Getting from one scene to the next
The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 4: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

Ring-fencing Writing Time

I don't make New Year's Resolution of the "Must do better, be slimmer, sweeter, nicer, harder working and learn to windsurf" sort. But a writer friend whose work I really admire, and so do lots of proper critics, said recently that at one stage of her apprenticeship, when she was insanely broke and insanely busy, she realised that if she was going to keep her writing ticking over at all, all she could manage was a haiku. So she made a resolution to write a haiku every day, for a year. And did.

Like most people who make a living as a writer, I spend an awful lot of my time on other people's writing, plus reading, admin, promotion, blogging, and so on. Even the important-but-not-urgent Current Book is all too easily pushed out of the way in favour of something with a tighter deadline or more and sooner money attached. And yet my own writing is the foundation of everything else.

So, some years ago, I decided that however busy I were with other stuff in the week, I would ring-fence a set time for my real writing work, and fiercely resist any "creep" into it by that other stuff. I knew it had to be a realistic point in the week, and a realistic amount of time, or it wouldn't hold. I chose weekends, but it could equally well have been 7-8 every morning, or the middle of Wednesdays; the crucial rule was that it happened every week by default, and could only be overridden in the direst of emergencies - and my not having got round to various things on Friday did not count as an emergency. The office, as it were, is closed at weekends [insert your chosen time], I "go home" and write, and on Monday I make my excuses/pay my interest/take the flak if I have to.

As I was discussing in The Inner Calvinist and The Petrol Pump in the context of procrastination, the mystery about ring-fencing time for the thing you really want to do, is that the things you don't want to do lose their power over you. They shrink, and fall docilely into line. Since the work admin discovered that if it didn't let itself get done by Friday afternoon it wasn't going to get even looked at till Monday, my Thursday afternoons have been miracles of organisation and list-ticking-off. I've also got much better at deciding whether to take on work or not, now the decision is, "Does this threaten my prescribed writing time?"

Even so, I very rarely get round to writing something purely for the fun of spinning a story out of my head and onto the page, but of course that's the pleasure we all started from and that, too, is a foundation of everything else that we do. So my New Year's Decision, shall we say, has been to write a 200 word story every day, before I get up. They don't have to be good, or useful for my "proper" writing, or anything; they just have to happen. I rarely think about what I'll write until I'm trotting back to bed with my cup of tea, and sometimes I have to stare into space for five minutes, but after that it rarely takes more than 15 more minutes to get to the bottom of the page. There's a dedicated new notebook by the bed (a large-size moleskine in the most gorgeous violet, since you ask) so I don't have the excuse that I've got nothing to write in, and now I have 27 little stories. (Yes, I know it's the 29th of January. None of us is perfect).

I'm not trying to sound smug: the point is that the thing that makes writing happen is making sure that writing time happens. We can manage without the inspiration, ideas, magic, zones, talent, luck ... but we can't do without the time. So making that time - even if the only time you can make is what it takes to assemble seventeen syllables into three lines - is the first, perhaps the only truly essential thing. As Elizabeth Gilbert's terrific TED talk says, "Just Show Up".