A Half Hour of One’s Own

Half-hour Glass

On the plane home the other day, I was absolutely alone for six hours. I used to be alone all the time and I liked it. And then I married and had children and became like one of those Russian nesting dolls — always surrounded by other people, many of whom look a little bit like me.

I did see the appeal of the 36 Jet Blue channels. Before my life changed so utterly, I would have surfed through them for six hours and thought nothing of it. I don’t do that anymore. Not because I’ve had a sudden infusion of probity, but because a person who is starved enough for the things she loves will resist even the temptation of those 36 channels if it means time to read and write. And so I read (a book called Berlin Noir), and wrote part of the novel I’ve been working on.

I almost never have an expanse of time as endless as the sky across the country to do what I’d like with. Like many people, I have to get my work done: which means I have legal opinons to write, and afterwards, I need to be on time to pick my children up from school. There are dioramas to consult about, and grant applications for the schools to write. I cook as much as I can, and I also market. I pay our bills. I fill out forms and arrange for child care. I make sure people have costumes for school plays, and pumpkins at Halloween. I buy a lot of Christmas presents and I wrap them. Every once in a while I get my hair cut and I try to hike and go to the gym, although that’s not been going well the last few months. There are days when I wish I didn’t have to sleep and there are a lot of days when I don’t have enough time to sleep as much as I’d like. I’m not a martyr: my husband does as much as I do. And we have hired people to do some of the things we can’t get to: our laundry, our general cleanliness, some cooking, help in the garden. It’s a lucky, busy, exceedingly rich life and I know it full well because I did not grow up like this. And I’m not here to complain about it.

What I want to talk about is how, in all this, I have figured out how to make time to write.

I’ll say straight off that I am a pretty lazy person. I have a hard time applying myself to things I don’t like to do and don’t have to do. I never learned good study habits and I procrastinate when I can. But when I love something, I can’t get enough of it. A lazy obsessive, that’s what I am.

So here’s what you need to know: pleasure is the key to finding time to write, and to writing well when you carve out your space to write in. To repeat: Your writing has to become something that gives you so much pleasure that you will forego whatever your equivalent of the 36 Jet Blue channels looks like to do it.

One thing that gets in the way of pleasure is the burden we place on ourselves to accomplish a lot and be good at what we do. The first thing you must do if you’re going to write consistently is lower your expectations — way low. Paradoxically, once you do this, you will begin to do your very best work. Life is like that: if you stop telling yourself you have to hit a home run, you begin to hit a few singles. You walk once in a while. You become valuable to your team. You enjoy playing. You practice more. And although you may not hit home runs, you’re not bad for a guy in a rec league.

So — One expectation you need to lower is that you can’t write unless you have an entire afternoon free, or a week at a writing workshop, or two weeks in Europe or an M.F.A. program. You can write if you have fifteen minutes. Thirty is better. And that is time anyone can find.

Recognize that the deck you need to clear in order to write is very small indeed. In fact, for quite a while, before you even get to the clear the decks part, all you need is a small notebook, which is always on you, and a little pencil, which is similarly always accessible. It is good if these things appeal to your sense of beauty. But don’t go overboard. Entire novels have gone unwritten because somebody went stationery shopping and never got to the first chapter.

For a while, all you should do is write down every idea that comes into your head, when it comes into your head. Don’t do anything else. Write down details: the way a man touches his moustache as he reads his newspaper, the way older people look at things from the bottom part of their eyes, the guy with short dreadlocks on the escalator in front of you, the guy who’s wearing a black canvas bag that says, in very simple type, “Vegan.” Write down things you remember: the way the freezer smelled of strawberry ice cream in the summer when you were a child; the time your father ran over your dog on the way to church; the wildflowers in your crazy neighbor’s yard. Write down topics: songs played in minor chords, why hummus is everywhere you look, your summer reading list, how you got your children to stop sounding like rappers.

And then, without moving too quickly, or wrenching your back, or calling too much attention to yourself, clear a very little space. Try to open up half an hour. It could be on the train, before bed, in bed, after waking up a little early. Whatever you do, don’t shock your system by trying to do something extreme like getting up at 4 a.m. It’s sure to fail and then you’re going to feel bad. You don’t want to do that.

So, you’ve got your little notebook and your half an hour. Now, the fun part. Remember how much you love to write, to fool around with words and ideas. To tell stories. Now go ahead and write. For the entire thirty minutes. Use a timer if you have to. Whatever thoughts seem the most enjoyable to you, write them down. If you don’t enjoy writing one topic, don’t force yourself. Be guided by how you feel physically. If you’re squirming around, maybe you’ve chosen a topic that makes you self-conscious, a subject that carries too much freight. Don’t write about that thing today. You’ll come back to it. Or you’ll come to it from another angle.

If you’d like, shape what you’re writing — into the first paragraph of your novel, or a scene, or a sonnet, or the end of a short story, or the first few lines of an essay on what it means to be a Vegan. But if no form comes, don’t worry about that. Just keep writing. Stretch out. No editor.

Now here’s the important part — do this regularly. And if you do, and protect the half hour you’ve carved out of your day, it will start to feel like a treat. It will also begin to feel urgent. It can take a while to reach that place — maybe even six months or a year. You’ll get there faster if you don’t worry about whether your writing’s good. If you can get back to what you love about writing, then you’re in the right place. Pretty soon, you’ll be shaping what you write, because that is an impulse we cannot resist.

There are other people — and I used to be one of them — who have endless amounts of time but can’t seem to get going. This same technique actually does work for this type of life. You, like the truly busy people who don’t actually have time to write, are also burdened by expectations that are too high. In your case, you feel you must do something that’s worthy of your free time. And so you don’t write at all. Who would? We don’t write well when we are burdened with expectations of greatness (and if we do, it’s not how I want to write). You too must lower your expectations. Just write for half an hour. If you’re enjoying yourself, lucky you, you can keep going. And do.

And one more thing: every time you sit down to write, the list in your little notebook will keep you going. You will always have more to say, if you have a lot of scrawled ideas and images. So there you are: You have always wanted to write because you love writing. And now is the time to do it.

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8 thoughts on “A Half Hour of One’s Own

  1. Thanks for writing about this… Very good advice.

    For years, I used to carry a small notebook as you advise. I’ve got a drawer full of old notebooks… great resource material. But I fell out of the habit during one of the periods when I gave up on writing. But now I’m starting to carry one again.

    Carving out that time to write is still a challenge for me…

  2. I have heard this many times before. Also “freewriting” is supposed to be really good to keep you going. I don’t know why I can’t get into the rhythm of regular writing, but it has been difficult for me too. I probably lack the discipline. But I will give it go. Again.

    Another thing – I have a bit of an odd thing and that is that I write best in either trains or cafe’s where there are people around me. Not that I hear them when I write, but just the fact that they are there is somehow stimulating the creative process. Practical it is not :-)

  3. It’s true that I can never find as much time as I’d like to do creative things. I’m obliged to write for my work, but that can sometimes take the fun out of it. Blogging has really motivated me to write more, but now I can’t keep it constrained within the time limits I set for it! Can’t win, can you? But this is wonderful advice, bloglily, and a post I’ll return to for inspiration.

  4. Hey Nova — I’m glad you stopped by! Good luck with your writing, by the way.
    Fencer, it’s hard carving time out. When you get a handle on it, will you tell me how you did it? i am so inspired by stories of how people make room in their lives for the things that matter to them.
    And hello Ingrid — I love writing in cafes! And the one you have found sounds like the center of the creative universe for you.
    Litlove, I agree, the blogging can get a little out of hand. I started doing this as a way to warm up for my novel, but lately, novel writing has been taking a back seat to what is an apparently limitless supply of obsessions to write about.

    DEBBY! Yes, that’s my new tablecloth. Lovely, isn’t it? Thanks for finding it for me. You’re going to have to start a blog about your love of linen.

  5. That’s so interesting! Something about the way it puddles in the bottom of the hourglass makes the sand look like a liquid. Thanks for stopping by and checking things out.

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