I’ve been reading a lot (or at least it seems like a lot) recently about the synergy of creativity and routine – specifically about how people are most effective when their creative output is structured by habit. Since I’m a writer, my reading on the topic has included several recent blog posts and articles about the benefits of having a writing routine. All of the best writers (so they say) had routines. They would wake up at the crack of dawn and start writing – finishing their day’s work around noon. They would walk every day before they wrote, or lock themselves in an office all day long with nothing but a notepad. They would wake up every night at midnight and write until the sun came up. They did the same thing every day, and their genius flourished. blah blah blah
Yeah, … I don’t know about you, but that’s SO not me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the comfort of the routine. It certainly makes sense to me. I have always been a creature of habit, and there’s something about going through the motions of what you “always” do that helps to focus, ground, and settle the mind. It’s just that this kind of routine-building has no connection to my reality.
You see, my reality doesn’t include the will (or the energy) to wake up super early and get instantly productive. I don’t have 5 hour blocks of time to sit at a desk and pour words onto a page. I work full time. My commute is long. And my evenings and weekends are always jam-packed with church functions, Bible studies, special events, little kids’ birthday parties, community service programs, meetings, seminars, get-togethers, dinners, and 4 hour phone calls with mom 🙂 What little time I spend at home is normally busy with the thousand little administrative tasks that I have accumulated over the years. Update a database? Sure. Send a weekly report? Why not. Write a children’s church lesson? Of course! None of these things take a lot of time, but they’re there, and they require my attention, and each one of them chips away at the little time that I have when I am both 1) home and 2) awake.
I’m not complaining – I love my life, and I wouldn’t choose to live it any other way. But it doesn’t leave me with a whole ton of free time to dedicate to a structured writing program. It certainly isn’t predictable enough for me to schedule consistent writing time. So to me the idea of blocking off a time in the day, or even a space in my apartment that is solely dedicated to writing seems a little far fetched.
So during a recent phone call my BFF/SNOO (Best-Friend-Forever/Support-Network-Of-One) was asking me about the progress of my latest manuscript. When I told her that it was almost finished she asked me a very simple question that’s been rattling around in my head ever since: “So when do you actually find the time to sit down and write?”
In the moment I was able to give her a quick and messy rundown of how I manage to get words on paper. But the question has stuck with me, because I think it’s important to know how and when I get my writing done. I decided to share it here, because I think it might be helpful for other people with crazy schedules and zero free time to see what I do to keep myself productive. So here’s what works for me. If something here resonates with you, feel free to steal it. If not, that’s fine too – we all have our own processes. But at the very least I hope it helps you to think about your writing habits, and where you find time to get your writing done.
1. I write at night. Night-time seems, in my life anyway, to be the only time when any writing gets done. It’s the only time when I’m likely to be home, sitting in one spot, and relatively undisturbed. I don’t have a specific time set aside for writing. I’ve noticed that it normally starts not long after I walk in the door – but that can be any time between six and midnight, depending on the day. The key, for me, is to get at it while I’m still UP from my day, before my mind starts slowing down and unwinding. I’m not sure why, but I have always found writing to be a high-energy activity. It always seems to involve jumping up to grab a cup of coffee or a snack. It often means typing as quickly as possible before I lose my train of thought – and maybe even throwing both fists in the air as I read back what I just wrote and find it sounds just as good on paper as it did in my head (we’ve all done that, right? …. Hello? Wait, where did everyone go?) The point is that it takes energy – and that energy is easiest to find in the evening, after my day is done.
2. I know what I want to say. The biggest advantage of writing in the evening is that I’ve had the whole day to think about my work and where I want to take it. I don’t spend hours pondering my manuscript, but it does sit in the front of my mind as I go throughout my routine. As the day goes by I pick up little bits of inspiration, random ideas, points that I want to make, phrasing that I want to use, or new insights I’d never considered. I store them all away in my head so that when I finally sit down to write, it’s not a matter of trying to come up with something to say. It’s more like pouring out onto paper everything that’s been bottled up in my head. Somehow it always seems so much easier that way.
3. I write in short bursts. I admire people who can sit and write for an hour without checking their email. Really – I admire them. I also sort of don’t believe them. Or at least I don’t believe that I could be one of them. I don’t have the concentration or the willpower to say I’m going to write for an hour uninterrupted. What I can do it write in short, manageable clips. I timed myself once and discovered that when I’m actively writing (assuming I know what to say and how I want to say it) it takes me about 10 minutes to put together 200-250 words of prose that I actually like. That is a quick burst of productivity – and even I can manage to concentrate for 10 minutes. So instead of trying to find an hour to write, I grab the little pockets of wasted time that I can find. I’ll write uninterrupted while my pasta cooks, or I’ll sit down 15 minutes before my favorite TV show comes on. With short, specific deadlines and one eye on the clock, I can produce a lot more in a much shorter time than if I’m trying to fill an hour. Often that little burst of production is all I need to get myself into the groove, and from there it’s easy to keep going (during commercial breaks, of course).
4. I pick (and embrace) a frame of mind. I have two different approaches to my writing – and when I say different I mean they are polar opposites of each other. The first I call “Jump Around” and the second “Hunker Down.” Every day, before I write, I ask myself “What are you doing today, Paula? Are you going to jump around or hunker down? Answering this question honestly helps me get into the headspace to write in a way that’s in harmony with my frame of mind. If I’m Jumping Around, its usually because I have a dozen little nuggets of information that are dancing around in my head that need to get on paper before I lose them. It involves (as you might guess) jumping from section to section, or even from chapter to chapter. This mind frame is all about getting ideas on paper and fleshing them out, but has little concern for transitioning or even finishing each thought. This kind of writing is often fun, inspiring, and energizing. Hunker Down, on the other hand is a mentality of plowing through to get something done. It has its own motivations, its own sense of productivity, but it requires that I be in a specific mood, or it turns into a giant waste of time. I normally find myself hungry to hunker down when I’m closing in in the end of a chapter or on a day when I’m lacking any specific inspiration. That’s when I’ll sit down, read through what’s there, and add the nuts and bolts that turn what I have into a coherent argument or idea. It’s not very inspiring work, but it’s solid, it’s practical, and it gives me an incredible sense of accomplishment.
5. I “Paint by number.” In case you haven’t figured it out, allow me to state for the record that I am not a linear writer. I cannot start at the beginning, continue through the middle, and then finish at the end. To me that is the most tedious writing process imaginable. It gets boring, I lose my train of thought, I start feeling stale, and before you know it I’m stuck. No thank you! I prefer to start at the beginning and to write until I get bored, and then skip ahead until I find something that I’m inspired to stick with. Of course, this kind of writing requires a very solid outline – otherwise things can get wildly confusing and unfocused. But as long as the structure is already there, I have no problems working on multiple unconnected sections of my book at the same time, starting them where I feel like it and writing until I lose interest. I have developed a handy highlighting system to help me keep track of where I’ve left off – hence the painting by numbers (don’t be jealous … you can totally steal this. I don’t mind a bit!) Sometimes I think my work looks more like modern art than a manuscript. But it works for me, and that’s the point.
6. I have a daily word count. There is no better way to feel productive (and actually BE productive) than to meet a minimum daily word count. I’m obsessive about my word count. I have a dedicated spreadsheet where I track it by chapter – in part because it’s an easy way to judge my progress, but mostly because I’m a giant dork. My daily minimum is small – just 1000 words, but once I start writing I can’t really stop until it’s met. So the very first thing that I do when I’m going to sit down to write is to reset my daily count so that I can track just how much I’m about to write. That spreadsheet stays open, and every time I run out of things to write I stop and update my totals to see how far I’ve come. On days when my writing is flowing, I can plow past my goal in less than an hour. That’s an awesome feeling, and when I’m in the zone I have no problems doubling or tripling up. I’ll keep writing until I feel like I’m done. But not every day is a good writing day, and there are times when every sentence is painful, and finding enough words to string together seems impossible. On days like those, I’m thankful for a low count, and I stop as soon as I reach it. But that’s ok. I feel no guilt. My goal may be small, but meeting it every time I sit down to write is the most surefire way I know to keep myself writing.
So what about you? What are your writing routines? Where and when do you find the time to get it all done? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.