Most of my writing life has been a waste of time. I mean this in the nicest possible way.
An efficiency expert would produce a dismal report on the ratio of a writer’s time expended against her productive output. If money is factored in, the report turns even more dismal. Of the words we write, few survive the revision process, and even fewer make it into print. But then no one said the creative work was efficient.
Efficiency aside, a common complaint is having no time to write. Years ago, when my children were young and I was teaching fulltime and I couldn’t see how writing and publishing could ever be more than wishful thinking, a colleague wisely advised me to devote ten minutes a day to my dream. Everyone has ten minutes to scribble in a journal, write a line or two of poetry, map a character.
Be consistent with your ten minutes a day, and the effort will becomes its own reward. Soon you’ll find yourself carving out more time to write. Twenty or thirty minutes a day. An hour or two, while the children nap, as Alice Munro used to do. Or Sundays, all day. Plenty of respected writers work fulltime in jobs that have little or nothing to do with their craft, like Bill Streever in his demanding job at BP.
Annie Dillard advises a schedule, saying it “defends from chaos and whim.” What makes up that schedule may come as a bit of a surprise. As one example, Dillard offers American poet Wallace Stevens. Each day Stevens rose at six, read for two hours, and walked an hour to work, where he dictated poems to his secretary. At he walked rather than ate. No mention is made of how he spent his afternoons, but after his hour’s walk home and a meal, he would retire to his study and would be in bed by nine.
No sense wasting valuable time pining for a secretary to take our dictation and a study to which we might retire. The point is that Stevens spent a lot of his time not writing but reading, walking, reflecting. Meaningful activities, in the right proportions. It’s not so much how much time we have as how we use it.
Think in terms of these general categories: creation/revision, reflection, immersion, community, and – as a catch-all – money-stuff. Some might separate creation and revision, but for me they’re inseparable components of the recursive process of discovery. Reflection - composting as Ursula LeGuin calls it – results from quiet, mindful activity like walking or knitting. Immersion includes reading and research, either purposeful or general. Community involves time spent in the company of other writers, supporting our mutual efforts, in writers groups and organizations like 49 Writers. Money stuff is anything from querying for publication to freelancing to promotion and marketing – even pre-marketing, as in the current trend of encouraging aspiring writers to establish websites and blogs and social media presence.
Given your individual ambitions and interests and stage of development, you might look at your writing activities differently. That’s fine. Once you’ve identified the major components of your writing life, consider what proportion of your valuable time you’d ideally like to devote to each. Reality has to factor in also. I’d love to spend 75% of my time creating and revising and the rest on reflection and immersion, with a little left over for community, money be damned. But lacking the financial resources to hire out the promotion and marketing chores, I have to set aside a quarter of my working time for the money stuff.
The time you devote to each aspect of being a writer is up to you. Be flexible. Purposefulness and creativity are by no means mutually exclusive. Energy and momentum are part of the mix. If your day job demands creative energy, you may need to set aside weekends and vacations for the creative parts of your work. Regarding momentum, I aspire to David Vann’s self-imposed rule: when he’s working on a novel, he schedules nothing else in the mornings, and he works seven days a week till it’s done.
The writing life may be far from efficient, but for successful writers, neither is it haphazard.