Giving Yourself Time to Write

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming guide to overcoming self-censorship.

Image Copyright Larissa Kulik, 2013. Used under license from Shutterstock.com.

Image Copyright Larissa Kulik, 2013. Used under license from Shutterstock.com.

Now seems like a good time for me to tell you this one thing about myself, in case you haven’t figured it out yet: I do not believe in cracking the whip. Every time I read in a book or hear one writer tell another writer, “you must write every day if you want to be a writer,” I cringe. Thirty-some years into this writing business, I do, in fact, write every day, or nearly every day. But I didn’t start out that way, and there have been long periods of time when I didn’t do much of my own writing; rather I engaged in emotional self-flagellation, which did not work out so well for me.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that jobs, relationships, cross-country moves, illnesses, and many other challenges can and do at times take precedence over writing. That’s life. It’s also material. Those times of not writing—we can write about them. Something happened in our lives then that could still have heat and energy for us today. In fact, it can be more difficult to write about present life challenges than to look back and reflect on them with the wisdom of hindsight. Certainly we can record our day-to-day feelings and observations in our journals, but we may need time and distance to assess the meaning of major life experiences. So if weeks, months, or years have passed since the last time you or I sat down to write, let’s cut ourselves a break; here we are today, pen in hand.

Those people who say “you must write every day if you want to be a writer” really mean it; and they’re talking about themselves. Maybe, like them, you do need to write every day. Maybe you don’t. If you’re unclear about this, it’s worth some experimenting to find out.

Exercise: Relax into Writing

Rather than trying to carve out huge chunks of your day to relax into writing, try writing during times when you feel naturally relaxed.

Sleepy Writing

Write when you feel a little sleepy. Experiment with writing first thing in the morning, while you still have sand in your eyes, or just before bed. Morning writing can help you hold onto the creative energy that comes out of sleep and dreams. Evening writing can help you let go of the day’s responsibilities. Keep a notebook, a pen, and a flashlight by your bed, so that you can use them anytime you want to write, without even getting out from under the covers.

Timeless Writing

Many writers like to write at a time when they have no other obligations. “For me it’s important to have an interval when I’m not going to be interrupted, when I can feel that if I get started I can let what begins to spin forward keep on spinning,” the poet William Stafford once told me. “I get up early in the morning when there isn’t any interruption in our neighborhood—it’s a very quiet place—and just begin with zero, or begin with my dream, or how cold or warm it is, or anything. I write between the time I wake up and the time somebody else gets up. That’s usually a couple of hours, at least.”

Whenever possible, choose to begin writing when you know you won’t be interrupted and you have all of the time in the world—or at least a couple of hours. Even if this is possible for you only once a week or once a month, it will give you a precious time when you can feel spacious and unhurried about your writing.

Soapy Writing

Write in the tub. Keep a notebook and pen by your side, and jot down everything that comes to you. Children’s book author Jack Prelutsky reports in How Writers Write that the warmth and relaxation of the bath make it a good place to think creatively. He recommends using a waterproof pen.

Claim Your Own Time and Place

List the times and places in your daily life when you feel most relaxed. Choose one of those occasions to relax into writing this week.

Exercise: Devote twenty minutes a day to writing.

The organic way to build a steady writing commitment is not to impose a rigid, whip-cracking schedule on yourself, but to ease into regular writing, paying attention to how you feel as you write and identifying for yourself the approaches that work best for you. This exercise is designed to help you do that.

Writing a little bit every day, especially when you haven’t been writing as much or as often as you want to, is a wonderful way to honor yourself. For three weeks, try to spend at least twenty minutes every day writing for yourself. Make this commitment as easy on yourself as possible. Count journal writing and any of the exercises you do from this book [or this blog!] as part of your writing time. Write on the train on your way to work or during your lunch break. If twenty minutes a day feels like too much time, scale it back to ten minutes and build it up slowly, or if you can’t find a continuous twenty-minute period in your day, break it into two ten-minute sessions. If twenty minutes doesn’t feel long enough, stretch it out to an hour over the weekend, but please also keep up the brief, daily writing; the everydayness of the practice is what’s most important about this exercise.

Giving yourself a brief, daily time to write could go a long way toward helping you write more freely. By writing every day, you might find that writing becomes no more or less important than the other things you do, and that means you won’t have to worry about having enough time to write; you can pick up tomorrow where you left off today. If you keep up this practice, it may inspire you to change your routine so that you can eventually devote an hour or more a day to writing, and as you build up your writing practice, you’ll find that it naturally fits into the context of your life, the way a seedling grows into a tree, gradually filling the space around it as it reaches toward the light.

Pt. Reyes sunset copyright 2011 Barbara Ann Yoder

What’s the best time of day for you to write—sunrise, sunset, or sometime in between? (Photo copyright Barbara Ann Yoder, 2011.)

This daily writing exercise is primarily intended to give you information about how you respond to a regular writing practice. Remember, you’re trying this out for three weeks; it’s an experiment. If you miss a day, be easy on yourself. It’s more important to pay attention to how you feel about the practice than to do it “right.” In fact, there is no “right” way to do it. While many writers say they’ve got to write every day to keep their writing muscles in shape, the way a musician practices or an athlete trains, some writers—those who also teach, for instance—write only during the summer months, when they’re off work. Other writers may spend one full day a week writing, rather than writing for short periods of time every day. If your life is not now conducive to a daily practice, or if a daily practice doesn’t feel appropriate to you, then by all means follow your own intuition about how often and how long to write.

As you do this exercise, pay attention to—and write about—what’s going on in your life right now. That will give you some clues about the kinds of subtle, simple changes you may, or may not, be able to make to accommodate your writing.

Do you feel it’s important to write every day? Do you feel it’s helpful to take time off from writing? What time of day is the best time for you to write?

Comments

  1. Ernest Hebert says:

    Great advice! For me balancing job, home life, and writing is all about the job schedule. When I worked 7:30 to 3:30 PM I couldn’t write except on weekends, because the company time sucked up my best writing time, mornings. These days I teach and can set my own hours. I schedule my classes and office hours in the afternoon and nights, so I can have my mornings free. Result: I’ve been able to write and publish steadily.

  2. Aine Greaney says:

    Hi Barbara,
    Another great post, and thanks for your kind words on my book, Writer with a Day Job.
    I don’t write every day anymore. In the very beginning, I used to and prided myself on reaching my mandatory 1,000 words. But alas, those days are over now.

    What I do find useful is to “visit” my writing everyday. While commuting or even before I go to sleep at night, I run a certain scene through my head or I make some bedside notes. By the weekend or if I manage to get up early a couple of mornings before work, then those notes and pieces are still there. I work four days per week, but it feels too long to be mentally disengaged from the manuscript to wait all the way until Friday.

  3. Lisa Romeo says:

    I’m with you. Any writing has to fit an individual’s life, which comes with its own unique set of circumstances. The “write every day” advice is just that – advice, and sometimes it doesn’t fit one’s life. There’s no need to worry about that, as long as one can find a way to get the writing done sometime, some how, somewhere. Here’s my take on it:

    http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com/2012/09/what-about-advice-that-writers-must.html

    Thanks for covering this – it relieves a lot of guilt when others know that not every writer can, does, or should write every single day.