A fellow Lutheran blogger has graciously offered us a guest post on learning to write when you don’t have time, or at least not much! Thank you, Anna Mussmann, and you are welcome to write here any time!
On Learning to Write More When You Don’t Have (Much) Time
I love to write. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always prevent me from getting stuck on broken essays, revising chapter one fifty-seven times instead of producing chapter two, or even from frittering away my writing time by scrolling through the internet. Before I know it, the baby is awake upstairs and the toddler is shouting, “Up! Up! Up!” Unproductive writing time is doubly frustrating these days, because with a toddler and an infant, time is pretty much the equivalent of diamonds.
Yet I keep trying. Sometimes I find that marvelous place where I am inside the story, breathing words, creating something that feels right. I want to learn how to be a better writer in so many ways, and one of them is to learn how to find that productive-zone with greater efficiency. Lately, four things have been helping with my quest to build the work habits that will help me produce the pieces that are inside my head.
Intentional Thinking Time
In the days before I had children, I would sit down in front of the computer and stare into space so that I could ponder what to say and how to say it. Now, my kiddos’ nap time is not long enough to let me sit and stare. I once read about an author–I think it was C. S. Forester–who said that the plots of his novels were like logs. They had to be left alone in the ocean of the semi-conscious mind to gather barnacles before he could write the story. Once sufficiently encrusted, a plot could be hauled up and written. Occasionally, a story would fail to come together because it hadn’t soaked long enough, and he would have to throw it back and walk away.
Now I try to imitate C.S. Forester by thinking through specific articles or stories that I want to write. Sometimes I actively plan out the organization or structure, and sometimes I simply carry on an internal conversation about the subject. If I have gotten stuck halfway through a piece, I try to plan my way out. I can think while I nurse, supervise outdoor play, push the stroller, or brush my teeth. For some reason, the shower seems to be a particularly useful place for barnacle cultivation.
One thing that helps me actually think about writing is to deprive myself of distractions. If my phone or Kindle are within reach while I nurse, for instance, I reach out for entertainment reflexively. I need to force myself to be boringly unoccupied in order to prepare for my writing time.
I sit down at my computer nearly every night after my kids go to bed. Sometimes I need to accomplish things unrelated to blogging or writing, but often I find myself caught in the eternal battle between short-term gratification–that is, friveling–and the desire to reach toward my long-term goals. It doesn’t help that I’m already tired.
I have found that my focus is better if I actually limit my time. Announcing that I will put in twenty minutes of focused writing and then go to bed is more likely to produce a worth-while few paragraphs than if I, ahem, simply sit in my chair and look at Pinterest, planning to write after just one more board.
Recently, my husband and I have taken this farther and decreed that we will not use screens on Sunday nights. Not only does this help me use my time better on Saturday night, it also provides an opportunity to sit down with a pen and a notebook and work on writing prep-work without the distraction of cool articles on social media.
I happen to be someone who loves to edit. Creating new material, although exciting, is harder for me than the part where I get to polish and revise. Because of this, I have begun experiments in forced free-writing. I simply keep writing whether or not the words are the right ones, whether or not the paragraphs are cohesive, and whether or not I want to find a citation for something. So far, this has helped me get beyond the dread trap of getting stuck on my introduction.
If this doesn’t work, I might try a program like this one that is designed to force a procrastinating writer to keep her fingers active. Apparently, you can set it to reward your productivity with encouragement; or even use a mode in which a vowel-eating monster will start eating the vowels out of your words if you fail to keep typing.
Listening to other people talk about writing (as on this helpful podcast for fiction writers) makes me want to go write, too. Talking to people about ideas, keeping up with a few writing industry blogs like this one, reading books above my head, and fuming a little at the wrong-ness of articles on the internet are all helpful stimulants. I also find that doing something fun with my hands is a good way to encourage overall creativity. When I don’t want to be a writer anymore, I go scrub the sink or sew my children a toy or two, and then I feel like writing again.
Writing is wonderful. It is a way both to educate oneself–there’s nothing like thinking through one’s ideas and organizing them into a coherent shape–and to share with others. It is a way to create. It is a way to live. It is well-worth the labor of learning self-discipline. I need to continue to work on that, because after all, there’s only one nap time each day.
Anna graduated from Concordia University Wisconsin and taught in Lutheran schools for several years. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna is editor of Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife, and her work can also be found in The Federalist.