It’s a common lament: I could finish my novel, if only I had more hours in the day! In fact, the universal chorus of complaint from writers of all stripes seems to be “not enough time.” In this excerpt from The Productive Writer by Sage Cohen, you’ll learn how your relationship with time is moving you forward … or holding you back.
TIME IS A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
We all get the same twenty-four hours in a day. What you do with yours is up to you. You may believe that you have “no time,” but the fact is, you have just as much time as anyone else. What varies for every writer is our unique mix of work and family responsibilities, financial commitments, sleep requirements, physical and emotional space for writing, and perhaps most importantly, our ability and willingness to prioritize writing in this mix.
Writers make time for writing. And everyone does it her own way. Your job is to find your way.
CONSCIOUSNESS IS THE FIRST STEP TOWARD CHANGE
Because I don’t know you, I can’t tell you exactly how you can make time for writing, but I assure you that you can. I can also tell you that your relationship with time is far more subjective than you might imagine. The best way to get a handle on how much authority you actually have over your time is to start becoming aware of how you are spending it. Pay attention to how you’re investing your time today, and you’ll develop a clear picture of the mix of mandatory and voluntary activities that shape your days. Once you become conscious that your relationship with time is not something that happens to you but a dynamic orchestrated by you through dozens of large and small choices you make every day, you can evaluate if you would like to choose to continue the pattern you are in, or to create a new one.
So you don’t feel like writing. Or you’re stuck on something and can’t go any further right now. Or you’re too tired or broke or can’t find your pink slipper. Okay. You are excused. I don’t do that stern schoolteacher, butt-in-chair guilt trip. In fact, I’ve sworn off guilt trips altogether. So how, you may wonder, is this woman going to convince me to keep up all of that good, earnest writing work? She’s not.
What I have come to trust from more than a decade of firsthand experience is that when we feel backed into a corner, we will rebel. So the more we try to force ourselves to write, the more we will resist, the less we will write, and the more frustrated and despairing we will become.
I would like to propose an alternative to this cat-and-mouse loop: Waste time well. If you do things that need doing—that you’re actually in the mood to do—even procrastination can be productive. One of the things you’ll start to learn over time is your rhythm for settling down to make stuff happen and the times when you need to rearrange your bulletin board a few times and eat lots of cookies.
TOP TEN TIME-WASTING STRATEGIES
When you’re not in a go-get-’em writing mode, the most important thing to do is keep your creative engine warm and running. The following list of possibilities is designed to help you keep your head in the game by doing things that indirectly benefit your writing life and can quickly create a feeling of either relaxation or reward.
- Write a blog post. Reinforce your expertise while doing a little fun, informal writing.
- Visit your online community. Take a five-minute coffee break with other writers on Facebook and Twitter. Let their good news, struggles, questions, and insights percolate through you; chime in here and there. Notice any seeds of new ideas, projects, or collaborations taking shape in your peripheral vision.
- Make order. Sort and purge your in-box. Vacuum or do dishes or fold laundry. You can improve beauty and order around you while resetting whatever brain pretzel you may be locked in.
- Stand up and stretch. It’s far easier to keep butt-in-chair if blood is flowing to it!
- Do your due diligence. Enter your business expense data into QuickBooks or pay bills.
- Get prepared. Update your to-do list.
- Empty your mind. A quick, three-minute meditation can settle your stirred waters so you can see clearly again.
- Manage your contacts. Add business cards and other contact information you’ve collected recently into your contact database, sorting and categorizing appropriately by type of audience (students, colleagues, newsletter subscribers, etc.).
- Share the wealth. Visit a few favorite blogs or websites and tweet about your findings.
- Call your mother. (But don’t open the mail while you talk; she won’t like that.)
TAKE A TIME-OUT
I believe in signs. That’s why, when my ten-month-old son pulled the book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest by Wayne Muller off the shelf for the third time, I decided it was time to read it.
Lo and behold, on that fateful Saturday, I took a day off from my computer. When my son Theo napped, I napped. Our family took a leisurely trip to the pool. My husband and I cooked a meal together. I felt like a human being instead of a human doing.
Muller credits Brother David Steindl-Rast for reminding us that the Chinese pictograph for busy is composed of two characters: heart and killing. This stopped me in my tracks. I, like almost everyone I know, am chronically, overwhelmingly busy. Muller proposes that a day of rest gives us the replenishment we need to live our lives well. To solve our problems creatively. To nourish our hearts—and in our case, dear reader, our writing.
That day of Sabbath was such a success that my husband and I committed to a family Sabbath every Saturday in which all work comes to a halt and the family simply relaxes, enjoys each other, and follows the threads of curiosity and delight wherever they might lead us.
The good news for all of us overachievers is that slowing down actually produces more: work, joy, equilibrium, love. I wonder if rest may be all we need to replenish our creative wells when they run dry.
WE ARE NOT GIVEN TIME TO WRITE; WE TAKE IT
I remember as a young person reading somewhere that parents don’t give you independence; you have to take it. I think that same premise holds true for establishing oneself as a writer. When you decide to write, the universe does not say, “How wonderful that you fancy yourself a writer, I’ll give you three hours off of your job every day so you can fulfill your destiny.” The reality is that it’s up to you to create your writing time, to claim it, as if your blustery, teenage know-it-all self’s future depends on it.