A time and place for writing (or not)
I have several writer friends who write in the morning. In the early hours of the morning. In fact, at least one of them is done with her daily writing around the time I’m getting out of bed. This me feel sort of lazy, as though I’m not a very dedicated writer.
But I’m not a night owl like many writers, either. I used to write simply whenever the mood struck me — and even once I got serious about writing fiction, I never managed to stick with a routine. Eventually I got very anxious about that. It seemed that everywhere I looked, writers were talking about their writing schedules, their dedicated spaces. Having a strict routine, and a writing sanctuary, seemed to be a prerequisite for success.
Then I learned that Raymond Carver wrote “Cathedral” on a train to New York City. And that he used to write in the back seat of his car. This — along with a few other stories from successful writers who admit to having no real schedule — helped me see that the when and where isn’t what’s important. What matters is that you write.
A lot of us become disciplined because we have to: day jobs, kids, and other aspects of Everyday Life force us to set aside that precious time to write. But what happens when you sit down for your Writing Time and absolutely nothing happens? Or if something else comes up that forces you to skip your writing hour(s)? This is when it’s good to have a Plan B.
I’ll admit that my entire writing routine is a Plan B. I still don’t have a set time of day to write, even when I’m in the middle of a project. In a way, this is a good thing: when I’m really into something, I’d never want to limit my writing to a couple hours a day anyway. But when I’m in a more challenging phase — say, that horrible first-draft stage — I have to work harder to stay inspired.
So what I do to keep a project going is to set goals, rather than dates and times. This way, I can be flexible about when and where I write but still get the work done. Some days, I’m able to devote four hours to writing; others days, I’m lucky to write for an hour. When I find myself blocked, I’ll do some research, which doesn’t result in words on the page but nevertheless keeps the project moving forward. If I find that I simply can’t stare at the computer any longer, I’ll take a notebook somewhere — and the change in perspective is almost always illuminating.
A few tips…
Know that you can write anywhere. I wrote my first published short story in a tiny corner of a railroad flat in New York City. When I moved to an even smaller apartment after that (which I didn’t think was possible), I wrote at university libraries. Even if you don’t have enough space at home (and you’d be surprised by how little you need), you can find it somewhere.
Make your writing space a special one. Wherever your writing space is, make it a place you want to be — and one you want to keep returning to. If you’re writing in the tiniest corner of your kitchen table, for example, surround yourself with books. If you’re in a cubby at the library, bring your iPod to tune out noise, or leave the laptop at home and write by hand (as Natalie Goldberg writes: “Arm connected to shoulder, chest, heart”).
Set your own rules and make people follow them. One of my early-morning writer friends put an outgoing message on her voice mail that said, “If you’re calling before 1:00 p.m., this is my writing time. I’ll get back to you after 1:00.” Ask the people in your life to take your writing time as seriously as you do.
Be flexible. Whether you’ve set aside time in the early hours of the morning or the late hours of the night, eventually you’re likely to be struck with some form of writer’s block. You can use this time for extra sleep (the subconscious can do wonders), or simply do something else that’s related, even tangentially, to your work. Research. Read. Watch a film set in the era in which your novel takes place. Listen to the type of music your character listens to. Even these little things can help create a mood that will inspire you and help get you back into the work.
And finally, if you don’t already, carry a notebook. My favorite ideas have come to me in random places, and if I hadn’t written them down, they’d have been lost. And the notebook is a good reminder that no matter where you are, you’re a writer.
Midge Raymond's short-story collection, Forgetting English (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009), received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, Ontario Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Passages North, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. She is on the editorial board of the literary journal Green Hills Literary Lantern.
You can learn more about Midge and her projects here: www.MidgeRaymond.com