It is an agonizingly familiar lament. You have an urge to write something; now, before it’s too late. A scathing expose, before someone finds the audacity to fix everything you think is wrong. Your memoirs, before you forget your own life. A screenplay, before Liam Neeson gets any older. Maybe you have a novel inside your head banging its little red fists against the walls of your skull, trying to get out. It needs a name, this thing inside of you. Let’s just call it that thing you want to write.
But your life will not accommodate that thing you want to write. Why? Because you have to pay the bills. You have to pick up the kids and take them to soccer. You have to keep the house from falling into shambles and you have to convince your spouse or partner that you are still 100% in that relationship. Also, the car is making a funny noise and your parents need attention. Or vise-versa.
All of which means that you are forced to spend all day, every day, doing things that have nothing whatsoever to do with writing. So the memoir, the screenplay, the novel all go unwritten as your life history gets less and less distinct and Mr. Neeson loses more and more credibility as an agile air marshal or a CIA agent or an angry lumberjack or whatever else you may have in store for the poor guy.
So, just how is an aspiring writer to find any free time amidst a busy life?
The bad news is that you will not find any free time amidst a busy life. Sorry, but it’s true. You are not imagining things. Your life really is full of other things. Other interests. Other important responsibilities. That, by the way, is precisely why they call it life. There is no time to be found. Certainly none for free.
So you’re just going to have to make time. The good news is that there is a very effective strategy for making time in your life for writing. Spoiler: it’s also known as “stealing time.”
This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I may think of myself as a fiction writer, but my day job for the past three decades has been working as an employment litigation attorney. I spend most of my waking hours managing a medium-sized law firm in Alaska and tending to a full case load for clients who, strangely enough, care a whole lot more about their own lives and businesses than they do about my yen to write novels. I’m up at 7:30 in the morning and often home at 8:00 in the evening. Working weekends is not uncommon. The stress can be outrageous. On top of that, I have a wife who likes to see me every so often, a car that needs attention, and parents that make funny noises. Free time is hard to come by in my life. I can honestly say that if I had waited to find time just lying around looking to be put to good use, I never would have written anything.
I published my most recent novel, The Lion Trees, earlier this year. It’s a beast: two volumes and over 1600 hundred pages. I wrote another book of interconnected stories and novellas called Signs of Passing, that just won the 2014 Pacific Book Awards for short fiction. Signs of Passing weighs in at 750 pages. So where, you ask, did I find the time – with the employees and the clients and the judges and the wife and the neglected car and the noisy parents – to endlessly combine twenty-six letters into over three-quarters of million words all arranged in some kind of entertaining order?
I didn’t find the time. I made the time. I stole the time. And you can too. Here’s how:
Step One: Start Something. You will need to make an up-front investment of quality, uninterrupted time. Two or three hours. Maybe five. Whatever it takes to bring into the physical world something to represent the collection of thoughts in your head that up until this point has been, simply, that thing you want to write. Mind you, I do not mean to suggest anything of publishable quality or something that you would feel good about sending off to Liam Neeson. The point, rather, is to give that thing you want to write an independent existence, outside of your head. Think of that teenager – maybe a younger you – who was never going to amount to anything until she moved out of the house and established a life of her own. The goal in this first step is to give that thing you want to write a life of its own. A paragraph. A page. A scene. A chapter. An outline. Something. The more you can put down onto paper (or a computer chip) the better off you will be. Once you give your ideas an independent address in the real world, then those ideas will start, however timidly, demanding your attention, just like your job and your kids and your car and your parents.
This, then, is the crucial first step in making time: give that thing you want to write a voice. Beg, borrow and steal enough time up front to get a good running start. Call in sick. Stay up late. Sacrifice a sunny Saturday. Turn off the television. Make the time.
Don’t worry about polish. Keep your standards low. It’s going to be ugly. Let it be ugly. Two hours. Three hours. Five. Just get it out there. Screw polish. Worry about shape. Worry about form. What does this thing look like? Give it an identity. Name it. Just feel good about it existing. Let the sight of something finally down on the page inspire those creative stirrings in your chest. Those feelings are important. Those are the feelings that you will carry around with you as you earn a living and pick up the kids and call a tow truck. Those feelings are the sound of that thing you want to write calling your name. Now that it has its own place in the world, that thing you want to write is going to help you make the time to finish the job. The puppy you bring home wants to be fed. The seed you plant wants to grow. The thing you start wants to be finished. So start it already. Let’s give it some oxygen. Give it a voice.
In the next installment of this series we will discuss Step #2 in the struggle to find time to write: “Do Something Every Day.” Vague, I know, but I’ll explain. In the meantime, go put something down. Anything. Let it be ugly and don’t show it to another living soul.