Over on the short story writing course last week, we were chatting about the struggle to find and maintain the time to write.
And it absolutely is a struggle for lots of us lots of the time.
It’s probably one of the most common coaching conversations I have with writers. Even writers who ostensibly don’t have the commitments of a full-time job or family to juggle. For one reason or another, the battle over time persists.
In response to the conversation in the class, I brought up one of my favourite authors John Steinbeck and waved my copy of his book ‘Working Days – The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath’ at everyone. I waxed lyrical about the process of keeping a writing diary and how even established ‘great’ writers still face the struggle of navigating the act of writing within the distracting business of living.
I opened the book at random and started reading. To my great delight and our collective humour, this was the entry I had stumbled upon:
“Was ever a book written under greater difficulty? Now it’s the house. We listed it for sale and we’re swamped. People [who] want to buy it want to look at it. We’ll be living in a goldfish globe until it is sold I guess. No mail but bills. And the weather is beautiful…”John Steinbeck, Entry #61 Sept 1 1938 – 11:30am Thursday.
Mild case of writer’s block
We talked some more about how there never really is ‘a good time to write’ whatever our circumstances. We mused on the various methods group members had employed to tackle this problem. For some, it was a case of doing it first thing in the morning, a quick 20 minutes before the day took ownership of them; for others, it was about shoe-horning in a few minutes between the builders finishing up their work for the day and getting dinner on the table. For someone else, it was about maintaining the momentum they had built in writing every day by telling themselves, ‘Miss a day, and I’ll never get back to it’.
As chance would have it, the next day I cracked open the latest copy of Mslexia, and in a piece about the value of creative writing courses, this quote leapt out at me:
“We might kid ourselves that we are waiting for the muse, or for Mercury to return to direct motion, or for our children to move up to big school, or our other half to get a job, or the kittens to be homed, or for when the extension is built and we can have that room of one’s own – but what we actually have is mild case of writer’s block, caused by a combination of low confidence and a high fear of failure. So we need the kick in the butt to get started. And a writing course can certainly give you that. (‘Time to write’ is a kinder way of putting it.)” Celia Brayfield, Mslexia, issue 99.
I was struck both by the melodrama of our lives and the great simplicity her statement; “What we actually have is a mild case of writer’s block”, as much as by the underlying, and let’s face it, not unexpected, reason why: “a combination of low confidence and a high fear of failure.”
How to address the fear?
Elizabeth Gilbert has her answer on how we might go ahead and address our fear, which she writes about in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. There’s a brilliant letter she penned to her own fear (which you can enjoy at your leisure here), but her bottom line is simple too: We must acknowledge our fear, accept it’s there and always will be, and then crack on with the business of getting writing done. We need to be kind to our fear, but equally keep it in its rightful place (for which a writing journal is a supremely useful tool by the way. Let fear have its say, then let’s get on with writing).
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, though not directly speaking to the question of fear, offers another helpful suggestion. In his description of what a writer needs to write, he says we need the space to do it in:
“The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.” Stephen King.
I reference this quote regularly when I talk to people, though often I use the open and close doors for their metaphoric value – our need to write the first draft with the door closed, and not to open it to thoughts of criticism and/or other readers until we reach the second draft. But actually, the physical closed door is important in its own right, as a means of, as King puts it, ‘telling the world and yourself that you mean business.’
The door might be a notification one, making sure all your pings are switched off or the laptop is in aeroplane mode. It might be a real door. It might be, as Murakami tells of in his experience of committing to becoming a novelist at the age of 30, laying down some clear boundaries with friends and partners about your availability.
The good news is we are not the first to journey this path. Many have been here before, and they have left behind a treasure trail of wisdom for us to pick up on, without having to sweat the same blood necessarily. Writing can be a terrifying business. First, we must acknowledge this. Then we can begin to pack our writing bag with useful tools – a group to write with, a writing diary to air our fears, a commitment to give of our time to this endeavour despite the demands of society, a willingness to close physical doors in order to open the creative ones, to enter into our space within…
What tips and tricks do you employ to keep your writing prioritised and to fend off The Fear….?
What about your writing?
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