Thursday, March 10, 2011

Soapbox Series #3 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "I Don't Have Time to Write"

You know those pet topics? The ones people raise over and over again, the oft-voiced misconceptions, the FAQs, the "if I had a nickel..." comments, the remarks that make you want to wax eloquent? Most any human endeavor offers them, certainly every profession, and writing is no different. This irregular column covers such topics that I find commonly raised by aspiring writers, acquaintances, those closer than acquaintances, or people who are simply fascinated by what writers do, and allows me to rant -- er, expound -- on them. Today's "if I had a nickel" comment is: "I don't have time to write," its variation, "I'll write as soon as life settles down," and its question form: "How do you find time to write?"

I got this question once in the supermarket cereal aisle. I was a little surprised at the source. She'd been a high school classmate; extra-curricular list as long as your arm; took every college-prep class offered; played two musical instruments; and went on to become a teacher, wife, mom, and volunteer. I expected somebody this savvy, and with this much energy to burn, to know better, I guess. I opened my mouth, and this is what came out: "How do you find time to work?" I was gratified by the understanding that lit her face. She got it. She made time for her profession, and all the commitment and dedication that implies, and I made time for mine.

But she's rare, plus we were comparing career time-slots in each of our lives head-to-head. The question seems more of a quandary when you already have a day job, when a crisis hits, or when you're an at-home mom wondering how to fit in even a bathroom break. It's tempting, in these cases, to feel that the only difference between you and a writer is that the writer has hours of empty time to fill and you don't. Or, in a slightly less arrogant vein, the writer lives in a book-lined study with a cup of tea, a cat, a view, the scent of lilacs wafting in on the breeze, enchanting tales spilling from her tranquil  brain, and nothing but the soft clack of keys to punctuate the idyllic silence. While you live in kid-screaming, traffic-honking, clock-watching, boss-yelling, errand-running, TV-chattering, phone-ringing, head-pounding, meeting-cluttered, double-booked chaos.

Which uncovers one huge misconception: That writers live in a bubble, and until we can become Bubble Boy/Girl, we're stuck. You'll write when the kids get older, you say? What -- you think it gets easier then? When they need you to take them to the mall, help choose their high school classes, practice driving, talk late at night, apply to colleges, visit colleges, apply for financial aid, plan weddings -- and then it's "Hello Grandma" and there you are with little kids again? Now what -- do you wait for those kids to get older too? And the foregoing represents only the parental curriculum; what about the parental extra-curriculars? What if you can't say no to the barrage of requests to coach sports, chaperon field trips, teach Sunday School, direct the choir, be the team mom? What if (gasp) you homeschool? Why would the kids getting older magically uncover any writing time? Especially when your parents are now older, too? As are you.

Writers write, publish, and smile through their promo events with life in all its messy glory seething behind the scenes. They do it with cancer and other serious illnesses or conditions--their own or a family member's. They do it with crumbling marriages, wayward kids, threatened foreclosures, and ongoing legal hassles. I'll be honest: Some of them do it through situations that would knock the pegs out from under me. They do it through neutral or happy times, too: moves, weddings, births, remodeling projects, job changes. We can't predict whether or when many of these things will happen. Every time one of them occurs, will it be a roadblock that makes you say, "I'll write as soon as life settles down"? If so, you won't sustain enough forward momentum to really, in the end, be a writer.

We all find time for what we really want to do. Making time to write (or do anything else) is about choices, and it's about plugging time leaks. I've long believed in scheduling my time on a week-by-week basis, and I strongly recommend the book 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think by Laura Vanderkam. She advises this: Every time you say the words "I don't have time," substitute "It's not a priority." Then examine how you feel about that. If it's not a priority, then indeed, don't make time for it. But if it is a priority, there's no sensible next step but to do just that. Yes, if you are a writer, you do have time to work, nurture a family, exercise, eat right, sleep enough -- and write.


Laura Pauling said...

What a great answer you gave - When do you find time to work! I think anyone that pursues a creative art has to learn to say no to some things. I volunteer at my kids' schools but I don't over volunteer. I teach children's church but I don't plan VBS. There are ways to have a well rounded life without going overboard. Just cut out the television and you'll have time!

Andrea Mack said...

Your comment about not being able to predict when things will happen made me laugh.(Last night my hubby and I were replacing a toilet at 12 am...don't ask!) Writers do have to persist through these ups and downs, and the key part about being a writer is, well, you write. And write more. And keep on writing.

Bish Denham said...

This hits home Marcia. Even though I don't have kids life still seems to "get in the way." Hmmmmmm. Surely there is plenty of time.

morgan said...

It never ceases to amaze me that when I'm able to sit down (having "found" the time that was previously "missing"), and actually write, time just flies. I often wonder when I begin (after my boys are sleeping) how long I'll be inspired or how long I'll be comfy sitting in one spot with such a big belly. But usually, the hubby has to come and pull me to bed by the hand with me saving files and backing up and stopping to change "just one last thing". I find that making time isn't just about getting the work done: its also about stoking the creative fires consistently.

Marcia said...

Laura -- It's great that you've succeeded in drawing lines -- this, but not that. Writers need to develop the ability to do that.

Andrea -- I hope the plumbing's okay now. Yes, we have to be vigilant in not letting these things crowd out the writing.

Bish -- I read something recently that compared life to that "bop the alligator" game, where you have to hit their heads with mallets to get them to retract. Not too far off.

Morgan -- Amen to your last sentence especially! And we have to make/save room for that that end-of-writing-session stuff too. Sometimes I'm running short when it comes to the saving and backing up, but no way will I skip it.

cleemckenzie said...

I think prioritize is the one word I could not live without. And the nice thing is that when an emergency comes up, I can scroll through that prioritized list and put the new item at the top.

This whole week I've scrolled and reordered too many times to count!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great point, Marcia! When I'm not writing, I'm choosing to do something else. I have time...I just have to decide it is a priority. Thanks for the reminder. :)

Kelly Hashway said...

Great post. I tell people all the time that writing is my job. I don't feel bad about putting time aside to write because it's my job. People don't feel guilty for going to work each day, so why should I feel guilty for writing each day?

Anne Spollen said...

Absolutely write! (couldn't resist)

All the much touted "me time" that is so important can be writing, and yes, you have to just sit down and do it. It IS your work.

This post was a great reminder of that fact.

Jeff King said...

This post was what i need to hear... thx.

cevillely said...

I recently attended a leadership conference and heard Dave Anderson say, "What are your goals making you do today that you would not be doing otherwise if you didn't have the goal?" If it is a priority it will compel you to action... not tomorrow, or the next day... but TODAY! Success is about decisions, not conditions...

Thanks for the article Marcia!

Marcia said...

Lee -- Yes, the word "priority" has flexibility built right in. But I hope you'll get to scroll and reorder less next week.

Sharon -- I agree; everything we do is a choice. How empowering! And, of course, full of responsibility.

Kelly -- Right on!

Anne -- And when you keep a detailed calendar of your 24 hours each week, time to write that we were sure we didn't have pops up.

Jeff -- Glad you found it helpful!

cevillely -- What a great question he posed. And I love your last sentence: Success is about decisions, not conditions. :)

Andrea Vlahakis said...

Excellent post, Marcia. And great response to your high school classmate's question. Of course, I hear this question all the time from students (the same ones that always have time for tv). What I find dismaying is not just their belief in the notion, but their goal to have nothing but free time to write.

Thanks, too, for Laura Vanderkam's quote. I will be incorporating that in my response to my students.

Marcia said...

Andrea -- *sigh* Even I'm still suckered by the goal of nothing but free time to write. At least I really do realize that it's pie in the sky, and that if it ever seems I actually have it (a condition that might last half a day at best), it's actually a rather boring prospect.