I just spent the last month in a writer’s heaven.
The Vermont Studio Center is the largest artist residency in the United States. Each month, 50 selected writers and visual artists from across the country and globe are offered unrestricted time for creative work.
I got to be one of them!
VSC provides private studios, room and board, conferencing with Visiting Artists, readings, craft talks, and presentation nights—all on its beautiful historic campus.
The first week, I was pinching myself.
Amazing things happen when you get the chance to step out of your everyday life and write in a calm environment designed to limit distractions and obligations.
I learned a lot about myself as a writer.
I tested my mental stamina. I had time to just sit with the mess of words and ideas and try to shape it into something coherent and interesting. I learned how long it can take to write one decent paragraph, only to delete it the next day. I had the time and space to immerse myself in a fictional world.
Sometimes it was magical.
Other times, anxiety-provoking…What if it’s no good? Am I wasting my time?
I met with Visiting Writing, Noy Holland, to discuss my short story in the revision stage. I got to spend time with other kindred spirits talking about the artistic process, rejection, failure, inspiration, and epiphanies. We shared stories, laughter, and tears.
Finding time to pursue your passion amidst the demands of your present life is likely your number one challenge…or complaint.
But sometimes it serves as an excuse.
Saying, “My dream is to write a novel, but I simply don’t have the time right now,” is likely untrue, although it may feel that way.
As E.B. White once said: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
While there are definitely periods in our lives when we feel especially stretched, finding time to write is possible if you make it so.
I’ve been writing and publishing since my late teens. That means I’ve written through college, graduate school, teaching career, raising 3 kids, homeschooling, and helping elderly parents.
There were times I was insanely busy, stressed out, or depressed. There were dry spells—sometimes long ones. There were also stretches of times conducive to creativity that resulted in publishable work.
Still…I wish I had accomplished more. (That’s Miss Perfectionist talking, so you can just ignore her.)
We all have the same 24 hours in a day.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” ~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Here are my tips for carving out time for writing:
Be a Time Sleuth
The first step to making time for writing is to scrutinize your daily/weekly schedule.
Can you wake up earlier before work or getting the kids off to school?
If early morning doesn’t don’t work for you, try writing in the evenings or late night hours.
If you commute by public transportation, consider that time. Keep a notebook with you for ideas and brainstorming.
Can you make time on the weekends?
Look for time suckers you can give up (or cut back on): The biggest one is the Internet Blackhole. Scrolling Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Endless newsfeeds. YouTube pet videos. Binge watching TV. Really.
Schedule your writing.
This next step is key. Once you find the times when you can write, mark it on your calendar. That’s right: you’re making an appointment with your muse. Begin with 15-minute blocks. That’s not long enough, you say? Believe me, the minutes add up. Consistency, more than quantity, matters at this stage.
Think of writing like exercise. You need to show up at the gym or class—whether you feel like it or not— in order to make progress. You can’t show up once a month and build muscle. Consistency leads to making a habit. The writing habit will help you achieve your goals. Show up, or as Stephen King said, “Butt in the chair.”
Designate a Writing Place
The great thing about writing is that it’s portable. I write in my home office, on the family room couch, in libraries and coffee shops. I’ve written in airports and on long bus rides. The place depends on my mood, what I’m writing, time of day, and schedule. Having a designated place to write, however, can help you build the habit. By associating a specific place for writing, your train your brain to switch into writing mode. Doesn’t matter if your place is a closet, office, or shed. Claim your space. Make it look and feel nice.
Sunny corner table of library = novel writing.
…Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. ~Patti Smith, Devotion
Set Goals & Deadlines
The process of trying to produce a piece of writing can be—no, make that will be—frustrating and discouraging. To stay on track you need to:
Making a plan
Again, the exercise analogy. If you just say, “I’m going to get in great shape”, you’ll likely to give up before you run the first race. You must make a plan with incremental milestones along the way.
Same idea for writing a novel. You start with the end goal in mind, then work backward. Name the date you want to finish by (I know, that’s really scary). Then break down the big goal into several small steps. Approximate when you’ll reach each step. Anticipate obstacles. Reward yourself when you arrive. Yes, you’ll likely have to adjust the steps and deadlines. The important thing is having a roadmap. (Thank you Kendra Levin for this advice.)
“Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.” ~ Danie Shapiro, Still Writing
Plan a Writing Retreat
Once you’ve made time to write, limiting distraction is the key to producing. A writing retreat can be a great way to jumpstart, revive, or finish a project. Some writers occasionally cloister themselves in a hotel room for a few days to binge write. I know two women who designed their own retreat by renting a cabin in New Hampshire. Poets & Writers Magazine has several classifieds ads for rentals in beautiful settings that cater to writers.
If you think you’re the right point in your life or career to pursue a writing residency, here’s a has a comprehensive listing.