The Beginning Writer
Making Time to Write© Will Greenway 2000
The brilliant gold sun shines down out of an almost perfect sky dotted with clouds. Did the sky at home look this bright? It's tough to remember with all the discussion and events. Rising to your feet and brushing sprigs of grass off your clothing, you watch the heavy-set lecturer amble off into the shadows between trees. What was back in there anyway? There hasn't been much time to investigate. For that matter, there isn't supposed to be any investigation. You came here to get writing instruction not to play detective. Everything would be okay except that you appear to be stuck in this strange and pastoral location. You hope this isn't some cliché 'it was all a dream' experience—that would simply be too much to stomach.
Thinking of your stomach, you give it a rub. Would there be any food provided? After three classes it feels like time to eat. Wiping dots of perspiration from your brow, you look around at the other students now whispering among each other. Amongst the three-dozen men and women you hear at least six or seven languages being spoken. They are from a wide gamut of ages, cultures, and races. Nobody else seems to know how to get home either. Still there must be some logic too this. Why transport a bunch of writers to this out-of-the-way place and strand them. That didn't make sense... did it?
One thing for certain, with nine other classes still left to go, there was plenty of time to ponder the problem. Time seemed to be the least of the issues right now. You glance toward the trees where the instructor kept disappearing to between sessions. Maybe it would be a good use of some free moments to poke around and find out more about this wilderness place that teaches writers...
Most people's lives are ruled by clocks and schedules. We have places to be, things to do, and specific hours of the day to do them in. There are 525600 minutes in a year. The average person spends 153300 of those minutes sleeping, 144000 in work related endeavors, and 43800 eating and preparing meals. That leaves 184500 minutes of free time to do other things.
If you're a parent of smaller children you may spend another 65700 minutes (3 hours a day) taking care of your loving responsibilities. That leaves 118800. Let's be crazy and say you're really busy and you only have HALF that much free time. That's 59400 free minutes per year. That means on any given day that just about anyone has almost 3 hours (163 minutes) to complete personal projects. For our purposes, we'll cut it in half as say with a fair amount of certainty that anyone can scrape together 80 minutes a day.
So, why exactly is it you 'don't have time to write'? I just did the math for you. You have the time— really. In roughly a third of that time (30 minutes), an average person can write one page. If you write 300 days a year—that, my friends, is the length of a small novel.
Still, I hear the same excuse over and over—I don't have time. Friend, it's a myth. What you don't have is the "won't power" to keep other distractions like television, surfing the net, and chatting on the phone from biting into your writing time.
Writer's rule to live by: Any time spent writing is ENOUGH time. One of my good friends rationalized himself right out of the writing profession. He agreed with me that he had time to write, but only 15 minutes at a time here and there between his parental and job related duties. He felt that since he didn't have at least an hour lumped together it wasn't worth sitting down to write just a paragraph or two. To my to-remain-nameless friend, my response was BZZZT!—wrong! To him, and anyone in the audience who thinks this—rethink. There are dozens of tales of famous authors who wrote novels piecemeal using coffee breaks, lunch hours, and whatever sparse fragments of their frenetic lives they could find. Consider this; all writing is fragmented. A bunch of words go to make up a sentence. A paragraph is composed of sentences, a scene is composed of paragraphs. If you write only one word a day, in a week, you have a sentence. That's a silly extreme of course, but realize the anything you put down is a step toward finishing. Small or not, you've accomplished something. What is the result if you give up because fifteen minutes "isn't enough time to get anything worthwhile done"? That's right—nothing. Buying into the "not worthwhile" idea model is defeatist thinking, pure and simple.
An important part of the discipline of writing during fragmented time is it trains you to focus and treat your endeavor as important and worthwhile. Success feeds on itself, when you prove to yourself you can get something done, your resistance and discomfort with the idea will go away. If you stick to it, soon it becomes natural to just sit down and write for a few minutes, then get up and get on with whatever else you have to do. I find that the people who are dedicated enough to do this, eventually become annoyed with it and take additional steps to reprioritize their schedules.
If you're forced to write in short spurts, it helps to simply think about your stories in the free moments of the day when you can't write. In other words, write in your head. Imagine yourself at the keyboard writing, or think about the scenes as a movie or a dream. Usually, by the time you can sit down at the keyboard you will have an idea of what you want to execute.
Most people don't have the luxury of a job that exercises their right brain (creative aspect), so part of the difficulty of writing in spurts is getting into that creative "mode". With practice, what I call "switching gears" gets easier as you push yourself to flip back and forth. What helps is to push your writing "more to the center" making it as much of a left-brained process as possible. Doing this is a matter of "pre-thinking" in your in between moments, taking notes or simply focusing some memory on what the next scene in your story will be. Yes, essentially I'm suggesting you daydream. Right here, I'll apologize to the victims of any writers who operate heavy equipment in their day job.
The process of pre-thinking may be something you already do. It's what makes many people start writing in the first place. However, to make your writing process a little more left-brained, you need to refine how you internalize your story. By this, I mean taking the idea to the next level. I conceive a scene then imagine myself writing that scene. I've trained myself to actually think of the words and listen to how they sound in my head. By the time I sit down to write, it's often more like transcription than creation. Obviously, I can't do this all the time, and probably neither can you. Still, it's a good exercise that helps you develop the process of transferring ideas from your head to actual words in a medium.
Another aspect of taking advantage of brief opportunities to write is just practical thinking ahead. If you use a computer, leave it ON when you're home and anticipate having some free moments. ALL of us are lazy, and if we have it in the back of our minds we have to wait for the computer to boot, then inevitably it will be used as an excuse not to write. If you use a typewriter, keep a page dialed in. If you have multiple projects in progress, have a dozen or so pages from all your projects with the headers already typed up, so you can just dial the appropriate one in and go.
Expect when you start using little snippets of time that you won't immediately get much down. Be patient. As you condition yourself, you'll find yourself thinking more about your stories, and you'll be able to take better advantage of those moments. This is about discipline, perseverance and passion.
Maybe you're trying to write in those fragments of time and it's frustrating because you have images in your head but for whatever reason they're "stuck" in there. You can't seem to make the words "happen".
This "hard" aspect of writing is what makes people think those tiny slices of time aren't big enough to get anything done. The answer lies in switching a creative process into logical one.
Most of writing is describing scenes. The creative part is imagining the place, the objects and people, and whatever activity is happening. Most writers can do this. It's turning that visual portrait into words that is the hurdle. Too many people think that this translation of pictures to words is some kind of black magic. It's not.
Writing is essentially a three-stage process: imagining, rendering, and refining. Imagining is seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting the scene with a mental movie camera. Rendering is the process of sampling the salient aspects of that imaginary continuity and describing it in words. Refining is making the words effective, imposing structure, rhythm, and making them appealing.
Rendering is where most people get stuck. This is because they don't realize that this is an entirely left-brained endeavor. How can that be? It's simpler than you realize. Let's prove it right now with an instant exercise. Right this moment, grab any object near you and look at it. Your task is to describe it. How do you start to do that? The answer is: you ask yourself questions. What type of object is it? How big is it? What color is it? What other details are important for someone to get a picture in their head of it?
For the sake of argument, imagine the object you picked up was a pencil. First of all to describe it, you'd write 'pencil'. If the pencil was orange with the eraser chewed off that's pretty simple to write down. You need to LET the process of making mental pictures into words that simple; question to answer.
So, rendering is essentially analysis. You take the imagined scene, freeze it and ask yourself questions about it. Don't worry about the details being strung together properly. THAT is what is stopping you. You want it to come out as coherent sentences. Tell yourself it isn't necessary, just write down the raw data. When you have those words down, then you can go back and do the refining. Think of rendering as taking notes. Notes don't have to be coherent, they simply have to remind you of the important details to help your recollection at a later date.
Once you have the raw details or notes, refining them is a whole other (and simpler) process. To accomplish that task you're taking a bunch of details and turning them into complete and coherent sentences. This too has left-brained and right-brained aspects. It also involves analysis combined with the creative chore of word selection.
As you gain experience, you'll train yourself to study that mental scenery, select the details you want to put down, and then write it out as a refined description. It takes time, but it will come. You have to learn to walk before you can run.
Sometimes it's not about getting enough time, it's about getting QUALITY time. First of all, make your writing time official if you can. A fixed time is best. Post it on the wall, make sure spouses, kids, and friends know about it. Turn on the answering machine, turn off the television, lock the door and go to work.
Obviously, the best situation is if you have a place to sequester yourself away from people who 'just want a minute of your time'. That's why the phone is turned off. That's also why you lock the door if you can. An understanding spouse is enormously helpful, especially if they're willing to head off the kids while Mom or Dad gets a little private time. If you're the type who can write with music playing, get a good set of headphones, and learn which music you write best with. Music has a nice effect of setting a background, giving a tempo, and providing energy that you can feed on to help you write. Every little bit helps. Also, with the headphones on you can't hear the vase crashing on the floor in the hall, or the spouse burning down the kitchen. After you've put in your allotted time, deal with it then.
Your writing environment should do everything it can to help you focus. Computers are dangerous toys, and potential distractions when the icon for the word processor is right next to icon for the web browser or email. This is where discipline comes in. When it's writing time, or near to it, I put the word processor up and maximize it. I turn off the email and ICQ clients so that I can't get any cyber distractions.
If you write with pen or pencil, perhaps it's time you learned to compose on the computer. Some people have an aversion to writing on the computer. However, writing it out longhand is SLOW. Composing at the keyboard is a discipline. Composing at the keyboard requires practice. If you generate the words at the computer you don't have the transfer step of retyping the written page into the computer. Again, I hear folks say that helps them rewrite. Well, that's true, but the same can be said for cutting and pasting. It's all psyche-out. If you must write longhand—so be it—but know that it bites into your productivity. The time spent training yourself to put the story straight into the computer will pay for itself down the road.
Can you type? I hope so. Lots of people handwrite material because they're single finger keypunchers. Please, if you're going to be a writer, join the twenty-first century. Spend a little time to learn at least some basic touch-typing. If you spend three seconds finding the 'e' key, that's valuable productivity being flushed into history with every halting hesitant keystroke.
Is your workspace comfortable and ergonomic? Believe it or not, this is important. To be at your best you need to be able to relax. That means a comfortable chair, an easy to read monitor, a desk set at comfortable typing height. Good lighting, and anything else you find soothing are good things to have in the location you chose to write in. By the same token, when you write (providing you have the luxury) try to dress relaxed too. Bring something to drink and a snack with you when you sit down to write. This knocks down on trips to the refrigerator for munchies and beverages. Do NOT under estimate the impact these steps have on your productivity.
Let's say you're keeping the faith, and doing everything you can to get some writing time. You have your time slot, and everyone KNOWS it's your writing time. They may even know it's important to you. Kids will always think the new bug they just found is the most important thing in the universe at the moment. It's rare that a non-writing spouse has any idea of the effort and concentration involved. It's a fair bet that any given moment won't be as important to them as it is to you.
This will be a familiar scenario to many. You're struggling to find "just the right words" to describe this really elaborate scene or concept. You're almost there, it's like climbing the side of a mountain and you can feel yourself just inches shy of standing on top. That one—critical—word—is right there... You can feel it. Yes, that's it, it's—
"Honey—honey—honey, where did you put the garbage bags!? I can't find them!"
In the blink of an eye, the moment is lost, shattered like a pane of glass. Sitting there amid the scattered debris of your creative muse, it's tough not to scream isn't it? If you do yell—I have on occasion—there is a ninety-nine point nine percent chance that the interrupter won't have an inkling of why you're pissed off. Trying to explain it makes it worse. You're defending getting mad about losing a train of thought.
The rough and horrible truth is there is no simple answer. Kids can be less expected to understand why Mommy or Daddy is getting red in the face. They weren't doing anything except sitting there staring at a screen.
To us writers, we ask ourselves—couldn't the trivia questions be saved until later? So far in my married life, the answer is no. She really doesn't get that making me stop every ten minutes to focus entirely on whatever she wants isn't disruptive. I've trained myself to separate what I'm doing creatively from some of the trivia around the household. When not actually typing, I'm actively considering what I'm going to write next. Little minor interruptions stop me from typing, but don't really disrupt the creative flow.
My wife apparently figured out I could pay half a mind to her questions and keep writing. Somewhere along the line, it became important that full attention had to go with those answers. So, she physically obscures the screen, interferes with my hands, or uses the method of moment to ensure that all of my attention is on her. Why? She wants attention—my attention. Kids are the same way. They'll interfere in a like fashion. There appears to be some cosmic rule that says the more intensely focused you are, the more the world will strive to bug you. Since we can't change the rule, we have to deal with it.
The best way to deal with this is not to get mad. If you do, it only makes things worse. I've learned this the hard way. First, your spouse and kids get mad back. Second, while you're sitting there stewing over being disrupted, it further interferes with your focus. It's far easier to simply try and bite down on what you were doing. Lock what you're doing in your head as best as possible before turning your focus on what is demanding your attention. If it's the first disruption of the day, patiently remind them you're trying to write and to save interruptions until you're done. Don't despair if it's the hundredth time you've asked not to have your writing time disrupted. If they haven't gotten it by now, they aren't going to. Handle the request as quickly and expediently as possible. Just do it. Get it done, forget about it and go back to work.
I know this is easier said than done. More than once, I've thrown up my hands and walked away from the computer after the twentieth interruption in an hour—all of it to handle or be a sounding board for trivia. This is after doing all the things I've suggested already. I have a rule, if I have my headphones on, it signals I'm writing and not to bug me. Rule or not, it doesn't seem to help much. Irritations aside, I still get my writing done, it's just one of those burdens that must be shouldered.
Cherish the uninterrupted moments and get as much writing crammed into them as possible. Treat every moment as if it's your last, because it just might be for that day.
Sometimes when we sit down to write the mental reservoir is empty, or we simply don't feel like writing. Don't use either of those excuses to skip your writing time. If you can't create— edit. Go back over old material and fix it—correct spelling, fix grammar, whatever... as long as you're doing something related to your writing. It's part of being productive, it keeps you primed and thinking about what you're doing, and not letting yourself get cold.
I find this is a safe refuge when it looks like I'm going to get heavier than normal interruption traffic. The process of editing is much more left-brain and thus is not as prone to being thrown off track by insistent questions, noise, or other activity that may have singled you out.
In talking about making time to write, we've touched on a lot of topics, much of it related to the creative process. Everybody is different and situations vary. You may write your script out longhand which means you can write while on the bus on your way to work, in the coffee shop, and in other places where people who use a computer couldn't do so. That means you may need to capitalize on that in order to be productive. The thing is to bend your mind toward making the opportunities you need to write, and when you get them, utilize them to their fullest.
Life is rarely predictable. Responsibilities shift, relationships change, children grow, and inevitably these things will force you alter your schedule. Be prepared to adapt and work out new ways to get your writing done. If you let the circle of life interfere or impede your art then perhaps it's not important enough to you to pursue. There is almost always a solution if you look for it.
You have the time—you really do. It's your choice whether or not to use it.
Briefly, we discussed some aspects of creating a productive environment. In the next section, we'll focus more on specific tools, techniques, and resources to help you get more writing done.