(This was originally posted on the Apex Magazine blog in early 2011.)
Life happens. That’s something I’ve learned day, by painstaking day, since I decided to pursue writing fiction seriously. Something is always getting in the way. During my senior year of college, it was the substantial strain of classes, thesis work, finals, getting engaged and prepping for an elopement, along with some stressful family health crises. After graduating, it was picking up a new volunteer side job, getting married, honeymooning overseas, coping with the inevitable end to one of the family health crises, moving across the country, renting our first apartment, and—oh yah!—finding a day job in a busted-up economy.
I had always presumed, during those months of chaotic change and growth, that things would eventually settle down, and give me the time I’d need to finally be able to dig back into writing. They didn’t. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Juggling multiple responsibilities, multiple roles, and the ever-present flux of life, I finally had to admit to myself that there was never going to be a “good time” to write. If I was going to take writing seriously–as nothing short of a career goal–it would mean pushing it up my priorities ladder and making time.
I’ve learned a few things about how to make all the tasks on my to-do list fit into a single day, and no—I’m often not as productive as I want to be. I’m a naturally messy, scatter-brained, stressed-out, over-extended creative type, who’s more likely to find things when they’re not put away in their “proper place.” It did not come easily, and I’m not done learning. Every new month, week, and day is a fresh learning opportunity for me. But of all the tiny, ah-ha! moments I’ve had to help me figure out the finesses of fitting the writing life into the rest of life, I’ve had four revelations that I always come back to. These are not secrets I’ve derived from the mysteries of the universe. In fact, they’re probably things you’ve heard before in different places, scattered throughout all the plentiful sources of writing advice. But let me boil it down to its essentials for those of you, like me, who wake up in the morning and think, “How on Earth am I going to get all this done, and write?”
1. Decide it’s worth it. And sacrifice for it. – This was perhaps both the easiest and the hardest thing for me to understand when I started out. On the one hand, I knew I really, really, REALLY wanted to write. It was in my blood. I thought about it all the time. I scribbled scraps of story ideas on infinite post-it notes and in journals and on the back of my hand or a napkin. Sometimes I even sat down for an hour or two and hammered out the first half of a short story before life caught up with me again. I loved it, but I wasn’t making any progress. I didn’t have time to finish things, or polish things, much less submit things. It was frustrating, and that frustration fed right into that evil editor inside my head who was constantly whispering, “Come on. You really think you can do this?”
I knew I had to do something, but it seemed like I’d already committed. I’d already said aloud to friends and family, and most importantly myself, that I wanted to focus seriously on writing. What was missing?
It took me writing out a schedule of my week, looking at how much time was spent doing any number of extra curricular activities, school work, actual day-job, and commuting (not to even mention making meals, sleeping, and spending time with family) to realize that even with the best intentions, I couldn’t possibly just “squeeze writing in” during those elusive downtime moments. I needed to cut back on things, to examine everything I was involved in and make the hard choices. If I wanted writing at the top of my priorities list, I had to make it the priority. I couldn’t feel that writing time was something that could be shifted, rescheduled, pushed off while I did things for other people. I had to start thinking about it as a career move, and that by skipping my writing time, or pushing other responsibilities ahead of it, I was cheating myself out of something really important. The writing time then came to symbolize “me time”: the time I spent working on something for myself, for my betterment, and as something that was important for my own happiness.
2. Set (reasonable) goals. – It may sound simple, but it’s often not. It’s easy to say “I’ll finish four short stories in a month!” or “I’ll get this novel draft done in twelve weeks, tops.” Even something as seemingly simple as “I’ll write 1000 words a day” can be a recipe for falling off the wagon.
I dream big, and often my aspirations are vastly more impressive than they are realistic. It’s important to set goals that you can actually hit despite your busy schedule, otherwise it’ll be all too easy to break the writing habit and let your resolve slide. Unobtainable goals, at least for me, make me sluggish, grumpy, and ultimately lazy. I’ll start off strong, but when I realize a goal is impossible to reach, my interest in even trying fades rapidly.
I make those goals all with the best intentions, but I’ve had to learn who I am and what I can and can’t do in order to find ways to trick myself into being productive. It’s also important to get to know yourself and understand your weaknesses. For example: I’m highly distractible. Ask anyone: my husband, my friends, my parents, my sister—they’ll all tell you it’s true. Setting a goal to sit down and write for five hours on a Saturday will not work for me. I’ve tried. And I’ve failed many, many times. I’ll sit down, totally focused, for about one to two hours, and then my brain just won’t take it anymore. I’ll start daydreaming. I’ll need to get up for various things I need to keep going. I’ll take a “twenty minute break” which ends up encompassing the rest of the day.
For me, a goal of 500 words per day (excluding Saturdays) does the trick: it takes me approximately half-an-hour to write 500 words, whether I’m on a roll or repeatedly smacking my head against a wall. It’s just long enough for me to suck it up and stick it out, even when I really, really don’t want to, but not so long that I’ll give up prematurely. And often, I end up writing a lot more than just 500 words, because once I get past the idontwannas, things tend to flow surprisingly fast. So whether it’s a word-count goal you can actually achieve, or a time requirement, or just a sentence a day, reasonable goals can achieve a lot more than huge ones.
But don’t neglect setting reasonable long-term goals, too. I keep two lists (because lists keep this scattered mind in order): one for monthly goals, and one for the year’s goals. I don’t necessarily worry if I don’t hit these longer goals in exactly the time-frame I’m hoping, but they do tend to keep me on track, and moving in the right direction. I think part of the benefit for me of having lists like this is that it protects my distractible mind from dwelling on what I want to accomplish in the upcoming months and year: another trick for keeping in-the-moment and on-task.
3. Reward yourself for achieving goals. – This doesn’t have to be expensive. I know a lot of authors who reward themselves with a new book, or chocolate, or a Starbuck’s coffee, for achieving their goals. Me, I’m even cheaper. I reward myself with stickers!
Silly as it may seem, I’m a sucker for positive—if cheap—reinforcement. I’ve got a variety of stickers, some for big goals, some for little ones. Double my 500 word requirement for a day? Sticker! Submit a rejected story within 24 hours of its last rejection? Sticker!
Clock in 3k words in one sitting, or sell a story? HUGE FRIGGIN STAR.
The reward really only needs to be something that makes you smile, and gives you that little extra push when you’re close to achieving one of those reasonable goals. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to stop writing for the day, only to see that I’m at 897 words, and just a hundred more would get me a smiley sticker. ^_^
4. Cut yourself some slack. – Here’s another hard lesson I learned after two years of getting very frustrated with my sluggardly progress. Life happens. It gets in the way, it clogs up the cogs, it throws you and everything else off the boat in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes, it’s important to just let go. Stop stressing. Take a walk. Take a week-long break. Breathe and recuperate. Read. Relax. Goals are great, but if you’re making yourself miserable because it’s the holidays and your kids are home from college and work is going nuts and you haven’t gotten more than four hours of sleep for the last two nights and you haven’t gotten your word count done for the past three days? Take the day off. Don’t beat yourself up with guilt that you aren’t writing. Just remember to take a look at your goal list and get back on the horse as soon as you can swing it (or even if you can’t—just make smaller goals and work your way back up!).