Time and The Writer

By | September 1, 2013

“There is time for everything.” – Amish saying.

1. Ask the right question: What is possible? 

I’m starting a new writing project and want to make good progress this month. A motivational phrase that floats through my mind, one that resonates for me (as a busy person), comes from an Amish source: “There is time for everything.”

Although this may produce an initial snort of derision, it holds a deep truth. What happens is the everything. What doesn’t happen . . . well, those ideas and wishes were merely figments of our imagination. We might envision writing an ambitious work. We might break it down into plans to write chapters and sub-chapters. We might plan to work on it hard. We might try to shoehorn it into a busy lifestyle with long worklists. We might try to get up early to write, or stay up late, or write during breaks during the day.

But what will happen is what will happen. And for many of us, that depends on how much we wanted it to happen.

Let’s agree that what happens is the totality of “everything.”

Is my writing project a high priority? If so, it involves trade-offs. Will I waste time doing less important things? Or will I decide things other than writing are more important?

As Maeve Binchy, said, “Time doesn’t come from nowhere.”

To write, you need to prioritize it.

I often see aspiring writers who bite off more than they can chew. John Gardner recommends starting with short stories to develop craft. I like the advice, because writing short pieces also develops the habit of tackling right-sized bits . . . and finishing them. Short pieces teach you how to work through an idea, try it, and if it works, great. If not . . . on to the next.

I often refer to what I call Ray Bradbury’s method (from Zen in the Art of Writing): Start a story on Monday, and send it off at the end of the week.

All during my early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting . . . confident that . . . I would soon let them out.

Me? I’m an essayist. I write in 1,000- to 2,000-word chunks. It works for me. Focusing on a short piece at a time, I’ve managed to write a number of books, learning to organize my short essays in outlines that lead to longer works.

2. Perfection is the enemy of the good.

The proverb is good advice for writers. How often have we slaved too long over a work . . . and in the process, undermined it by a) overwriting. and b) not ever finishing it? I am not a believer, as some literary types say they do, in the need to polish each sentence before going on to the next.

Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible. The returns (better quality for more effort) diminish over time. As the Pareto principle says, 80% of the results comes from 20% of the work. Yes, try to improve your story . . . up to a point. That point is where you’re fussing over details that don’t matter to the reader, that don’t contribute to the story, and that may well interfere with the real purpose of the story.

Get in, tell your story, and get out. Let the story do the rest of the work for you. If it’s good, it will.

British Inventor Robert Watson-Watt, who helped develop early-warning radar to counter the initial success of the Luftwaffe in World War II, offered this advice, recommending a “cult of the imperfect,” which he stated as “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.”

3. Exclude. Focus. Work.

In Henry Miller on Writing, the gifted author lists a set of “Commandments” that are worth their weight in gold.

  • Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  • Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  • When you can’t create, you can work.
  • Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  • Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  • Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  • Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

What keeps you from getting your writing done?

Do you know how to exclude distractions, focus, and work on your writing steadily?

Make it VIP, a very important pursuit. Do it, and then go on to other things.

 4. Real desire. No waffling.

Steven Hagen, an American teacher of Buddhism, writes in Buddhism Plain and Simple (1997) about “right intention” or “right resolve”:

Intention to act, for him, means more than wishful thinking.

There’s a story of Socrates testing the true intent of a youth who came to him for instruction. He wanted to see if this young man had the resolve to search for Truth. He took the youth to the river , and, after wading into the water, asked the young man to follow. Once they were waist-deep, Socrates suddenly took hold of the fellow and held him under the water. Naturally, the youth soon began to struggle for air. Socrates then lifted him from the water and said, “When you fight for truth as you fight for breath, come back and I’ll teach you.”

. . .

“Right resolve” is likened to a person whose hair is on fire. When your hair is on fire, you’re not going to weigh the pros and cons of putting it out. If your hair’s on fire, there’s no waffling. You see no choice. You act.

Do you intend to write? Do you fight for the time to write? Do you act on that resolve “like your hair’s on fire”?

5. Accept.

There is time for everything. Will “everything” include . . . that story you’ve been meaning to write?

I could work longer on this piece, but I won’t. My hair’s on fire . . . to finish this and get it to you.

I hope it helps you understand how to find the time to write.

4 thoughts on “Time and The Writer

  1. Roelant Dewerse

    Great post, Philip.

    I was just thinking about that urgency this morning; it’s the essential ingredient to move us from our plan into action. Discipline is essential, but not enough in itself. We have to daily face ourselves with the question, “how much do I want this?”.

    Thanks for the motivation!

    Reply
  2. Martin Lake

    This was an encouraging post, Philip, timely even. I was glad to be reminded of the Pareto Principle. I spent ages editing my last novel and got very frustrated because the improvements, although there, came to seem disproportionate to the time I spent on them.

    I like the quote from Robert Watson Watt. Thank goodness that this rule was taken notice of in 1940.

    Reply
  3. Susi Lovell

    Thanks for this timely post. I always think I can cope with and override distractions but now realize it’s something I’m going to have to re-learn every time. It’s amazing how, when one’s hair is on fire, how long one can spend looking for a bucket, a faucet or a river! Also I really appreciate the advice in your number 2 point. It’s hard for me not to keep on ‘improving’ – only to discover I’ve written the life out of a piece.

    Reply
  4. Paula Cappa

    “What keeps you from getting your writing done?” What a question! Wow, this really hit me, Philip. Sometimes it’s more than not enough time. Sometimes it’s fear that the story isn’t gelling and it’s too hard to fix so giving up is an easy option. I had such a short story and buried it in my file for over a year. Then one day I stumbled across it. Should I try this story again? I pushed everything else aside and did a rewrite, and still unhappy, I shoved it in the drawer again. But then I discovered “beta readers.” I sent it off to several beta readers (people who will read and give you feedback about their reaction to the story, at no charge). Learning the weaknesses and strengths of the story from readers was very motivating. I couldn’t stop rewriting once I knew what I had to do to make it work. I think my story was lonely for a reader. I certainly was. And now it’s finished and I’ve sent it out there to the publishing world. Yikes, now I’m really scared.

    Reply

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