This post continues discussion of the five components to a writing practice, as proposed by Jane Anne Staw in her excellent talk at UC Berkeley Extension’s Summer Fiction Intensive.
How many of us say that we’ll write our novel, story, memoir, exposé, whatever, as soon as we have the time? I wish I had a bag of peanuts for every time I’ve sat on a plane next to someone who, after asking the inevitable “What do you do?”, said to me, “Oh, I’d write, too, if I had the time.”
As if all it takes is time. Clear the schedule, brew the coffee (or pour the single-malt, depending on your fantasy of the writer’s life), rent your garret, and type away. If only.
Some years ago, over egg-salad sandwiches, an uncle asked me, “So do you sit down to write when you’re in the mood, or what?”
Hell no. If I waited for the right mood, I’d never write. Writing is like brushing my teeth, I told him. I have to do it even when I don’t feel like it. Sure, there are those times (like this morning, come to think of it, standing outside the sauna in the locker room after a swim) when I can’t wait to get home and write down some flair of brilliance (which never looks quite so brilliant after writing it down). But most of the time, I write out of habit and discipline and because, if I miss more than a day, I feel like a failure, a wash-up, a wannabe.
So how to find the time? Because no matter what else is going on in your life, there’s always something else to do.
In speaking to a group of (mostly) beginning writers at the Fiction Intensive, Jane Anne Staw offered up the suggestion – no, insistence – that what matters is showing up. Yep, you’ll have to give up something else – maybe a favorite cable show, or frequent phone calls with your friend in Chicago, or an hour of sleep – but don’t be harsh on yourself. Demanding, yes, but not harsh. Find a time that works for you – and it doesn’t matter when it is – and stick to it. Yes, every day – but not necessarily four hours a day.
I’ve known writers – this was in grad school – who, when they had a story due for workshop, pulled eight- or ten-hour stretches at the laptop. I envied them their intensity. But now, fifteen years later, it’s those of us who wrote every day, even for “only” two hours, who are still writing. Habit and consistency matter. So does the commitment such habit involves. If you give to your writing, it will give to you.
Life happens. When my mother got cancer, when my father died, when I became engaged, I took a break from the novel I was writing, the stories I was revising, the nonfiction project I was drafting. I had too much going on, too many phone calls to make, too much emotional energy invested in the grief or excitement swirling around and inside me. This doesn’t mean I stopped writing altogether. “Take notes,” my friend Michael Frank, a writer, said to me when my mother got diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. “Write it all down.”
I did. In a computer file of non-proofread, single-spaced entries. On Post-its. In a spiral notebook I could take with me to the doctor’s office. And when life settled back into life, I got back to the novel and the stories. (As for the Post-its and spiral notebook, they provided essential details when writing about the loss of my parents in my memoir, The Water Will Hold You.)
What have you found helpful in carving out time for your writing? When have you needed to step away, and what’s kept you feeling like a “real writer” when you’ve had to?