I know, I know. We’re all too busy to write. And yet…we’re writers. Write we must. But how? Here are some ideas for ways to try to keep your creative juices flowing when real life is getting in the way. Maybe you’ll feel like you’ve discovered that 25th hour of the day:
–You’re waiting, anywhere—let’s say in line at the grocery store. Instead of flipping through the magazines or glaring at the customer ahead of you who pushes past to run back through the aisle for a forgotten can of tomatoes, mentally describe what you see, what you hear, what you smell. Does anyone around look like your characters? Are there any gestures you can snag for one of your scenes? I was riding the DC metro recently and watched a girl twisting her hair into corkscrews, over and over, her arm lifted straight over her head. She wasn’t even aware of her actions! You can bet that will show up somewhere. Whenever you’re standing around or sitting around waiting for someone or something, use that time to observe.
–Don’t pull out your phone when you’re waiting to meet someone or you’re somewhere left to your own devices. The phone is the devil, keeping you away from writing! (Okay, I exaggerate, slightly, but you’re not going to be observing and thinking and daydreaming if you’re checking your email, and observing and thinking and daydreaming are part of the work of the writer.) Just…be. Be in the moment and see what you think and see. I know, totally subversive.
–Get out of the habit of assuming you need hours of time to make progress. I belong to a neighborhood prompt group that meets once a month. We write to two different prompts for fifteen minutes each. Fifteen minutes! People have written amazing things in that short time. I’ve written a number of pieces that I later stretched into stories or scenes.
–Don’t be snobby about writing prompts. There’s something about the prompt process that is especially helpful. If I say, “Write a short story in fifteen minutes,” either you’re rolling your eyes or you’re quaking in fear. If I say, “Write about snow for fifteen minutes,” you can get going. And who knows what will result?
–And use writing prompts (or exercises) to your advantage: Write about snow, sure…with your characters in mind. As part of a possible scene for your story. With dialogue you can slip into your novel-in-progress.
–No one manages time better than a busy person. START a prompt group yourself, either with friends or strangers. They don’t have to be professional writers, just people who are interested in writing. If you make a commitment and put a date on the calendar, there you’ll be…writing.
–Your calendar is your friend. Find some chunks of time you can steal for yourself and block off your writing date. Keep it. In an ideal world, this could a weekly event, but if it’s not, don’t beat yourself up. Also, your friend is your friend: find a buddy who wants to write or read or knit or whatever. Plan time to meet up and each do your own thing, together but separate. Save the chat for afterwards.
–Can’t sleep because you’re stressed out? Welcome to the club. But use that time…it would be great if you got up and started writing. I can’t do that, though…something about leaving a cozy bed is against my nature. But my mind can leave. Instead of reliving the endless to-do list, think about the story you’re working on. Think about the novel you want to write one day. Think about the stories of your past. The benefit is that often once you do fall back asleep, your subconscious mind does some work for you and will make interesting connections and find solutions to problems that will be apparent when you wake up.
–Think about writing when you exercise. Admittedly, I’m not a heavy-duty exerciser, so maybe this isn’t possible for you people who know what a kettlebell is. But don’t tell me you can’t think about your work while you’re on a treadmill instead of watching CNN headlines blare by. Take a walk—and instead of listening to music, think about your work.
–Always carry a pen/tiny notebook. Like the Boy Scouts say, Be prepared.
–Keep a character scrapbook. I guess this is what Pinterest could be for, but I like the tactile feel of magazines and paper. Rip out pictures that make you think of your characters or their houses. Keep ticket stubs to movies your characters would like, or hate. If you read a poem that makes you see something differently, throw it in there. Don’t get all worked up about arranging these items prettily or buying a bunch of Martha Stewart brand organizing supplies, because that sounds like a to-do list time killer; a folder or large envelope or a stack will be fine. Flip through it from time to time for inspiration before you sit down to write.
–Sit in your car and write. (This is best done in temperate weather…we don’t want any heat stroke victims!) There’s a park I like to drive to because I can park and stare at the river and no one knows where I am. But there’s no reason you couldn’t steal fifteen minutes before walking across the parking lot into the grocery store.
–Create a routine: this pen, this music, this coffee shop, this day, this much time. Whatever it is so that when you pick up THAT pen and hear THAT music, you automatically think, “Time to write.”
–Read. Remind yourself why you’re writing; remind yourself of the transformative power of words. Maybe you don’t have time for The Goldfinch, coming in at 771 pages. Okay—spend fifteen minutes with a poem. You will be nourished.
–Plan an escape. Apply to a writing residency where you will be given the gift of all the time in the world. There are residencies in a variety of locations, and most are looking for a mix of promising writers at various points in their careers, so don’t despair if you haven’t published a book. Many are free or offer reduced fees depending on financial need. Here’s a great place to start your search for a writing residency: http://www.beltwaypoetry.com/ (look for the “resources” link on the far right).
–Create an escape. Make your own writing residency. Can you housesit? Stay in someone’s vacation house? Buddy up with some writing friends to rent a cabin somewhere? Hide in the basement? Do it.
Do I do all of these things? No. But I don’t have to do all of them, only some of them. Same for you. Pick one or two ideas that fit into your life and that make sense for you. Come up with more ideas on your own.
In the end, we can whine all we want about being busy, and we can despair that we’ll never have enough time, because it’s true: we are busy, and there isn’t enough time. Or we can simply push and shove and wedge and find and create that time for ourselves. If I were to write one page a day, at the end of the year, I could have the draft of a novel—that, at 365 pages, many agents would tell me was too long! I know it’s not easy. But, honestly, NOT writing is the thing that isn’t easy.
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Her short fiction has appeared in many journals, including Gettysburg Review, The Sun, r.kv.r.y., and Shenandoah. She teaches fiction in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University and is a member of the core faculty at the Converse College low-residency MFA program. Her literary blog is Work in Progress.