In this three-part series we have been discussing how to steal time from your own crazy-busy life so that you can finally bring that thing you want to write into being. The discussion so far has been moderately informative and entirely at the expense of Liam Neeson, who really does not deserve the abuse and I fully expect some nasty letters from the Screen Actors Guild and AARP and maybe even Beekeepers of America. If you haven’t read Parts 1 and 2 of this series, then this is not going to make a lot of sense, but here is a recap anyway. Step One: Start Something. Step Two: Do Something Every Day. Enlightening, right? Seriously, go back and catch up. I’ll wait.
Step Three: Keep a Writer’s To-Do List in Your Head. Like so many things in life, success begins with knowing what you want to accomplish. Even with lots of thinking and imagining and sandwich-eating it is not so easy to sit down and spin it all into a novel, or whatever it is you want to write. Inevitably, there are snags. Problems. Questions. Where, exactly, is old Liam anyway, and why is he lying down? Why are the bees so angry? In fact, the more details you nail down, the more problems and questions will crop up. How is the quick brown fox able to snag lazy old Liam’s kilt in mid-air? What is the fox’s name anyway? This is the literary equivalent of whack-a-mole. But there is no getting around it: you have to answer all of the questions and solve all of the problems. Why? Because you’re the writer. If you don’t answer the questions and solve the problems, no one else will.
It will help tremendously if you carry around a mental to-do list. This is your list of questions that must be answered and problems that must be solved. Actually, it is best to have a written to do list, but the focus here is on the mental part. As you go about your busy life, watching your kids chase a soccer ball and buying groceries and directing traffic around your broken car, you should make an effort to think about the problems and questions on your Writer’s To-Do List. Cycle through the items on the list that you can remember until you find one you want to work on. Then work on it. You will be amazed at how productive you can be when you keep coming back to that same nagging question. What should I name the fox? You will be working on the answer in the background even with the rest of your life rushing past you in the foreground. This is important work that must be done at some point; so why not while you are redirecting traffic or eating a sandwich or walking your dog?
When I am working on a book, I try to go to sleep at night with a single problem or question that I want to cross off my question/problem to-do list. For those five, ten, fifteen minutes before drift off to sleep, the only thing in my head is finding an answer or solution. Is this time I could ever realistically spend crafting sentences on my laptop? Of course not. I’m in bed. The lights are off. My eyes are closed. But it counts as writing time and I am making forward progress on my book that would otherwise be impinging on that elusive two to three-hour block of time that I want to devote to actually putting particular words in a particular order.
A collateral benefit of the Writer’s To-Do List is that it keeps that thing you want to write a fresh and active presence in your day-to-day life. You are no longer waiting around hoping to find enough time to sit down and write your Magnum Opus. You are engaged in a constant scavenger hunt for answers and solutions, pulling information and inspiration from the life around you to push your writing project forward to a place of greater and greater clarity. All of that requires that you have a to-do list that you carry around in your head; a list that you can work on within the tiny nooks and crannies of time that are otherwise unusable for writing. And then, out of the blue, as you hand some wealthy auto mechanic a credit card, the answers and solutions will hit you like a ton of bricks: Old Liam is lying out in a field on his Scotland estate. He’s lying down because his knees are weak from age and punishing action sequels. The fox is able to snatch his kilt in mid-leap because he is dragging a small grappling hook affixed to the end of his tail. And the fox’s name is… is… something cuddly, like ‘Twentieth Century.’
More questions. More problems. So it goes. But you just made a bunch of writing time.
Step Four: Words on the Page. None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that there is some way to finish that thing you want to write without actually spending a whole lot of time sitting still someplace and actually writing or typing specific words in a specific order. There is no getting around the actual writing part of writing. This is going to take a lot of time. The time will not be free. You will need to steal it from other things – fun things, important things – and reprioritize your life. All of which is possible. Not everybody in your life is going to be happy about it and it may not be very comfortable. But it really is possible.
Now, stealing that kind of time will require serious motivation on your part. You’re going to need all the help you can get. Steps 1-3 all have the incidental benefit of boosting your motivation to do the hard work of making writing time. Remember, the more of that thing you want to write that you have managed to pull into the real world – by shaping it, giving it detail, and working with it every day – the more motivated you will be to continue and ultimately finish that process. We are far more likely to change our behavior for a reward that actually exists than a reward that is purely imagined. Our hunger drive is stimulated more by the smell of food actually on the table than the abstract thought of food. Even within the realm of ideas, the thought of a slice of bubbling, freshly baked blueberry pie that is just beginning to soften the outer slope of a scoop of vanilla ice cream is far more motivating than the thought of “some kind of food.” If you are going to rearrange your life for the sake of writing time, then you need to be chasing something real. “Some kind of food” is not going to do it. The more time you spend conceptualizing that thing you want to write, pinning details to it, ironing out problems and inconsistencies, naming it, giving it color and history and populating it with memorable characters, the more you are hardening that amorphous mush of ideas in your head into an actual thing.
So steal an hour or two from some other part of your life and add them to the pile of hours, minutes and seconds you have already stolen and invested. For this step, it will not do to steal from lunch or the drive to soccer. This requires major-league theft. Steal a couple of hours from cable television. Or from a good night’s sleep. Tell your kids you hid fifty bucks “somewhere in the neighborhood.” By hook or by crook, make some time to sit down and really put some words on the page. Throw as much time at it as you can. Progress will be slow, even agonizingly so, but it is going to feel good. It’s going to feel like progress. It’s going to feel real. The more time you steal, the more time you are going to want to steal. The problem of “finding time” is never harder than before you have started. This is a problem that gets easier and easier to solve because, first, you will realize that it really is possible to make time for writing and, second, because you will have less and less emotional choice in the matter. You will need to worry less about having time to write and more about staying married and employed.
Furthermore, once you have stolen that precious, expensive block of time, you will need to use it as efficiently as possible. Pick a time and a place that you can make your own. Deep breath. Let it flow. The point it this: you do not want to spend any of this precious time wondering about what it is you want to say and how you want to say it. Steps 1-3 mean that you already have a base to work from; that every single day you have been figuring out what you want to say and how you want to say it; and that you have been ironing out all the problems and answering all of the questions that might otherwise get in the way of the actual writing process.
When you finally have that rare two-hour block of time to sit down to write, you should be taking full advantage of a lot of momentum. All of those micro-sessions – all of those stolen minutes and seconds – in which you have been doing things that count as writing, will have resulted in what is known as “creative pressurization.” This is a completely made up term that will get you strange and alarmed looks from others, so best not to use it. But “creative pressurization” is a completely real phenomenon. If you have been using the time between your actual writing sessions effectively, that thing you want to write will always be outgrowing the confines of your head. All of those details, answers and solutions will want to be outside in the real world. You will be highly motivated to relieve the pressure. Conveniently for our purposes, the only way to relieve the pressure is to release it, letter-by-letter, word-by-word. Get it out. Write it down. Make the time. An hour. Two hours. Three. It gets easier. Because you no longer have much choice.
Success, ultimately, will mean fully realizing your creative vision; making what was once an amorphous blob of cognitive impulse foolishly looking for a gift of free time, into an actual memoir or exposé or novel or screenplay, forged into something real, one stolen minute after the next.
If you are really successful, then maybe your screenplay gets picked up, or your novel gets published and you make a small fortune on the movie rights. One day you will open the newspaper and there it is, above the fold on the front page of the entertainment section, proof that that thing you wanted to write really was meant to be alive in the world:
Liam Neeson, the rapidly aging action star, as you’ve never seen him before! Twentieth Century fox brings you a Bee-Movie adventure classic! A powerful performance worthy of an actor out-standing in his field! Raw, tender, undignified! It’s kilt-free fun for the whole family! Starring Harrison Ford as Liam Neeson.
Sorry. Now go write something already. I’m late for court.
Owen Thomas lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska as a writer of fiction and, because he must pay his bills, as an employment lawyer. His novel “The Lion Trees” is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Owen is also the author of a collection of short stories and novellas entitled “Signs of Passing: Letters from Winchester County” winner of the 2014 Pacific Book Awards for short fiction. Owen’s story “Everything Stops” is being published in September by Fiction Attic Press as part of an anthology of short fiction called “Modern Shorts” and is available on Amazon. Owen maintains an active fiction and photography blog at www.owenthomasfiction.com. Owen has come to understand that there is a strange disquiet in referring to oneself in the third person. Owen is seriously afraid he will not be able to stop.