The Mysteries of Writerliness: A Question of Time

I’m sometimes asked how I find time to write, and when I’m asked it feels like a question of faith, as though there isn’t a logical answer that fits with the laws of space/time—the mysteries of writerliness. “I don’t know,” I might say. “I just do.” But that’s not really a satisfactory answer. It shouldn’t be that mysterious and I suppose it’s not. I’ve read about career writers who spend anywhere from three to six hours a day writing—uninterrupted.  I want to be them. But I’m not. I am that most pitiful and desperate of creatures: the unpublished writer. Oh, I’m also a full-time English teacher, a husband, and father of three. I should also add that the boys have soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my oldest son has Cub Scout meetings on Wednesdays, my daughter has dance lessons on Fridays, and Mondays are—well, they’re Mondays. I’m also the house chef and cook dinner for the family most nights. I do find time, though. Every day.

I once thought that I could (and should) only write when the mood hit me—a writing philosophy that I naively believed would yield only quality prose. I needed an idea. I needed to feel inspired. I needed something hot to drink and some moody weather on the other side of the window. I needed quiet. I never wrote a damn thing. Maybe sometimes. Rarely did I finish a project, though, and I sure as hell didn’t edit beyond lazy copy-edits. I did eventually realize my philosophy was bullshit, but I still didn’t believe I could write daily. Maybe every other day? I knew I had to be consistent, whatever the solution. Then I read this. And it works. I write for twenty minutes a day, at least. I’ve always got twenty minutes—always. It might be after work in my classroom. It might be at the end of the day, after the kids are in bed. Sometimes—rarely—it might be after I’ve gotten in bed and a panic hits me when I realize I haven’t put in my twenty. I set my timer and I write. When it goes off, sometimes I’m relieved, especially when the words are onerous and clumsy. Other times twenty minutes becomes a couple hours. I haven’t missed a day yet. However hectic and seemingly unmanageable my life is, I’ve always got twenty minutes.

I lied earlier when I said I didn’t have an answer when asked how I find time. Every time I’m asked, an answer does occur to me and I’m too ashamed to admit it: I’m selfish. When I’m writing, there are all sorts of other things I should be doing. I should be grading an essay, planning a lesson, straightening up the living room or cleaning the dishes, or giving my attention to someone who needs it. Like I said, I’m an unpublished writer, and there is no rational reason to believe that any of my work will ever be published. I know that. But, regardless, I devote serious amounts of time to writing—not just the minutes spent fingering the keyboard. I read articles about writing. I read other writers’ writing. I spend money and time on contemporary fiction, not just because I love to read but because I want to know and understand what is being published and why. Luckily, this kind of obsession crosses over well with my job as an English/Creative Writing teacher, but it’s still a lot of time I use for myself. But a writer needs to be selfish and unreasonable. Writers write because they want. They want to understand something about themselves and others. They want to say something and for it to be heard—stories that need telling. Sometimes—oftentimes—what writers want is very personal. So, yes, I find time because I’m selfish; I have to be.

I know I’m not the first to say this, but I do believe it: writing has to be a habit. I want to be a writer, so I’ve made it habit. In some respects, maybe it’s a bad one. It has all the characteristics of a bad habit: it’s an addiction, I practice it daily, it’s an act of selfishness, and (as an unpublished writer) it’s not the kind of thing I confess during first meetings. Yeah, it’s probably a bad habit. But I won’t be giving it up.

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