W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No. 3 Finding Time to Write


In an advice column appearing in the English publication, Writers News, Jeffrey Archer told aspiring writers that they should give up everything to concentrate on their craft. Archer was later described on NPR, a US radio program, as "a best-selling author and serial idiot."

Very few writers can chuck jobs and family to devote 100% of their time to writing. Creditors abound prohibiting full-time writing. And even those not employed full time, have family and social demands.

Few successful writers were able to write fulltime until after they'd been published. John Irving taught at Phillips Exeter until he established himself. John Grisham was a lawyer, not just a writer about the legal profession. Jake Lamar (Biloxi Blues) was a reporter at Time Magazine. He now lives the writer's life in Paris that most of us dream about.

Ursula Hegi has a novel called INTRUSIONS that is really two novels in one: the main story and the author's life as she writes the novel. The narrator shows her rewrites, her characters rebelling, children interrupting and happenings at work. Most of us can identify with her when she says. "The first draft of this chapter was written with eight interruptions." This is probably closer to most of our lives.

Finding writing time is about making choices. Erica Jung does it in her poem WOMAN ENOUGH, where she remembers the clean house of her grandmother and baking, which Jung loves to do. She says:

I sit at my typewriter
remembering my grandmother
& all my mothers,
& the minutes they lost
loving houses better than themselves -
& the man I love cleans up the kitchen
grumbling only a little
because he knows
that after all these centuries
it is easier for him
than for me.

Dr. Barbara Hagaman, an anthropologist, who did all three degrees with a husband and three daughters, was talking to a group of women who said they would like to go back to school. Dr. Hagaman asked, "What are you willing to give up?" The women looked at each other. "Dinners out? Television? Parties? Shopping? Reading anything but your textbooks?" Anthropology or writing, when we go for a goal it all depends on the price we're willing to pay.

However, as writers we can choose not to do dishes or mow the lawn, but we can't decide to ignore loved ones indefinitely or not to show up to work. There are things we can give up for precious time at our computers or pads and pens. How to we make these decisions?


I talked to some writers to see how they do it.

Sylvia Petter (THE PAST PRESENT) was happy to talk with us. Petter works full time, is married and the mother of a daughter. When she began writing the first thing she found she needed was space in which to work. She turned a small room in her house into her "souk". However, instead of being able to spend after-work hours at her computer, her family wanted her with them. Compromise was the answer when she discovered the ability to tune out the television as she sat in the living room with her husband. She jotted down rough drafts on paper. Later she'd enter them in the computer.

Petter is an expert in finding time. Some of her best first drafts came from when she walked her dog, Reglisse, French for Licorice. Then there was the time she was talking into a recorder as she drove to another town. A friend did mention passing her on the highway to her husband and asked if she were all right because she'd been talking to herself.

Another writer, still unpublished, was fortunate to be able to walk to work. He used this time to "write in my head". When he changed jobs, he took up jogging. Although he only could steal a half-hour at night, he is coming to the end of his first novel using the morning thinking, evening writing method.

For those who can't find time here are some things that work for different writers.

· Get up an hour earlier - good for morning people, terrible for night people.

· Stay up an hour later - great for night people, terrible for morning people.

· Eat at your desk during working hours and write.

· If you commute by train, take your laptop and write. The laptop method might also work in the parking lot of the supermarket, etc. If you don't have a laptop, use paper and pen.

· Bargain with your family for time off. A stay-at-home mom can demand X-time to herself. One mother sets a timer, finds an activity for her daughter and each go to their separate rooms. They only come out when the timer buzzes. One couple, both retired refuse to lunch together, giving the man time to write. The wife also enjoys the freedom to plan her day without him underfoot.

· Trade baby-sitting time with a friend. Two single mothers switched children every other weekend allowing both time to write all weekend during their free Saturdays and Sundays. Certainly not as good as having time every day, but one has produced a chapbook and the other has been able to write several short stories that are now circulating to small literary magazines.

· Sit in a café with a notebook or laptop. J.K. Rowling spent hours in an Edinburgh café writing Harry Potter and kept her promise to make them famous if she could. She took television reporters to the café during a recent interview shown on British television.


With a diary marked in hours, jot down how you spend your time for a month. (This will work if you do it for a week, but not as well).

Mark each entry with a code.

  • NC = Necessity e.g. work, fixing a plugged drain.
  • OP = Optional

Then give them a second Code

  • L = Liked or loved
  • N= Netural
  • D= Disliked

Analyze by grouping them.

  • NC = Liked
  • NC = Neutral
  • NC = Disliked
  • OP = Liked
  • OP = Neutral
  • OP = Disliked

This is not a quiz like those in Cosmopolitan Magazine that can assign points. How you decided to use your time is very personal, but if you are spending a lot of your energy on things that are necessary that you dislike, you may want to see if there are alternatives. Maybe someone else in the family can take over that chore. Or if you live alone, can you hire someone to do it? If it is something like dirty windows, maybe you can learn to live with them as is.

Now go to the optional. Look at those activities you really dislike such as having lunch with coworker who is a back stabber. Those activities you can cancel and pick up the time. If you're neutral think why you're neutral. Maybe you can drop some of them.

If you really like something, continue. Doing things we enjoy gives us energy, but think about how much time you're spending on these activities. For example, I love computer games, but I could easily waste several hours a day on Alchemy or Free Cell. Now, I use it as a reward after I've done my allotted writing.

The exercise does answer the question "Where did the day go?"


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