Why I Haven’t Posted in Over Three Months; Writers and Time; and Some Useful Advice

I haven’t posted lately. My law practice is busy, and when I have free time I usually choose fiction writing over blog writing.  All writers have this devil’s choice – use your good hours to create, or use them to promote what you create.  Many writers, particularly those who have a time-intensive day job, have difficulty scheduling time for both.

That is why I’ve often suggested to people who want to write that the best thing they can do for their writing is to take on the sort of job that they don’t have to bring home.  If you can, get paying work that neatly contains itself in a predictable, finite number of hours.  Of course, heedless of my own advice, I run a law practice, which as any lawyer can tell you, does not necessarily contain itself to predictable, finite hours.  And realistically, those neat, predictable facilitate-your-writing-life jobs seldom pay enough to facilitate your basic survival.  If you can make do with such a job, however, it helps.   

To some degree, however, running your own business, setting your own hours, also helps – if you can manage to schedule blocks of writing time.  But that isn’t viable for everyone, or for every kind of business.  So that also goes in the “if you can do it” column.

Writing doesn’t take time.  It destroys it.  It knows no mercy for otherwise productive hours.  For some writers, make that otherwise productive lives.  That is, fiction writing is not something to do when you suddenly get an open ten minutes to fill.  It requires long spaces of uninterrupted time.   It’s an investment that may or may not reward with a satisfying result, but it is guaranteed to devour large segments of your life.  That is why, if you write fiction, you need to be very careful with how you manage your life.

Yes, I know that individual writers vary. Some writers work in odd intervals by preference or necessity.  I’m not one of them, and in my experience, most writers do their best work in extended fits of solitude.  If you can write your best stuff in occasional blinks of time, getting more writing time probably isn’t an issue for you, and you might want to skip the following Useful Advice.

I use Victorian-style capitalization here because it is retro advice.   I can’t take credit for it.  I hope it helps you get more writing time, even if only a little.  It’s helped me.  A little.

Start with this seeming non sequitor.  Here’s a traditional household management scheme:

Monday: Wash Day
Tuesday: Ironing Day
Wednesday: Sewing Day
Thursday: Market Day
Friday: Cleaning Day
Saturday: Baking Day
Sunday: Day of Rest

You can find variations on this schedule on several websites devoted vintage homemaking, including  Modern Retro Woman, Vintage Homemaking, and The New Homemaker.  There’s also a version at the Hoover Presidential Library & Museum website. Kerri McIntire, in article called “Mother Goose Migrates to America,” includes a similar scheme that she dates to the women of the Mayflower.

What does this have to do with writing?  Crankish as it sounds, Everything.  I’ll leave off the old-fashioned capitalization now.  My useful advice has nothing to do with homemaking and everything to do with compartmentalizing your life.  Except – creating your life is a kind of homemaking in a higher sense, so perhaps my metaphor holds. Your creative life is a sacred space, it is your imagination’s home, and like all sacred spaces, it needs to be separate from the mundane world.  Good fences make good visions, or something like that.  This is absolute.

First, get the damn housekeeping out of the way.  By housekeeping I don’t necessarily mean household tasks, although I include those.  I mean all the trivial but necessary tasks you need to do on a regular basis to keep your life in order.  Sweeping, dusting, laundry, physical exercise, bill paying.  What does it take?   Make a list, and schedule one or two tasks to complete first thing each morning.  If you can’t come up with a task for every morning – congratulations – you’ve got a few free mornings in your week.

The point is to divide your housekeeping tasks among the days of the week, in an order that works for you.  If your Wash Day is Friday, so be it.  If your tasks are so numerous your “week” is 10 days long, fine.  The ancient Athenians kept 10 day weeks, and their literary life was none the worse for it.  Just keep it consistent. If you get one or two brief tasks done each morning, you won’t need to pile them all on one day.  That way you’ll never lose an entire day each week (1/7 of your life) to necessary trivia.  Make it a personal mandate to get that day’s task(s) done first.

Then go to your day job (if you have one) or go to your writing desk (if you have that luxury).  If you have a day job, your evenings should be clear for writing.  If you don’t, the day is yours.

Does this sound too neat?  It won’t work for everyone, nothing ever does.  But if you require a certain sense of order and regularity as a real-life frame for letting loose on the page, this scheme will absolutely help you.  You’ll start every day with a sense of accomplishment.  Because the undone tasks are scheduled for another morning you won’t feel the annoying pull of needing to finish them. As a result, you will get more undistracted writing time.

You don’t have to be a “morning person” to use this advice.  I’m not.  But even if, like me, you stumble through your morning tasks still half-dreaming, it works.  If early mornings happen to be your best writing time then of course don’t screw with that.  Do your daily tasks in the evening.  This scheme should be used to serve your situation and responsibilities – not the other way around.  The point is to figure out the trivia that needs to be done every week, contain it to a set, regular, daily time, and enter your imaginative space without distraction. 

Some may scoff at this, but I truly get excited about creating new schedules, because they are a way of creating a new life.

Your time is your life. You really don’t have anything else but time. Nobody does. Getting the most writing time requires being ruthlessly disciplined with your life, and that means a schedule.   The way you schedule your time creates your life, there’s no way around this.  The trick is to arrange your time in a way that creates the life you want.  Be merciless about this.  Because it’s nothing less than your life, your way of existing, that is at stake.

Show me a writer who lets time go to chaos and I will show you a stressed, mentally distracted individual who cannot focus on the page.  Show me a writer who keeps a regular daily rhythm and pace, in all aspects of her life, and I’ll show you an individual who gets good writing time and keeps that space pure.  It’s that simple and that difficult. 

Thoreau was right.  Simplify.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across is from a letter dated December 25, 1876, that Gustave Flaubert wrote to Gertrude Tennant, Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos œuvres.”  My translation: Be well-ordered in your life and banal as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.

I’ve often seen it translated: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

I use “banal” rather than “orderly” (which misses the meaning of ordinaire – which is closer to “ordinary” than “orderly” and is used here in opposition to “original”).  “Banal” doesn’t mean “boring” in this context.  It means energy conservation.  It’s keeping your creative vision unsullied.  It’s the quiet, measured life that allows for the spaces where the dark, playful, violent, stormy strange stuff happens.  It’s the contrast that draws the energy.  And the compartmentalization, the strict apportionment of time, that keeps it pure.

Flaubert’s statement has guided me for years, so I felt the pleasure of recognition when I came across it on a time management post by Mark McGuinness at Business of Design Online.   Go read what McGuiness has to say about keeping a regular schedule and how necessary that is to keeping a creative life.  Then go do it.  Then, if you can schedule time for it, let me know how it works.


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