Time Bandits

Ask any writer of any level of success what they wish they had more of, and chances are, you’ll find a strong trend leaning toward one unexpected answer.

It isn’t ideas. We all seem to have plenty of those, even those in our crowd who recycle the same ones over and over again – even in their case, the permutations are infinite.

It isn’t a quiet place to write or a new desk or a clean new notebook and pen. Our methodologies and obsessions are as varied as our numbers.

No, what you’ll find is that, almost universally, what writers want more of is time. Time to simply sit down (or stand in front of the refrigerator, as Thomas Wolfe did) and put pen to paper, fingers to keys, quill to parchment or whatever and get the lurking words down and out of our heads.

Why time?

Because there are so many things that steal time away from us. Sometimes wittingly, sometimes un-, and many times because we simply let it (and look the other way when it happens).

The Holidays – Oh, for a nickel for every writer’s blog entry I’ve seen recently that said something like, “Well, now that the holidays are over, I can get back to my WIP.” It’s the nature of the beast. We all might as well quit between Thanksgiving and the New Year.

We just need to make sure that Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, the start of school, and Halloween don’t derail our efforts. Pick a holiday and like it. Be a curmudgeon the rest of the time. The in-laws will understand. Maybe.

Family ‘n Friends – You love ’em, you hang out with ’em – but God bless them, they just don’t get it, do they?

“Hey, Joe’s not doing anything. He can help us move this piano.”

I’ll never forget the momentary breakthrough I achieved when we moved to Ohio from Wyoming. We were camped out at my in-laws’ house until Something Much Better came along, and my IL’s were nice enough to set up a room for my office. After we got semi-settled, I set back to working on whatever book I was trying to finish at the time. One day, I became aware that someone was standing in the doorway looking at me. It was my mother-in-law.

She smiled at me and said, “I think I get it.”

I said, “You do?”

She nodded. “Yes. You come in here and work every day, just like it was a real job.”

Almost. Almost.

Fans – Surprisingly enough, your readers – the fans – can eat up time for you. Sometimes innocently. Sometimes not.

It might start with fan letters that you’ll want to answer. But then it can progress to requests for writing advice (which I recycle as entries here – or I write it up and refer them to the new post). When you’re unlucky, they start offering to send you their manuscripts. And when your luck has run out, you get generous “offers.”

Hey, I’ve got this idea for a great book set in the fast food industry, and I figure with my ideas and your writing we can…” Fill in the rest.

All of these can consume time.

And if that’s all you get, consider yourself lucky. In his essay Xenogenesis, Harlan Ellison recounts example after example of fan behavior gone wild – cleaning eggs thrown against a door, canceling subscriptions to unwanted magazines and mail-order music clubs, and worse – all resulting in the loss of “time… precious time.”

Granted, these are the extremes. But if you’re heading for publication, decide now what your policy is going to be in dealing with escalating fan requests. Then stick to it.

The Life of a Writer – As opposed to The Writing Life. There’s a difference.

The Writing Life is the daily process. Sitting, turning up the tunes (or not), firing up a ciggy (or not), turning on the computer or filling the pen with ink (or not), and putting words to paper or screen.

The Life of a Writer is what makes shows like Murder She Wrote interesting. Notice they never showed Jessica Fletcher just sitting and writing for hours at a time. What they showed was the book signings, the talk shows (reality check – when was the last time you saw a non-celeb fiction writer on the talk show circuit?), the cocktail parties and the dinners (reality check #2 – would you invite Jessica Fletcher to your dinner party – you know if you do, one of your guests is going to die).

That’s the life of a writer, and it can get in the way of The Writing Life. In one of his columns, Lawrence Block discussed how he watched just this sort of thing bring a fellow writer’s actual writing to a halt. The person spent so much time living the life of a writer that they lost track of what got them there to begin with – and fell away from actually sitting down and writing.

As far as I know, the only person who could get away with that sort of thing was Truman Capote, whose output far underscored his level of fame. How does stuff like that happen, anyway?

Of course, many of us don’t get to that whole “life of a writer” phase. Maybe that’s a good thing. Of course, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy the life of a writer. Just stay focused on the writing life if you become one of the chosen few.

Our Day Jobs – If you’re writing full time, count yourself as lucky, lucky, lucky. I was there once, and it’s like that stupid place in that stupid Star Trek movie where you would do anything to get back.

I know this for a fact. I made the decision to walk away from writing full time when my wife became pregnant with our second child (okay, I was 50% responsible for that). After our first was born, I saw how miserable she was having to go back to work when her maternity leave was over, and when number two was announced, I promised myself that she wouldn’t have to go through that again, and I went out and found a job. And I haven’t regretted a day of it, considering how my kids turned out.

When I was toiling on the college paper, a good friend of mine told me that I would probably be better off working a manual labor job than something that involved a lot of writing. His thinking was that if I had a job writing for The Man, then I’d be too worn out creatively to produce my own stuff. This has proven to be mostly true. Since I started work at the ad agency, my writing output has slowed enormously – moreso than if I had been, say, a plumber.

Now the thing is, not all day jobs hamper our creativity or our ability to produce. The fastest I’ve ever written novels is when I had a writing-oriented day job where I was completely, utterly, and perfectly miserable. The novels I was producing were my solace and my escape hatch (literally – I sold the Pembroke Hall books just before I was “downsized,” and the resultant book income held us over quite nicely until Something Much Better came along).

Our Own Fragility – Fill in the blank: There are days when I would rather ____________________ than sit down and write.

You’d be surprised what fits in the blank. A whole host of things that we would rather not be doing ordinarily, we would ordinarily do in order to prevent our appointment with a blank screen or piece of paper:

Mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, taking out the garbage, doing the laundry, washing the dishes, making the bed, chopping the wood, sweeping the floor, changing the oil, making that trip to the zoo to watch the sloths mate, going in for that root canal or colonoscopy.

I’m not sure why we do that. I just know that we do. Maybe it’s a breakdown in our self-discipline, or perhaps it’s our subconscious begging us for a little more time to work out the structure of the paragraph we haven’t written yet.

I could argue on both sides of letting the writing time slip away. The writing is always better if you let it sit and think about it (providing you’re actually thinking about it as you’re painting the spare bedroom). On the other hand, things tend to turn out perfectly well if you Just Do It.

Maybe I should even say that delaying doesn’t make things necessarily better. Just different than the way things would have turned out otherwise.

Overall, better not to break the discipline. Especially if you’re on a roll. Double especially if you’re stuck. Rearranging the stamp collection will certainly not help you get out of the corner you wrote yourself into at the end of your last writing session.

Issues – A nice catch phrase for whatever I haven’t covered (and everything I have). Coming out of the holidays, I’m having family issues. My mom’s health has been another roller coaster ride. This has led to sleep issues. In turn, work issues.

You know what? It all adds up to Time Issues. To beat any of this, I’m going to have to get drastic and cart the iBook up to my bedroom and close the door.

Sure, they’ll understand. They’re the family of a writer after all.

And they’ll give me all the time I need to get my play finished.

Right after I help move that piano.

Listening:
our correspondent made to wait in the lobby
torn to pieces by three have-a-go bobbies
young swimmers in these sun dialling times
sweeping the nation with a dance called the breadline

(via iPod Shuffle)

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