How do you find time to write?

When Random Person discovers that you’re a writer, odds are that he will ask you any of several basic questions:

  1. How long have you been writing?
  2. Where do you get your ideas?
  3. Where have you been published?

(If Random Person is a jerk, he’ll just grunt “You’re a writer? Never heard of you,” but that’s a topic for another post.)

If Random Person wants to be a writer, he’s bound to ask you this:

How do you find time to write?

Hands down, this is the question I get asked most at my day job at the university. There’s no shortage of beginning writers there, and most of them have written enough (or tried) to realize that time is a distressingly finite commodity. They’ve found themselves juggling jobs and classes and kids and housework and errands and … well, things always seem to go unfinished at the end of the day.

And it’s not just a matter of scheduling time, is it? After a 9-hour shift at the restaurant or call center, you might technically have a whopping two hours to call your own before you go to bed. But when you sit down with your notebook or computer, you find the day’s left your brain wrung out, and after an hour of staring at the blank page you have maybe a sentence or two to show for your efforts.

There’s no easy answer to the question “How do you find the time to write?”

Well, okay, there is; I call it the Grizzled Writer’s Bluff: “You can’t just find the time, you have to make the time. And if you want it bad enough, you’ll do it.”

It’s an easy answer because while it’s perfectly true, it’s also perfectly unhelpful. It doesn’t provide anything resembling a workable strategy or even a helpful hint; what it often does is make the newbie feel even more lost and loserish than before he asked his oh-so-hopeful question.

Time is a problem for every writer. For those of us with full-time jobs, it’s an ongoing struggle not only to make time to write, but also to ensure we’re in a fit condition to get good work done when the time comes. Because there’s no standard life, there’s no standard answer to the question. But there are some tactics writers can take, and the real secret is to try anything and everything to see what works best for you.

When I graduated from college, I started on a “career” job – the kind of job that follows you home at night – and quickly realized I could either have a well-paid life as a white-collar worker, or I could pursue my dream of becoming an author. I knew I just didn’t have the energy for both. So, I made myself indispensable at my workplace, and managed to convince my boss to let me drop to part time. Part-time jobs worked well for a while until the .com bust left me unemployed and excellent hourly positions scarce. When I found another day job that didn’t seem like it would suck up all my energy, it didn’t pay nearly as well as what I’d gotten before, so dropping to part-time was no longer an option. However, I was recently able to switch to a compressed, 4-day-a-week schedule, and that’s been helping me cut loose more writing time.

Deciding to pursue more casual jobs instead of better-paying career positions was a pretty risky choice on my part, and it’s not one that everyone will feel comfortable making. But there are other time management tactics to take, although they, too, may involve difficult choices.

Start by taking a hard look at what you do during the course of an average day. Make a list of everything you do, and separate things into “work” and “play”. Flip a coin if you can’t decide.

First, look at your “play”. Don’t skimp on your weekly tennis game or thrice-weekly trip to the gym – you need to keep your body in shape to keep your mind in shape. But what about all the TV you watch at night? Tearing yourself from the tube is a prime way to find writing time. Socializing is another, harder, place to find time to write. How many parties do you go to in a month? If the answer is more than one, and your day job isn’t as a promoter or DJ, you need to cut back. It’s hard to say “no” to friends, and you don’t want to nuke your social life from orbit lest you become a crazy, out-of-touch hermit. But if you’re going out for drinks after work nearly every day, you need to gut up the courage to tell your coworkers you’ve got other plans.

Ultimately, you need to treat writing like a second job, because it is. Even if you’re not getting paid for it yet.

Next, look at the things you’ve put in the “work” category. What, really, do you have to do? And what do you feel you ought to do? The “oughts” need to be weighed. You can probably cut down on the number of errands you run with a little planning. And unless your neighbors are already complaining, you can probably get by with less yard work and housework. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses – what do you really care what they think, anyhow? If you don’t have to do it and you don’t want to do it, by all means, ditch it. But make sure it’s really something that doesn’t need doing; ignoring litterboxes, for instance, can become an expensive disaster.

And gruffly blowing off your kids or spouse and holing yourself up in your office is a recipe for heartache down the road. You have to take care of your responsibilities to the people and pets living with you. Period. The carpet doesn’t care if it gets vacuumed, but your daughter will care a lot if you don’t go to her soccer games.

The flip side, of course, is that the people living with you may not understand the time and effort involved in writing. So, your first step is to recruit them to your cause. Explain to them that writing means a lot to you; share your dream with them. Explain. Negotiate. Tell them that you need their help to achieve your dreams; your spouse will probably feel a whole lot better about watching TV alone if he or she feels she’s helping you get good work done. The kids will still want your time, of course, but “Mommy’s working” is a lot easier to understand than “Mommy’s ignoring me.”

But what if you talk to your spouse about your need for work time alone, and he still treats your desire to be a writer like a childish phase you’ll grow out of? Or, worse, he seems to outright scorn it?

For instance, a writer acquaintance of mine isn’t “allowed” to write while his wife’s awake. She expects him to sit with her watching TV in the evenings until she goes to bed, and then he’s free to do what he wants as long as he doesn’t disturb her. So, this guy writes from 11pm until 2 or 3 in the morning, whereupon he goes to bed for a few hours, gets up at 6am and gets ready for work.

Clearly, he really, really wants it. Few of us would be able to keep up that kind of schedule. And the thing is, he really shouldn’t have to. His wife should have enough basic love and respect to support his ambition instead of treating his writing dream as some unpleasant character flaw that she grudgingly indulges. What she’s doing is frankly bullshit. He seems to be sticking out the marriage because they have young children, but I don’t see how it can last.

One female writer friend of mine had a husband who made supportive noises while they were dating, but once they were married, he acted impatient when she talked about her writing and did a lot of passive-agressive crap to interrupt her while she was working. She, too, resorted to working after he went to sleep, or she left the house and went to the library. Over the years, his snark and disrespect got worse and worse, even though she was bringing in serious money from freelance writing, and finally she filed for divorce.

I’ve seen other situations like that, and if the writer sticks with writing, the marriage always ends in divorce.

And that’s the upshot of all this: if you are living with people who won’t respect your writing or writing time, or if you’re dating someone who treats your writing with veiled scorn or disdain, that’s a clear sign that they just plain don’t respect you. You need to get them out of your life. And although it might seem easier said than done, it’s a lot easier done before the wedding bells have rung.

Life is too short to do otherwise.

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