Bad Advice Wednesday: Finding Time to Write

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Number one question at every panel I speak on and every workshop I teach, and in the many emails seeking solace, and etc: How do you find time to write in such a busy life?  And how can I?

It’s true, my life is crazy busy and getting busier all the time.  And yet there are plenty of blocks of time in the day to get things written, some of them big, many of them small.  And some of the small things get written in big blocks of time, some of the big things in the small.  Five minutes isn’t nothing, and ten is even more, and so I bring my laptop to the dentist’s office, and my writing mind (and note pad) on drives and to dinner parties and the shower. Because the truth is, you’re not ever going to find time to write, not in that pure way we dream of, or only very seldom.  So it’s crucial to learn to write when time presents itself, and to know when you should be writing and thinking, and when you can rest.  Yes, rest, because you can’t go around feeling bad because you’re opting for a night out with time-sucking friends or caring for your infant.

Early in my teaching career, like, back in the day, I realized that I wasn’t writing much.  And I’d say, Boy, this teaching really cuts into my writing time.  Composition sections?  They can take all your waking hours if you’re not vigilant!  So one fine day I very consciously decided to reverse the equation, a linguistic trick:  Boy, this writing really cuts into my teaching time!  See how that makes the writing the more important thing?  And instead of trying to snatch two hours for an essay from grading time, I started searching for grading time, for prep time, what with all the inviolable time devoted to writing.  And if I couldn’t find grading time, I didn’t steal from the writing.  I just didn’t grade, didn’t prep, or didn’t finish in a given week.  Which of course doesn’t work, can’t be sustained.  So I had to learn to do that work faster, more efficiently.  And to shift the time burden to the students.  A wise colleague said, “Whosoever’s working hardest in that classroom is learning the most.”  Why not make it the students?  And when I was a prof with grad students under my wing, I often heard the lament: I’ve got so much grading to do!  So many papers!  Not enough time!  My reply?  Dude, who assigned those papers?  You did!  Solution?  Don’t assign so much!  At least not so much that you have to read.  Put the students in small groups. Get them reading one another.  Only accept a paper that’s really been vetted, tested, revised.  Don’t write more on the paper than the student did.  Ask students if they read your comments.  Many don’t!  Write less on the bad papers, not more!  Give ’em one thing to think about, because they won’t think about more.  Find a common theme for each week’s grading.  Everyone’s got the same writing issues–deal with just an issue a week, not every word of every fucking paper.  Or try this: Give a third of the class a close reading, a third a medium reading, a third a cursory reading.  Next week, give that last third the close reading, and keep the rotation coming.  And here’s a great one, tried and true: bring the papers home Friday, enjoy your writing weekend, then on Monday tell the kids that you couldn’t even read their papers they were so bad.  But you’ll give them another chance.  Most kids are doing the minimum, even your best students.  Give ’em the minimum right back, and you’ll get the maximum next time out!  A good paper’s easier to grade than a bad one!  Conferences?  Bring two kids in at once.  Triply effective, and half the time.  I could go on like this!  The word is efficiency, and weirdly, it adds up to better teaching.

The next great move I made (and which I still do, more informally, now that I’m not teaching), was to sit down every Sunday night and look out over the week, schedule my teaching time and my writing time.  Classes, of course, were inviolable.  So, I started calling writing work.  It’s WORK.  And my work, well, that was inviolable as my class time.  You wouldn’t not show up for class, right?  So why would you not show up for your most important work?  If a colleague said, Let’s have that meeting on Friday, and I said, well, I have to write, they’d get that grin: Hey, we’re all trying to write.  But if I said, Can’t, I have to WORK, they’d change that meeting time.  And if they did not?  I didn’t go.  No matter what.  And nothing bad happened: I got tenure.  Oh, maybe that was the bad thing!  Anyway, I eventually quit the tenured job so I could write, and I survived, flourished.  Even if broke half the time.

The only thing I love more than teaching is not teaching!

Yes, look out over the week and block out your writing time as if it were class time, and then report for duty.  No guarantee you’ll get anything done in a given time block, but if you show up, it’s more likely!  And what if you don’t show up?  Over time I found that reporting for work every day, even if only for four minutes here, seven minutes there, kept me engaged, kept the problem of my art at the foreground of consciousness, where I could access it in those shower minutes, those waiting minutes, those waking minutes, middle of the night.  If I woke worrying about colleague x, that toxic monstrosity, I’d say, no, no, worry about a character instead.  What should Jack’s reaction be to Kate’s drowning?  Sometimes you’d have to plug and replug that prompt, but eventually you’d exit the toxic colleague loop, mind-write yourself to sleep.  And in your two-hour writing slot next day, there you are, ready to go with the solution to a problem in narrative.  The toxic colleague is never going to be solved!  Not worth a minute!

Now that I’m not teaching, same thing applies.  If anything, I’m more busy, and without the structure of a job it’s often easy to fritter away good time for bad.  And no toxic colleagues!  At least none that I’m forced to endure.  Only my own toxic maunderings.

I’m also safer from myself.  With a schedule, I know it’s time to write and not time to watch sports on TV.  Or if I watch sports during my working time, at least I know to feel guilty, and more so, that I have hours to make up.

I mentioned infants and I know from experience that kids and parenting require enormous amounts of time, all the free minutes along with all the other minutes.  I also know that the pressures of parenthood can fall more on women than on men, especially in the early going.  Couples have a duty to make their schedules together, but make their schedules nevertheless.  You can get a lot done in the ten minutes a pile of Legos buys you with your three-year-old.  You can still think while changing a diaper.  You can still take a note or two for future reference before collapsing in a heap.  And when you have to go to work, you get a sitter, or drop the baby in your spouse’s lap.  Just as you would to teach a class.

And mourning.  That’s a whole ‘nother subject.  Let’s just say there are times a person can’t write and during those times you’re allowed to forget it, so long as you know it’s all going to come back around, time healing all, as they say.

But, normal times, no baby at your breast, no death in the family:  Call your writing work.  Claim all the odd  minutes that are built into even the busiest days for writing.  Write down your work schedule weekly and in advance.  And stick to it as you would stick to your class or other work schedule.  Your kid says, Will you drive me to town?  You say: Wish I could, but I have class.  No guilt, no recrimination, right?  Your kid says, Will you drive me to town?  You say, Wish I could, but I have to work.  Same.

Once you start believing in yourself, the rest of the world will follow.


  1. I think much of this is absolute gold mine, old friend, information that writers should print out in a blazing shiny font and tape to every flat surface of their bedroom/office. The stuff about considering writing work as serious as any other work, and taking advantage of every free few minutes you have, and scheduling writing when you have the ability to. That should be drilled into everyone’s head.

    But “give a third of the class a close reading, a third a medium reading, a third a cursory reading. Next week, give that last third the close reading, and keep the rotation coming” and “bring the papers home Friday, enjoy your writing weekend, then on Monday tell the kids that you couldn’t even read their papers they were so bad.” Do teachers really do that? That’s kind of heartbreaking to the kids who don’t just do the minimum, no? For them, I feel that would just encourage a mentality of “well, my best wasn’t good enough for him, so I’ll just cut my losses going forward and not try as hard.”

    Wouldn’t it? Or do the truly passionate in all cases try harder?

  2. Bill writes:

    Now if I would just listen to myself!

  3. Janine writes:

    Oh Bill! Most excellent. I have an open week coming up (call it self-un-employed, if you will) Will schedule “write” in my daily planner along with “move firewood” and “clean”. Hold me to it.

  4. Bill,
    What a wonderful piece! The biggest barrier to writing is rarely time, right? It’s ourselves. I finished the first draft of my memoir while juggling a 60-hour work week or more. I finished the second significant draft while juggling being a new mother and working part-time.

    I always wish I had more time to write, and yet I know it’s up to me to make that time. No excuses. Just do it. Of course, having a deadline always helps.


  5. Alise Hamilton writes:

    This came at just the perfect time. Great bad advice – thank you!