18 July 2007

The perennial problem of time

Yesterday, I had my first classes back after the long midsemester break, and I asked my students to start with a discussion on how their novels are going. In that discussion, I said each person had to tell me one thing they were finding problematic and one they were finding exciting about writing their novels. As we went around the class, several listed their problem as finding time to write. Now, the midsemester break, with no classes and almost no homework, might seem the perfect time to build a decent tally on their weekly word counts, but it had quite the opposite effect. All sorts of things had got in their way: work (doing a lot more hours), illness, other commitments.

In the end, we all have to make choices about our writing. We have to prioritise. For some people, writing is always their top priority. These people will sacrifice everything for their art. (This isn't unique to writing, of course. I remember reading an interview with Bill Cosby where he talked about what he had sacrificed for his acting, including his family life, and how he regretted having been so selfish. It was a brutally honest, poignant interview.) At the other extreme are the people who say they want to write but never have any time at all, and talk about one day... One day, of course, will never come. Most of us lie somewhere on the continuum between these two poles.

There is no right way to live a life. Nobody can tell you that you must make writing a priority, and which priority that must be. Does it come before family? Does it come before work commitments? Does it come before a friend in real need? Or a friend who wants you along for a good time? Does it come before TV and computer games? Only you can decide. But what if you are serious about your work, committed to finishing a novel, but never able to find time? Then you need to examine where you're going wrong.

Here's my thoughts on how to better manage time. First of all, decide where your priorities do lie. Think about how you spend your time nowand where you want to be when you climb into bed. Will you be happy to have written another 1,000 words or frustrated that again you had no time to write? Here are some practical solutions on how to deal with time-wasting activities. A weekly schedule can be invaluable in helping you squirrel time away.

1. Television. How much easier it is to sit and veg in front of the TV than boot up the computer and work on your novel. Write down a list of everything you watch during the week. Be honest. If you were going out each night, which ones would you ask someone to tape and which ones would you miss? Any that you wouldn't bother taping are ones that you can cut from your schedule. Chalk in that time as writing time.

2. Friends who want you to go out when you want to write. How much time do you spend socialising a week? Learn to say no. You don't have to be so blunt. A "sorry, I can't" will work just as well. You could perhaps set part of a particular day away each week and let your friends know that's when you'll be available. It's all a matter of balance -- but one you'll have to think about if you're not taking time to write.

3. Computer games. These are so easy to slip into, but before you know it you've lost an hour, several hours, a whole day. A few years ago, I fell in love with The Sims, and made the fatal mistake of turning my characters into Sims. How much fun that was, playing with these people I already loved. Whether it's Solitaire or something more sophisticated, you're just going to have to be really strict with yourself. If you like to play each day, limit yourself for a set number of games if they're quick or a set amount of time and adhere to this. Again, think about the end of the day and what you want to have achieved.

4. Emails and blogs. It's easy to kid yourself that these are essentially not time wasters -- after all, you're on a list that keeps you up to date with new publishing opportunities. But how much time do you spend reading and/or writing congratulatory notes because Betty has just placed a short story in an ezine? Learn to skim the entries and don't read every email. Write your blog after you've written your 1000 words.

5. Telephone. Don't ring in your writing time, and unless you've got ill people in the family/small children at school, let the answering machine take the call. You can always call back later.

6. Family not respecting boundaries. Talk to them about how serious this is. If you're home when they're not, do your writing then. Leave housework, shopping, food preparation etc for when they're home. Leave your blog and emails till when they're home. Exploit your quiet time for writing.

7. Research. Essential, yes, but there's a time to research and a time to write. You can use the McKenna method of writing where you add a parenthesis and write "insert details here", and come back to it later. Research is great, and it informs your writing, and often all the sidetracks you pursue can be as rewarding as the informating you're hunting down, but if all you ever do is research, you're not going to get that novel written. Decide when enough is enough, and realise you can get the other stuff later. Never interrupt the flow of writing to look something up.

8. Lack of discipline masquerading as being too busy. Bum on seat. Sign a writing contract with yourself: a set number of words per day, or a set amount of time. Do not leave your seat until those words/that time is done. Find someone you can be accountable to, and send them regular reports on how you're going.

9. Disorganisation: letting time just slip away. Use your writing contract. Use a timetable. Try blocking out what you do for one day, and just finding out where that time really is going.

10. Fear. This is a difficult one and warrants a post all of its own. Writers are afraid of lots of things. You have to sit through the fear. No-one said writing is easy. It's not. But you want to be a writer, right? Bum on seat. Allow yourself the freedom of writing crap. Remember, the bottom line is that crappy pages can be edited into something better; blank pages cannot.


Sherryl said...

Two questions - are you going to make your students read this, or print it out and give it to them?
And are you going to commit to it yourself?
For me, it's 4, 9 and 10. None of those are major issues, but each one nibbles away at writing time because I let them.
My new commitment is an hour a day. And I put myself in for 100 words a day for 100 days on a list I'm on. Between the two, I plan to make writing a habit, not just a job to be done, or a bit of fun. Habit is what gets you to the computer.

ellen said...

good stuff, Tracey! I suffer from 4 definitely, and a bit of 8 & 9. I really do try to write my blog after writing, but _reading_ blogs (yours included) generally comes beforehand!

I found that the 1-hour sessions before work, which I started a few weeks ago, were amazingly productive. Suddenly I was writing every day! However, in my current 'finished draft' status I am enjoying a short break.

TV has been a problem for me in the past, but I have it fairly well under control now. The trick is to switch it on for the one thing you want to watch and then turn it off again!

Lisa66 said...

Ahhh, for me it's 4 and 10. I am a blog addict! I have to cruise around a bit, read a little and maybe even post a little before I write anything. Very bad habit indeed.

Fear...well I'm full of that.

At the moment I'm suffering from disorganisation as well. I was in a great rountine before the school holidays but...well, you know how it goes!

Tracey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tracey said...

Oops, just caught a spelling mistake, so have deleted it and reposted it. I do love cut and paste, but would've been happier with a comment-edit feature!

Sherryl, yes I'll probably put it up on the AV thingy next class, I think. Seeing they did motivate me to write it. As for me committing, yes. I do believe that it is the daily practice that keeps the cogs oiled. I am serious about my writing, and in the past I've seen the distancing effect of not writing. It wastes too much time. A habit is what I'm after too -- and my novel is an obsession, so it should be an enjoyable habit after all.

Ellen, great point at the end. It's so easy to go, oh, I didn't know that was on. Or just even not be bothered to get up. Especially in this weather. In winter, my study always seems the coldest room. But, at the end of the day, writing satisfies me; TV does not.

Lisa, yep, sure can relate to the school holidays stuff. Some hols guilt gets the better of me, and I do all the requisite family stuff, which is fun and gives me a break. And I believe that writers should *live* a life; otherwise, how will we find inspiration? How will we feed our novels? Other times, though, I just think, stuff it, and write, and let them fight or watch DVDs or play Playstation or whatever.

Sherryl, you did have to bring that up, didn't you? You're not allowed to adopt a houlier-than-thou attitude, though, because if you do I'll bring up you and Bren though. You two are famous for it!