categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Two missives this week, one from WriterMom, the other from Jean Witlow in Corvallis, Oregon, with very close to the same question. WriterMom: “I teach four sections of composition at two different colleges, and have three kids, 6-8-12. My husband is deceased. I write an infrequent column for the local paper. But that’s it for writing. I want to know how to get my book written when I have no time and never will.” She goes on to describe the book (almost a pitch—first advice: don’t do that—you come off like an infomercial or a flight attendant). And it sounds good, a memoir of her husband and the risk taking that finally killed him. Next, with as little punctuation as possible, Jean Witlow says, “Here I am finally with my MFA and my book basically written it was my thesis but needs some work and I’m goingcrazy because I can’t work on it half the time and I get a whole day and just sit there and don’t even write. Very depressing, so I avoid it.”
Time. That’s the issue. It’s all around us, moves very slowly and also very fast. Our days are taken up with duties and chores. A simple bad mood can take all morning. A kid’s homework can absorb a night. Jobs don’t take just forty hours, they take forty hours plus the commute and the drinking time to wind down. And there’s fun. Are we not supposed to have fun?
No, we’re supposed to write. That’s what a writer is. Someone who writes. You can have fun doing that. Or have fun later. I had the revelation many years ago that people didn’t respect my writing time. Friends, colleagues, family. They all saw it as a kind of hobby, like collecting bobbins, something you could interrupt at will without harm. Whereas if I had to teach a class, pure respect. “I have to go teach.” So much for whatever agenda my tormentor may have had—teaching is real, teaching commands respect. “Meeting Friday at three?” “No, I have to teach.” Meeting time changed, or if not, I wasn’t expected to attend. But if I said, “No, I have to write.” The reply was, “Oh, well. We all have to write. We’ll see you Friday at three.”
The big shift I made was starting to call my writing work. First to myself, then to family, finally to everyone else. And not just call it work, but make it my work. And not just work, but my job. My number-one task. I had to respect my writing time if I expected anyone else to.
“Can’t make the meeting. Have to work.”
“It’s important, Bill.”
“Well, so’s work. Let me know what you talk about and I’ll give you my two cents later.”
The next challenge is knowing when you’re supposed to be at work. Any other job, you have a schedule. You’re expected at your desk or at the restaurant or at the head of the class at a particular time and place.
So, I started scheduling my writing time in with everything else. I’d do this Sunday nights, just look out across the week realistically and find at least a little time every day, Saturday off or reserved for special projects. Something like this: Monday, busy day. But carve out a tiny ten-minute block after lunch. Use the block, and lunch, too, if possible, to get clear on the next day’s work, to get a sentence started, maybe a paragraph written, something, anything to keep in touch with the project at hand and smooth the way upon the morrow: work. Tuesday, two hours in the morning. Wednesday, holy hominy, jammed. Ten minutes again. Thursday, that two-hour morning block again, ahh, and add an hour before dinner. Friday, all afternoon. Sunday after dinner, since I’m cooking that night, three hours, and that’s before I turn to the composition papers also on my desk.
But what if Friday your kids are coming home from school at 3:00? Well, you have to work. Do what you’d do if you were expected at the office, the restaurant, the classroom. Arrange a play date, get a sitter, enlist a relative, turn on Word Girl, whatever it takes. My daughter liked to sit with me and pretend to write. Now she really does write, and a lot.
Go ahead, schedule a day off on the weekend. Don’t make things so draconian you’re bound to blow it. Be a nice boss. But if you don’t show up as scheduled, fire yourself. But have a soft heart–hire yourself back when you come begging.
If a friend calls and says let’s see that new movie Sunday night, you know what to say: “I have to work.” If the temptation is so great that you can’t resist, go ahead, go to the movie: at least you know enough to feel guilty! And you know enough as well to schedule a make-up block of time. Get those scheduled hours in, every week, one way or the other.
Teaching can be a huge time suck. And rightfully so–those wonderful students. But at a certain point I switched the equation from “Teaching takes so much time away from my writing!” to “Writing takes so much time away from my teaching!” And so I scheduled my teaching, too. Not the classes, that was done for me. But the grading time, the prep time, the conference time. Each class got x hours and no more than x. Which meant there were days I went in with some papers ungraded. Which meant there were days I was less than prepared. But after a while, I learned to get the work done in the time allotted, and not only that, but to get it done well. I also realized I could assign fewer papers that would come straight back to me while getting the students to do more with one another. Remember–whoever’s working hardest in that classroom is learning the most. Put those students to work! You can schedule yourself a whole week off by assigning student presentations, all peer-graded. Let the students bring the papers home. And these economies make you a better teacher in the bargain, especially if they help you to write.
As you get good at scheduling and sticking to your schedule, you’ll find more and more time, more and more blocks big and small in which to report for duty, which is writing, don’t forget. The other stuff is just the way you support your writing.
(Except kids. But kids can play Frisbee. Infants worse. And new mothers, and single mothers, they get full sympathy. Young fathers, almost the same. Yet I’ve known quite a few of both types who kept the work going–tiny increments, it’s true, but all babies grow up if we give them the love. Which means time. But I don’t see anything wrong with approaching yourself at the advent of parenthood or during later crises and asking for a leave of absence. And I don’t see anything wrong with granting such a leave. The job will still be there when you return. Life is various. And leaves give you plenty to write about and plenty of heart to write with when you finally return to your desk.)
You’ll also find that daily, or nearly daily contact with your projects will change the way you approach them. Instead of sitting drumming your pencil and thinking about sex through your whole five-hour Thursday-night block, you’ll hit the ground running. But then again, thinking is your work, too. Also daydreaming. Head in a cloud, which is where the metaphors live. Make time for that. Respect all aspects of your process. You can’t leave work just because you’re not having a productive day! Stay there. Turn the machines on, grab that pencil, look busy. The boss isn’t going to keep you around if you take off every time you’re not inspired. Write notes for the greatest book ever written if necessary, but write. And if you’re not writing, at least look like you are.
Sorry, reading doesn’t count. But it is part of our work, so schedule that, too, just schedule it separately, and bring a book to every appointment. Ten minutes of Middlemarch equals hundreds of hours of People Magazine. And really, at the dentist, sometimes you get a half hour here, ten minutes there, wonderful. And listen to the same book on tape on the way home.
I actually count gardening up to a point, because I can bring myself to a still and receptive place among the weeds, think my way through literary problems, hit the desk ready to proceed.
Similarly, you can write in odd moments. I used to hate waking in the middle of the night. But now, after the third or fourth round of worrying whether I’ll make my flight on my next trip, I plug in some crucial plot or language problem from the project at hand. Why does Mark tell Charles he can’t come to dinner? At first, that flight and its attendant worries will keep cycling through, but pretty soon Mark and Charles take over, and pretty soon again I’m asleep.
In that state, since I’ve been working daily, even if only in small blocks, my mind can keep going. Often I wake up knowing what Mark is up to, the bastard. And when I hit the desk, that bit of dreaming is already done, so I can start writing, writing.
You’ll know you’re getting there the first time someone you’d rather not calls to ask if you’ll be a bride’s maid, a groomsman, if you’ll come plant trees with the employees of some gross polluter. And you say, “No, I have to work.”
If you’ve had to say yes—and this happens—bring your notebook along, carve a little time out of the block that’s been stolen from you, and write–even one sentence is enough, even one phrase. And don’t forget to re-schedule the time you had to miss! You can’t get along on half a paycheck.
As my friend Wes McNair once said to me, “We’re not going to be remembered for going to meetings. We’re going to be remembered for what we write.”
Also this week one of my wonderful former grad students has written to ask if I’ll read his book contract. First of all, hooray. Second of all, no, because I’m not an agent or a lawyer, not even close, and bad advice only goes so far. But here’s what I suggest: join the Author’s Guild. They have a free contract service for members. Actual lawyers review your contract to make sure it’s up to industry standard (many are not). They suggest revisions, which most publishers will accept, at least to some degree. Even your agent will be glad for the second opinion. Membership is ninety dollars a year.
Bill Roorbach is a writer in Maine. He didn’t have time to write this.