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The Writing Life

Because writing is one of many things I do, I often feel spread too thin to accomplish any of my goals. For me, writing requires substantial blocks of time – forty-five minutes minimum – because I like to first imagine the scene or the dialogue I’m creating on the page. I like to “see” how it will evolve before I put it into words. I love getting lost in my own thoughts this way and I’m often surprised by what happens. But I can’t allow myself that freedom knowing I have to be somewhere else imminently.

Whenever I talk to fellow writers, I ask about their process. How do you create a structure in your life that supports BOTH your writing and your other endeavors and obligations?

The responses vary so significantly, it’s clear there is no singular way, no formula for doing the writing and the work.

In On Writing, Stephen King says his “…schedule is pretty clear-cut. Mornings belong to whatever is new – the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait.” He also says, “if [he] doesn’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off [his] mind,” which I can fully appreciate.

Most writers say they write every day. Some have word count or page targets, others simply chain themselves to the desk and whether they crank out one word or ten thousand words, they have accomplished their task.

Anne Lamott says, “You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.” Then you just write. She gives a wonderful anecdote, describing advice a doctor gave her when her dear friend was diagnosed with cancer. “’Watch her carefully right now…because she’s teaching you how to live.”” So, when Anne is struggling with her work, she thinks “To live as if [she’s] dying.” It helps her decide what’s most important to do today.

I have a writer friend, who is also a teacher and program administrator. I invited him to lunch one day, just for fun, and he explained he doesn’t eat lunch. In fact, he doesn’t eat all day, reserving the time for writing and work. At 4:00 on the nose, he finishes his workday, then imbibes on whatever he needs (food, rest and other). In the mornings, he likes to work on his original writing. In the afternoons, he does his administrative work.

He explained he works best in a state of intellectual and physical hunger; it propels him.

Another writer friend works best in the evenings and will spend part of the day researching her novel, outlining scenes on her storyboard and reading for ideas and inspiration. Then she sits down at her desk around 3:00. She works until she’s done, whether that’s an hour later or in the middle of the night.

A third novelist friend works a nine-to-five job. Writing is her passion project, though she has published three books with another forthcoming. She writes on her lunch breaks, before her shift, when she got home at night, on the weekends and whenever she finds time. There are no “schedules” or mile markers for her; she just gets it done.

For me, I need to set goals and adhere to a schedule, or I will find a dozen ways to get distracted. No two days are the same, as I must work around my children’s schedules. So, on Sundays, I sit down with the family calendar, and I draw out the coming week. First, I fill in the appointments and the pick-ups and the games and the obligations. Then I look at the chunks of time left over. I will block the spaces where I have an hour or more and reserve that time for writing.

I also set a word count target and allow myself to write without judgment, and without re-reading what I’ve done. If I do not meet my target by Friday, I find weekend time to go to the library to work. If I DO meet my word count goal for the week, I allow myself a small reward (a pastry from that incredible Italian deli, or a travel magazine to feed my wanderlust, or a new book).

I have accountability partners AND writing groups that keep me responsible for creating work.

I am of the philosophy that a writer must write, so I do. Some days feel amazing and fruitful, others feel empty and wasteful. And that’s just how it goes. Once I accepted these truths, I became more productive.

I’d love to know about your writing life. Do you have a defined process, or do you improvise? What keeps you motivated and moving forward?


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