Thursday, December 12, 2019

Finding Time to Write

Marion Zimmer Bradley recommended stay-at-home motherhood as the perfect job for a writer, because writing can be performed in short bursts in the intervals between the tasks required to cope with the house and children. My inner retort upon first reading that statement was, "Speak for yourself, Ms. Bradley." The time it would have taken me to settle into a creative mindset would have eaten up most if not all of each of those brief intervals. The talent for jumping straight into a writing project at a moment's notice isn't given to all of us, although admittedly one can train oneself to shorten the "settling down" part of the procedure. Bradley's advice, however, does highlight one important fact—one doesn't need long, uninterrupted stretches of quiet time to generate readable prose. It took me a long time to learn that principle. My natural inclination was to wait until I had a couple of free hours to devote to a project, hours that came along too seldom. Writing in short bursts can work. Hard as it was, at first, to believe I could produce anything worth keeping in sessions of a half-hour or less, I found that what emerged from my brain didn't turn out appreciably worse than the products of the uninterrupted hours.

C. S. Lewis once remarked that, upon rereading his drafts, he couldn't see any difference in quality between the passages that had flowed with ease and those he'd painfully labored over. The same principle, happily, seems to apply to outward working conditions as well as the author's mental state. In the years since I've taught myself to accept twenty or thirty minutes as an acceptable work period, if that's all I can fit in, I've discovered that 300-400 words can often be generated in those time slots. That's significantly more than zero. A thousand words per day add up to a draft of a typical novel in three months. Five hundred per day would accumulate to novel length in about six months.

Some writers swear by waking up early to churn out one's quota of words before beginning the day's mundane routine. I shudder at the thought, regarding anytime before 8 a.m. as the middle of the night and not becoming fully conscious until somewhat later than that. However, the advice to write every day, at whatever time fits one's own schedule, does make a certain amount of sense. If not every day, at least often and regularly enough to avoid losing the flow of the work. It's hard to get immersed in a story again after leaving it untouched for too long.

A pitfall I've often stumbled into is the impulse to clear the decks before starting. I feel I should get all the routine tasks out of the way in order to free up a time slot and brain space for writing. Unfortunately, that habit can lead to expending most of my allotted computer time on e-mail and other chores, leaving only a short span at the end of the afternoon for writing. In retirement, the truth of the adage that work expands to fill the time available proves itself all too often. It's more productive to start the day's writing first. The other stuff can get done later and usually will. One thing I've learned to do is to open the file of the work-in-progress first, right after turning on the computer. I can tell myself I'll write just a few sentences, maybe a paragraph or two, then come back to it after getting through the routine tasks. That way, I often trick myself into producing a couple of hundred words, so I feel I've accomplished something at least. A sense of accomplishment boosts my morale, encouraging me to generate more prose later in the day. Since I don't usually enjoy the first-draft process (I envy authors who do), I welcome any method of tricking myself into writing.

One school of writing advice suggests discovering your natural "chunk"—the amount of time you can comfortably write at a stretch—and devoting several sessions per day (depending on the time available) to those chunks. Once you've learned how many words you typically produce per chunk (comprising however many minutes), you can estimate how long, in total, it will take you to compose a draft of any given length. Any method that harnesses one's own natural inclinations can boost productivity.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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