.

How do we solve this problem? I doubt we can do it by beating ourselves over the head with a heavy dictionary, or any other implement. That’s the road to more guilt and shoulds, and it’s best to avoid those.

Cover of Kristi Holl's Writer's First AidI like an analogy I read in Kristi Holl’s book, Writer’s First Aid. A professor shows a large jar to his class and fills it with rocks. He then goes through a process of asking them if the jar is full. Each time, he demonstrates that it’s not. To the rocks, he adds pebbles; to the pebbles, he adds sand. Is the jar full now? No. He then adds water. Many of us assume this analogy is about how much we can cram into our day. Kristi says no—think of the rocks as your writing. They have to go in first, otherwise you will never fit them in with the other stuff.

How many of us put writing first? Really and truly? We fill our days with all that other stuff and then try to cram writing into the odd half an hour once a week.

There are some people for whom life is just too chaotic and busy. You might have five kids, plus an ailing mother, plus you have to work part-time to help feed the family. I see these people put aside their writing, month after month, and yearn for the chance to write.

Then I read stories about writers who have all of that and more to cope with, and they still find half an hour a day to write, even if it means getting up earlier or staying up later. In half an hour you can write one page. In a week, that’s six pages (you may take Sunday off!). In a year, that’s 300 pages. A novel.

Am I preaching? I guess so. I know that I finally became totally serious about my commitment to writing after I had been to the US for a two-week writing workshop. Every day I wrote in class, I workshopped my own and others’ writing, I talked writing non-stop. And at night, in my little room (alone—bliss!), I wrote. In two weeks I wrote 7,500 words. I wrote every night because I figured that’s what I was there for and I wanted to make the most of it.

But when I arrived home, I realized that I could do it anywhere. I hadn’t been writing in my room for five or six hours—I’d been working most nights for an average of an hour. I think what changed was that I understood it was the rhythm of writing which had worked for me. Regular stints, instead of trying to write for a whole day every once in a while, because, especially with novels, you’ve got to spend a lot of time rethinking your way back into the story. It was the “showing up at my desk every day” that worked.

I was always thinking about my writing project; even if it was in the back of my brain somewhere so I wasn’t conscious of it, something was simmering, simply because I knew that sometime that day I would be doing more writing. And when I sat down to write, I was ready. Out came the words.

I’d like to say I have continued this marvelous work routine ever since, but I’d be lying. However, I did continue it for four months until I finished (and rewrote) that novel. I still retain that feeling of “living the writing” and am convinced that short, regular periods of writing will get me there a lot faster and more effectively than saving up for rainy writing days.

This was doubly confirmed for me recently when I attended the Chautauqua children’s writers’ workshop and listened to Linda Sue Park speak about her writing. She made a commitment to write two pages per day, no matter what. She had to make herself stick to this every day for three months before it became an ingrained habit that she couldn’t stop, but it worked for her, and it will work for you.

So—where and when are you going to write each day? You only have to find half an hour. Are you convinced half an hour won’t be enough? Block out three one-hour sessions per week. In your diary. Call it “Writer’s Meeting.” Call it anything you like, but make sure you’re there, backside on the chair, ready to write.

You don’t think you have three hours? Try these remedies. Turn off the TV. Don’t even look at your e-mails until you’ve done your hour. Take the phone off the hook. Get the family to help with the chores, and don’t accept any excuses or arguments. Put a sign on the door to say “Keep Out!” And mean it.

Mean it for yourself. Do you want to write? Really and truly?

Then do it.

Sherryl Clark teaches professional writing at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. She writes children’s and YA books, short fiction, and poetry. Her website is at www.sherrylclark.com.