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Train Your Brain and Make Writing a Priority

Finding the time to write is a universal struggle for writers. Day jobs, kids, pets, presidential elections, to-do lists…there are a million things that require our time and attention before we can give anything to writing.

When I was in college, I wrote a terrible young adult novel. I worked on it during holiday breaks and in the summer. I pictured what writing would look like when I graduated, churning out book after book with all the time I’d have. A 9 to 5 job? No studying? What else did adults do with their time? Ha!

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Column by Erin Teagan, author of THE FRIENDSHIP EXPERIMENT
(Nov. 1, 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She has a master’s degree
in science and worked in biochemistry labs for more than ten years. She
is an avid reader and an active member of the Society of Children’s Book
Writers and Illustrators. Erin lives with her family in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter.

It took that first year of working to realize that if I wanted to be a writer I had to make it a priority. Even though I chose a career in science that rarely required take-home work, it sometimes meant working late. And sometimes it meant traveling and giving up my weekends. It also meant going back to school for a graduate degree. I fantasized about my old college days. What did I do with those huge chunks of time between classes? Why hadn’t I worked on my novel?

I researched how other writers fit it all in. (I’m a scientist. I research everything.) Lots of authors talked about the time suck of Internet and TV. But, I needed those kind of time-sucks! After a long day, sometimes all I wanted was to stare at the TV like a zombie with my roommate or husband or 90lb lap dog. And if you didn’t surf the Internet for at least a little bit, imagine how far behind you’d get on surprise-attack kitten videos or dogs romping in the snow? Sometimes, you just have to be part of society, you know?

Other authors talked about writing in the wee hours of the morning or into the dark of night. Some of the most successful authors wrote while the rest of the world was sleeping. And I thought, I should give it a try. I was a night person. I used to study into the midnights—I would surely be able to write a book or two that way. Except I found that I just couldn’t turn off my to-do list. Those unchecked boxes that remained from my day haunted me. My brain chatter was too loud. Was I even meant to be a writer if I couldn’t find any time to write?

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I pictured myself later in life, with kids, a mortgage, real-life problems and complications. If I was going to get writing into my schedule, it had to be now. So, I tallied my excuses. Why I couldn’t write at night. Why I couldn’t give up my time-sucks. Why I couldn’t possibly write in the early morning. And what I found was I had far less excuses (though they were good ones, I tell you) for writing in the morning.

The first time I tried it, I set my alarm fifteen minutes early. I was on a business trip which meant long, tiring hours. But there were no more excuses. There would never be a good time to get out of bed earlier. I knew my brain would not feel like writing, so I treated myself to some new books. Plot workbooks. Books on writing. Collections of writing exercises. The first day was a struggle. I was groggy and the hotel coffee was pretty terrible, but I made myself do one writing exercise. At first my brain was confused, but by the end of my writing session, it actually started to warm up.

Each week, I set my alarm fifteen minutes earlier. It took months, but by the end of it, I was waking up at 4:45 a.m. and my brain was forgetting that I was a night person. At the end of that first year, I had revised my terrible young adult novel (and then put it in a locked drawer) and managed to write a somewhat decent draft of something new. I had trained my night-person brain to function and focus in the wee hours of the day

Many years later, I have the expected real-life complications and adult responsibilities that threaten my writing time every day. I’m so thankful I took the plunge and made writing a priority in my schedule. It took some work, but now I can be sure to check off that one ‘writing’ box on my to-do list every day.

Now to just apply that dedication to the rest of my life like going through my overstuffed filing cabinet, resolving that toll violation, or exercising. But really, who runs when it’s icy cold outside? And is that filing cabinet really hurting anyone? So, I’ll leave those tasks unchecked on my list for today. But, at least I got some writing in.

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