When Random Person discovers that you're a writer, odds are that he
will ask you any of several basic questions:
- How long have you been writing?
- Where do you get your ideas?
- Where have you been published?
(If Random Person is a jerk, he'll just grunt "You're a writer? Never heard of you," but that's a topic for another writeup.)
If Random Person wants to be a writer, he's bound to ask you this:
How do you find time to write?
Hands down, this is the question I get asked most at my day job at
the university. There's no shortage of beginning writers there, and
most of them have written enough (or tried) to realize that time is a
distressingly finite commodity. They've found themselves juggling jobs
and classes and kids and housework and errands and ... well, things
always seem to go unfinished at the end of the day.
And it's not just a matter of scheduling time, is it? After a 9-hour shift at the restaurant or call center, you might technically
have a whopping two hours to call your own before you go to bed. But
when you sit down with your notebook or computer, you find the day's
left you mentally exhausted, and after an hour of staring at the blank
page you have maybe a sentence or two to show for your efforts.
There's no easy answer to the question "How do you find the time to write?"
Well, okay, there is; I call it the Grizzled Writer's Bluff: "You can't just find the time, you have to make the time. And if you want it bad enough, you'll do it."
It's an easy answer because while it's perfectly true, it's
perfectly unhelpful. It doesn't provide anything resembling a workable
strategy or even a helpful hint; what it often does is make the newbie
feel even more lost and loserish than before he asked his oh-so-hopeful
Time is a problem for every writer. For those of us with full-time
jobs, it's an ongoing struggle not only to make time to write, but also
to ensure we're in a fit condition to get good work done when the time
comes. Because there's no standard life, there's no standard answer to
the question. But there are some tactics writers can take, and the real
secret is to try anything and everything to see what works best for you.
When I graduated from college, I started on a "career" job - the
kind of job that follows you home at night - and quickly realized I
could either have a well-paid life as a white-collar worker, or I could
pursue my dream of becoming an author. I knew I just didn't have the
energy for both. So, I made myself indispensable at my workplace, and
managed to convince my boss to let me drop to part time. Part-time jobs
worked well for a while until the .com bust left me unemployed and
excellent hourly positions scarce. When I found another day job that
didn't seem like it would suck up all my energy, it didn't pay nearly
as well as what I'd gotten before, so dropping to part-time was no
longer an option. However, I was recently able to switch to a
compressed, 4-day-a-week schedule, and that's been helping me cut loose
more writing time.
Deciding to pursue more casual jobs instead of better-paying career
positions was a pretty risky choice on my part, and it's not one that
everyone will feel comfortable making. But there are other time
management tactics to take, although they, too, may involve difficult
Start by taking a hard look at what you do during the course of an
average day. Make a list of everything you do, and separate things into
"work" and "play". Flip a coin if you can't decide.
First, look at your "play". Don't skimp on your weekly tennis game, thrice-weekly trip to the gym, or daily walk - you need to keep your body in shape to keep your mind in shape. But what about all the video games you play or TV you watch at
night? Tearing yourself from the tube is a prime way to find writing
time. Socializing is another, harder, place to find time to write. How
many parties do you go to in a month? If the answer is more than one,
and your day job isn't as a promoter or DJ, you need to cut back. It's
hard to say "no" to friends, and you don't want to nuke your social
life from orbit lest you become a crazy, out-of-touch hermit. But if
you're going out for drinks after work nearly every day, you need to
gut up the courage to tell your coworkers you've got other plans.
Ultimately, you need to treat writing like a second job, because it is. Even if you're not getting paid for it yet.
Next, look at the things you've put in the "work" category. What, really, do you have to do? And what do you feel you ought
to do? The "oughts" need to be weighed. You can probably cut down on
the number of errands you run with a little planning. And unless your
neighbors are already complaining, you can probably get by with less
yard work and housework. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses -
what do you really care what they think, anyhow? If you don't have to
do it and you don't want to do it, by all means, ditch it. But make
sure it's really something that doesn't need doing; ignoring
litterboxes, for instance, can become an expensive disaster.
And gruffly blowing off your kids or spouse and holing yourself up
in your office is a recipe for heartache down the road. You have to
take care of your responsibilities to the people and pets living with
you. Period. The carpet doesn't care if it gets vacuumed, but your
daughter will care a lot if you don't go to her soccer games.
The flip side, of course, is that the people living with you may not
understand the time and effort involved in writing. So, your first step
is to recruit them to your cause. Explain to them that writing means a
lot to you; share your dream with them. Explain more. Negotiate. Tell them
that you need their help to achieve your dreams; your spouse will
probably feel a whole lot better about watching TV alone if he or she
feels she's helping you get good work done. The kids will still want
your time, of course, but "Mommy's working" is a lot easier to
understand than "Mommy's ignoring me."
But what if you talk to your spouse about your need for work time
alone, and he still treats your desire to be a writer like a childish
phase you'll grow out of? Or, worse, he seems to outright scorn it?
For instance, a writer acquaintance of mine isn't "allowed" to write
while his wife's awake. She expects him to sit with her watching TV in
the evenings until she goes to bed, and then he's free to do what he
wants as long as he doesn't disturb her. So, this guy writes from 11pm
until 2 or 3 in the morning, whereupon he goes to bed for a few hours,
gets up at 6am and gets ready for work.
Clearly, he really, really wants it. Few of us would be able to keep
up that kind of schedule. And the thing is, he really shouldn't have
to. His wife should have enough basic love and respect to support his
ambition instead of treating his writing dream as some unpleasant
character flaw that she grudgingly indulges. What she's doing is
frankly bullshit. He seems to be sticking out the marriage because they
have young children, but I don't see how it can last.
One female writer friend of mine had a husband who made supportive
noises while they were dating, but once they were married, he acted
impatient when she talked about her writing and did a lot of
passive-aggressive crap to interrupt her while she was working. She,
too, resorted to working after he went to sleep, or she left the house
and went to the library. Over the years, his snark and disrespect got
worse and worse, even though she was bringing in serious money from
freelance writing, and finally she filed for divorce.
I've seen other situations like that, and if the writer sticks with writing, the marriage always ends in divorce.
And that's the upshot of all this: if you are living with people who
won't respect your writing or writing time, or if you're dating someone
who treats your writing with veiled scorn or disdain, that's a clear
sign that they just plain don't respect you. You need to get
them out of your life. And although it might seem easier said than
done, it's a lot easier done before the wedding bells have rung.
Life is too short to do otherwise.