When I was an intrepid tween writer I came across a quote by Stephen King that went something like “Writers write. I meet people all the time who say they’re writers, and when I ask what they’re working on, they tell me they’ve never written a word. They’re not writers. Writers write.” Apologies to Mr. King for the paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. What this did to my consciousness as someone who really wanted to be a writer was set an external expectation on me. If I ever stopped writing, I could no longer call myself a writer. I had to be a shark, always swimming, always moving, or poof! I’d disappear in the mist of my own failure. So I wrote and wrote, terrible stories but interesting to me, and definitely definitive in setting up the foundation of my craft. Early on I was fascinated by ordinary people in near-extreme circumstances, and the relationships between them. I submitted to summer writing programs between my high school years, getting rejected a lot and accepted a couple of times, and then I absorbed as much as I could from the other writers around me.
I saw that folks each had their own rituals for writing, their habits, good and bad, and their tendencies, like being a night owl or a midday writer. They also took on the specific task of writing differently. Some wrote and rewrote through their first draft, others plowed through and got to the nitty gritty in later drafts. One woman spent months writing backstory and plotting reveals and twists before she ever got into the manuscript, and another friend jumped in and let the words take her wherever they happened to go. There were tradeoffs for every strategy of course, but taken in aggregate they led to a literature among us. That is what literature should do—provide an avenue for people who need to tell a story of importance to someone else. If the process of writing is varied, so is the access to writing. So it behooves us who care about the characters in our heads to open a space for the writing to happen. Here are a few of my ideas, humbly offered with no expectations for agreement.
Identify the times you have for writing—If weekdays are too cramped with obligations, look to the weekend. If you could stand to wake an hour earlier, go for it. Or say no to the standing Sunday afternoon coffee date with a friend, and make a date with yourself instead. Don’t worry if your time bands are three hours, one hour, or three-quarters, just find where they are and take stock. Also give a look to what abets them: if you’re trying to stuff in a block of writing between your gym routine and your shower, that might not work out too well for your words.
Know thyself—Most of us have figured out if we’re morning people or night people, but if you’re not sure, keep a journal for a couple of weeks and write down your activities, and then judge for yourself. Heck, if you completely forget to keep your journal until 2PM, that’s good evidence of your tendencies, too. The point is to be able to match up your time availability with your mental and creative peak, or near as the two meet.
Be forgiving—I think the Stephen King quote is a little narrow for some writers. True, nobody who has never written a short story would be accurate in calling themselves “a writer,” but on the other hand it’s not really about identity, it’s about getting something produced. As one who lost more than a decade by insisting I wasn’t “really” a writer, I wish I’d said screw it to my expectations and sat down to the keyboard no matter what it did or didn’t mean about me. If you only have one time a week to write, take it and use it. Protect that moment in your schedule with the fierceness of one thousand mother bears. Grizzly bears. Desperate grizzly bears. But when it comes around, put your doubts and your naysaying away, and WRITE THE LOVE OUT OF THAT TIME. Then when life gives you another opening, you can double your writing time, and so on. And then you can be more flexible about it. But momentum counts, so open up your access to writing when you can, and stop berating yourself in the meantime.
Write what you can—Some days Shakespeare is not going to spray out of your fingertips. Most days, actually. Okay, maybe never. The point is, if all you can write is back story, or plotting, do it. Give yourself a reason to move forward, or at least away from square one, in any direction (think: chessboard or Hunger Games arena). If you keep up with it, the writing will happen. And also consider other projects. If I get stuck on a long novel-in-progress for longer than I’m comfortable, I move on to a short story or an essay. Or a blog post about coping with writer’s block. Finish the sentence “writers write” with “whatever they can.” The block will ease at some point, or you’ll create a bunch of other things in the meantime.
Be on the lookout for that which helps you write—A comfortable chair and adequate desk support are critical, but give yourself enough light, a happy enough space, a drink nearby, and so on. Set yourself up for success. I realized early on that I have to have noise nearby that I can then tune out. If things are too quiet my mind wanders in an attempt to fill the silence. But I’m the youngest of a big brood, so that makes sense. The reverse is also true, so if there is too much clutter around you, clear it out. Have a separate space that won’t suck you back into your other obligations like I don’t know, vacuuming. (Who ever stops writing to vacuum? Anyone?) And remember that music often stimulates our creative neurons, so get yourself a radio, etc.
Losing access to our writing time is a common way for writers to quit their craft, and in many ways, it’s a small, painful death that never really fades. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to be the next bestselling author or if you’re only writing for yourself. Make time for your passion, don’t worry about the words you’re writing if it’s typing versus not writing anything. Momentum has a way of helping us become better writers. Practice really is its own reward, and you can thank yourself later when you’ve finished a project.