Most of the writers reading this blog will know the struggle involved with making space for your creative work. In a world that clamours for our attention, the space and silence needed to embark on that long haul first draft or the painstaking work of shaping and editing – or even (and perhaps most importantly) the room to read, to listen, to watch and to day-dream, is very hard won. Most writers share their writing time with other work or caring responsibilities – and have experienced the difficulty of making that balance work.
At the Writing Smithy, both Sarah and I are constantly working on our own creative projects as well as supporting other writers and for us the two different kinds of work exist together as a kind of loop. Mentoring and editing makes us consider process, craft and technique more carefully than we might do otherwise – it encourages us to constantly evaluate our work both as mentors, editors and as writers – and it improves us.
Writing gives us personal experience of the highs and the lows – the loneliness of the first draft, the terror of the dead end, the blank page, and the approaching deadline, the insurmountable mountain of research, and the uncertainty of stylistic decision making. We can talk to our clients, sometimes very intimately about these things, because we experience them ourselves – often on a day to day basis. Neither exists fully without the other (pre-Smithy, both of us have always sought our opportunities to teach, to coach, to edit and to share experiences and build community with other writers).
Here are a few tips that Sarah and I have found useful as we’ve worked to get the work we do for other people’s writing and the work we do on our own writing in balance. They’re also the first ideas we share with mentoring clients who are having problems with time management, motivation and procrastination – a subject that comes up, almost without exception, in mentoring sessions with all our clients.
One track mind
Decide what you’re doing to do, and stick to it. If that means for the next hour you unplug your router, take the phone off the hook and close the curtains, so be it. Flitting between different tasks is rarely helpful, and is an enemy to the kind of quiet, deep, sustained concentration that many writers need in order to settle into their work. Deadlines – whether these are from your editor, your boss or the three year old who will wake up in an hour’s time – can induce the panicky flitting around between tasks. In our experience, writers who stick to one thing at a time get more done.
Have a plan
If you only have three hours free to sit at your desk, know what you’re doing to do with the time in advance so you don’t fritter the precious minutes away on flicking through your notebooks, pulling up various documents, reading through the work you did last week and trying to remember What Bit Comes Next. This is especially important if other demands on your time mean you can’t write every day. Jenn finds post-it notes stuck to the computer screen with page numbers and reminders helpful – she sees them before she sees facebook, and the reminder keeps her on task.
Learn to Say No
There are only 24 hours in a day, and you can’t spend all of them writing, or sleeping, or messing around on the internet, or teaching. Once you’ve decided when and how many hours you’re going to devote to your writing, mark them out in your diary and don’t allow anything else to encroach on this time. You’re already booked on Tuesday mornings, so no, you can’t put in an extra shift at work, take your neighbour shopping, make an appointment for a coffee. You’re busy. You have a prior engagement. It’s a simple idea but the reason why it works so well is that you allocate the time you need to your writing first, you don’t just wait for it to be magically available once you get to the bottom of a long line of urgent (or otherwise) tasks.
Learn to Say No (Again)
Because there are only twenty four hours in a day, and most of them are probably already full for you, making serious time for your writing is going to involve some sacrifice. How much, and what, is up to you – and is an intensely personal decision you might take to a colleague, friend or mentor for discussion. If your work, writing and home life is causing you stress and you feel something’s got to give, may we suggest the hoovering and ironing?
While we can joke about housework, there’s a point to be made here. To say yes to writing, you might need to say no to something else. It might be a tough decision to make, and one that you need to revisit many times over the course of your career. What would you give up in order to be able to spend more time on your creative work?
Treat it Like Work
A tricky one, this. We know writers who don’t get paid for their writing, or who are taking time out from paid or caring work in order to work on their poems and novels, often feel guilty – as if writing is a waste of time that should be used for other, more worthy things. Writers who would never dream of showing up to their paid work late, or not at all – of sitting at their desk and pretending to be writing while actually doing the weekly shop, or of cancelling a work commitment last minute in order to do a favour for a friend, often allow their writing to slip to the bottom of their priority list.
Writing is work. It isn’t selfish. If you’ve set aside a day, or a week, or even just an hour, then take the time, and keep the appointment with yourself. If you’ve made the commitment, keep it. Committing to yourself and to your work is essential – as essential as talent and technique – for success in a project, and in particular for getting the most out of a mentoring relationship.
We’d love to know what has worked, and not worked, for you when you’ve been juggling the demands of a job, a family and your writing. If you’ve a tried and tested technique you’d like to share with us, the comments form is the place to do it. 🙂