As a writer, the most common question I hear (after “Where do you get your ideas?” and “You actually wrote this crap? Why?”) is “Where can I find the time to write?”
In this busy world of two-income families, 40 hour work weeks, and 12 hour Seinfeld marathons, beginning writers struggle to carve out hallowed and sacred portions of their hectic week to express themselves and inscribe their priceless prose onto paper. They strive to find an hour a day away from family, friends, telemarketers, and Girl Scouts when they can put away the cares of the world, clear their minds, and really focus on their writing.
The first thing to do is dump the idea that your writing can be turned on and off like a faucet. Not only is this a bad idea, it encourages the related and erroneous thought that your writing can occasionally get stopped up (or, conversely, might break and spill creativity all over your carpet and soak your floorboards). Writers write, constantly. They can’t help it. They just don’t always write things down. And that’s the part I’m going to talk about today; how to find time to write it down.
Write stuff down. No matter where you are, or what you’re doing, if you get a quirky idea or a tease of a story, write it down. Get into the habit of carrying around notepaper or a small pad or something so you can record ideas as they occur to you. Thoughts, phrases, interesting bits of dialogue heard from strangers, whatever. If you hear something and think, “Ooh, that’s good, I’ll have to remember that,” you won’t. Believe me, there are literally thousands of incredible story ideas floating around out there, scattered on the sidewalks and highways of the world, which fell out of my head because I didn’t have a pencil to catch them with.
Most often I use my Palm Pilot to scribble down notes, partly because it’s easier to transfer onto my computer later on and partly because I’m such a techie geek. A flick of the button, a quick dash with my stylus, and my idea is permanently captured for later retrieval (although it always seems to be some variation of “Whst bheek!yy asw kn,nOkk?”). But I also keep paper in the car, a notepad by my bed, and stashes of pens everywhere. I’ve been known to write down story ideas on napkins, my arm, tree bark, someone else’s arm, those little paper placemats they give you in seafood restaurants, anywhere I can leave a mark and retrieve it later. Once you get into the habit, you might notice that finding story ideas is also no longer a problem. They’re freaking everywhere! Here’s some examples of where you can find time to jot down Pulitzer Prize-winning crap.
Waiting for a bus
Or cab, or plane, or train, or any form of transportation, especially if there are other people waiting there with you. Look around you! Freaky, aren’t they? Why bother coming up with characters out of your head when they’re all over the place? Standing at a bus stop, it would be easy to develop a story about lovers who meet and romance each other, never meeting anywhere else. Or a bus driver who, over time, notices changes in the personality of a regular passenger he’s slowly falling in love with. Or a maniac who plants a bomb on a bus that’ll blow up if it slows below 55 mph (Editor’s note: been done).
In your own car
This, frankly, is where I get most of my ideas. I think it’s because the universe, in its perverse wisdom, knows I can’t write them while I’m driving, so it sees fit to bless me with sparkling dialogue and amazing surprise twist endings. But ha! I’ve outwitted the universe by keeping a Post-It® pad in my ashtray. Nyah! Take that, universe!
I’ve got a 45 minute drive to and from work, five days a week. Nothing to do but think, listen to the radio, get pissed off at the radio, turn the radio off, and think. Isn’t that what you were looking for? A time to be forced to think? Many, if not most, of my best story ideas came to me while driving. I was listening to an old Andy Griffith comedy tape and started laughing at the idea of that kindly old country gentleman voice narrating an attempt to make amateur porn (it became my long short story “What It Was, Was Porno”). Heard a radio news report on efforts to legalize prostitution, and realized that were it made legal, it would probably get franchised a la McDonald’s (my short story, “Jackoff’s”). I remembered Mardi Gras was coming up, and I suddenly despaired, thinking of all those poor unfortunate beginning flashers who didn’t know the proper way to expose themselves (and that’ll become an article or a how-to poster, I haven’t decided). And, in front of me now, is a small Post-It® note with the words “finding time to write – everwhere” on it. Hmmm. Could make a good article…
I’ve also used a tape recorder, when I was in a writing mood and wanted to work out some dialogue, but frankly I feel silly as hell doing it. If they ever work out a decent voice-to-text word processor for a PDA, I should be able to manage a book a month.
In the john
Well, duh. You’re there for a certain amount of time, you’re already sitting down, and you’ve got to think about something besides what’s going on. Write! Just be sure to keep your papers separated. And don’t bring a laptop in with you; sitting there for hours at a time is bound to be unhealthy.
Where better to get ideas? Great sex gives you great imagery, great characters, great situations. Bad sex gives you even more, and your handwriting will be easier to read later. Practice writing without looking and soon you’ll be jotting down notes like a crazed stenographer even as your lover pounds you into the afterlife. Hmmm. “Pounds you into the afterlife,” that’d be interesting if it happened. Would you have any special status in the afterlife if you died during sex? Second-class, or cellblock hero? ‘Scuse me, gotta write something down.
Look for places in your daily life when you could cut back, just a little, for some writing time. Can you leave for work a few minutes later? Eat your lunch a little faster? Does your family really need all that attention? Do you have to brush every tooth?
Note: do not attempt to write while operating heavy equipment!
Just look at how easy it is to find time to write. Here’s my typical day:
7:00 a.m. – wake up to alarm, slap alarm.
7:09 a.m. – wake up to alarm, grab notebook and write down details of really wild dream I just had.
7:15 a.m. – wake up son, throw him in the bathroom to get ready for school while I check mail and sync my Palm Pilot.
7:30 a.m. – drive son to school, drop him off. Think of idea for an article on new kink (golden shower heads, with massage settings), pull over to write it down.
7:40 a.m. – drive off just as crossing guards run over to check out reports of pudgy, bearded man parked next to a schoolyard taking notes of some kind.
7:50 a.m. – get home, write for a half hour before getting ready for work.
8:30 a.m. – leap into shower, running late because I was on a roll. Write 13 lines of a sonnet on the bathroom wall with Dial, run the hot water out trying unsuccessfully to think of a rhyme for “latex bondage.”
8:45 a.m. – sit back at computer to sync Palm Pilot with new stuff, and maybe just jot down a few more thoughts…
9:30 a.m. – drive like a maniac for work, already way late. Run two lights trying to steer with my knee while I scribble a note about the opening song in my porn musical, “(I) Hump For a Living!”
9:35 a.m. – Hum the song for the officer, who seems unimpressed and tickets me. Music hater.
9:57 a.m. – Arrive at work, sit in parking lot afraid to leave my car in case a thought strikes me before I get to the building.
10:05 a.m. – Run for the lobby, getting almost halfway there before the perfect title for a work-in-progress occurs to me (“Quim Fandango”) and I am compelled to use my keys to write it in the side of the nearest car.
11:00 a.m. – Which turned out to be my boss’s new BMW. Had plenty of time during the arrest and sentencing to work out the details of an erotic murder-mystery. The arresting officer seemed interested and was a great source of help with police procedure, but he wouldn’t let me take the fingerprint sheet I scribbled on with me. Damn!
11:51 a.m. – Finally got my one phone call. Just in time, too. I called my house and dictated into my answering machine until I had described all three books of a great new erotic trilogy based on the surprisingly sensual life of a septic tank pump crew. Spent a few hours spitballing the character development with my fellow inmates, who seemed happy to act out the sex scenes to a degree of verisimilitude I found a touch disturbing. They’re going to want writing credit, I know it.
4:19 p.m. – I think, if it’s possible, that from now on I’ll always try to write in a courtroom. Peaceful, long stretches of uninterrupted time, and there are so many interesting people here I’ll never need to come up with my own characters again! Whoops, the judge is saying something. He looks a bit upset. I wonder if he finds wearing a dress to work everyday is more comfortable than he’s comfortable with. I might could do something with that…
8:35 p.m. – I manage to collect my scraps of toilet paper, t-shirt cloth, and cornbread on which I’ve written notes for this article. Now all I need is some uninterrupted time to write it all down, and the guard assures me that as soon as we arrive, spare time will not be a problem. Hurray!
See? Finding time to write isn’t hard at all, not if you know where your priorities are.
Now, finding time to edit, that’s a bitch.