At the marvelous Saints and Sinners Conference in New Orleans, a young man asked me whether it was reasonable for his partner to rent an apartment separate from the house to remove him from distractions. And of course one always thinks up a better answer/better scenario after the questioner ducks back into the crowd and I’m left without their email address. So here’s my (improved) answer:
Finding the time to write frequently comes down to two things: adding more structure to your life; and reducing the pressure surrounding writing to keep the self-doubt and fear at bay.
Self-control is required for facing fear and ignoring distractions but that’s a really difficult thing to practice in a setting without structure. Structure fosters self-control. So the first step to making time to write is to increase the structure your life. In a way, you don’t need a studio or a housekeeper to do the distracting chores, you need a wall calendar and a plan of action. You need what I call the Muse Rules.
Muse Rules: Structure Your Life
1. Pull the plug out of the router Saturday night before you go to bed to ensure that Sunday is a day with absolutely no media before 6 p.m. No internet, no TV, movies, events, not even music with lyrics that you can comprehend.
2. Set aside four hours. Two hours isn’t enough time since one can easily waste two hours, but four hours gives you about an hour to dance around the project, dive into it, freak out and back away. It gives you a couple of chances to dip into it.
3. The Muse demands Sunday afternoon. One to five p.m. You probably don’t want to do this plan on Sunday morning because then the temptation to sleep in is too great (i.e. avoidance, procrastination and fear are manageable and mask-able when you’re sleeping!). Besides, Sunday morning sex is too great to give up (and if you’re screwing instead of writing procrastination becomes an aphrodisiac.)
4. While the writer is working, the boyfriend should not do any of the outlawed activities, and especially not go off and do things like go to parties and report back on witty conversations and wild times, etc.
5. The boyfriend should look into what passion drives him as well, and do that during the 1-5 p.m. slot. The boyfriend could fill in the blank: “I’ve thought about dabbling in ______” because it doesn’t matter if it’s a hare-brained idea or something he’s thought about only a couple of times, if both of you are trying to develop new skills/talents/art forms, Sunday afternoon becomes a very special time for both of you.
6. Let’s say the boyfriend is going to dabble in making chocolates while the writing is going on. No running into the study to say “Oooh, baby, lick the spoon.” Or the writer coming out of the study saying “Damn, that smells good what is that?” Stay in your respective corners. No coming into the study, no coming out of the study. The writer stays in the study with the door locked until he’s disciplined enough to be able to take the laptop out to the garden, or to a café.
7. Then start backing the calendar up: no drinking past 8 p.m. on Saturday. Set your iPhone to vibrate or something. Tell your friends, “No thanks. Muse Rules.” Be in bed by midnight. Once the joy of Sunday is established, you can perhaps add another evening of creative time to the calendar but you need the same structure and discipline on that night.
8. Making time for creativity also means you have to structure other parts of your life: if vacuuming is a distraction then Saturday is the day for vacuuming and you both acknowledge that it will get in the way of creative time if it’s not done so it needs to be done without fail. It goes on the calendar. It pings on your cell phone.
Muse Rules: Reduce the Fear
When you’re not in the habit of writing, writing becomes terrifying because you’re not just worried about “What will I write? How will I plot?” That’s the easy part. What happens when you’re a new writer is that you are plagued by self-doubt: ‘Oh god, what if I’m lousy at this?” It’s not about the art, it’s about the fear. And facing fear requires self-control, and applying some techniques for reducing the pressure.
1. Maybe don’t call it ‘work.’ Sounds onerous. Maybe don’t call it “time to write” because it sounds like you are attempting to produce literature and that’s fraught with pressure. On one trip to visit my father I would excuse myself in the evening saying I was “going to scribble for a while.” It’s self-deprecating, but I didn’t want to say ‘going to write’ because it sounded too important and I didn’t want to say I was going to go journal because it sounded as if I was going to chronicle their conversations, which I imagined sounded threatening to them.
2. Train yourself to be free of the critic. May Sarton suggested putting all your output into 9x12 envelopes and sealing them every day. Putting them in the bottom drawer. It keeps the critic at bay. You can’t agonize. You can’t belabor because it’s sealed up. When re-writing is a joyful task, not an exercise in self-loathing, then you can leave the work out.
3. Don’t talk about quantity. When the two people in my example get together at 6 p.m. on Sunday, I’d advise them to not talk about ‘how much did you write’? It’s not about quantity. It’s not even about quality. All of those things are relative. Ask each other “how did that feel?”
4. Distract your fear by doing things to quickly “drop into the zone” of thought about your piece. Music of the period can wash over you and get you in the mood. Knowing what you’re going to write the night before can banish fear. It’s possible to be more mobile and to pack more writing in to the schedule when you learn tips and tricks for quickly dropping into the zone, into the voice of your characters and the tone of your story. Fear and pressure gets in the way of dropping into the zone.
Ultimately, creative endeavors aren’t about the output at all. They’re about the opportunity to face your fear and build a life that includes the joy of tapping into your own imagination.
Causes Jess Wells Supports
Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Friends of the Urban Forest, The Heifer Project, Forests Forever, NRDC