Writing Life: What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here (& 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time)

Northwest 200 1993 – R. Dunlop

Have you ever had days you moved through furtively restless, with the certain impatience there was something you needed to do?  A pressure that meant you could not go outside to trim the bougainvillea that nearly clotheslined the UPS man (in all its bloody thorniness), could not (as you had promised) take the boys to the movies, could not spare the hour to catch up with your dear friend in LA (even though, for once, the time diff was in your favor), could not do laundry or dishes or even think of writing…but couldn’t name source of the urge?

I spent today in the tufted leather chair my boys expect me to sit in when I work (I work better sitting on my bed, but look so much lazier there, so that the leather chair claims me).  I had the laptop in my lap.  I had lists of things to do, and those that had been accomplished to check off.  I’d written three blogs this week, which needed proofing before posting.  I’d gathered more pictures for another Living with Books.  I’d traded notes with staff at a TT race in Ireland, that gave me just the detail to write an inner monologue for Wake‘s mose elusive character (where he dreamed himself the race marshall responsible for warning approaching racers of a hazard in the road, but somehow failed, as the character does ultimately, in preventing a family member’s death).  I had 14 brief manuscripts to read and comment on for a workshop with Ann Hood starting Wednesday, and three more litmag submissions to read and respond to.

More urgently, 69 student essays and 17 preliminary research packets await comments for classes this week, with mid-period grades due tomorrow.

I assumed that was source of the restlessness: resentment at spending my Sunday grading, guilt not to be with the boys.  I love teaching writing but have to confess myself worse than the students this year in having early-onset of summer fever.  As much as I’ll miss this fabulous year when it ends, right this moment I want nothing more than hours alone to myself to read and write and play with my boys and maybe, if I have to, get the house clean.  Or go on a date.  Student papers drag their toes in self-conscious awareness there’s no competing with all that. Together, the weighty bag of papers and I went through the day watching guilty marathon episodes of Miami Towing on tru.tv (yeah, that bad) knowing I was clearly in a state of avoidance.

The boys went out to let me work but the urgent impatience continued.  With the irritable absentmindedness of a nervous tick, I flicked back and forth through software on my computer and online.  Metaphorically pacing.  Searching.  Waiting for something.  Every twenty minutes or so, a tweet would come through, an email would come through, friendly comments and connections from my friends in the ether.  A good article to read, an interesting piece of news.  I’d be sated, momentarily, like easing a junkie’s craving, so that yes, it seemed, maybe that was it: just boredom.  Avoiding the essays.  Loving the connection of fellow writers.  Avoiding the essays.

Just as quickly, the craving would be back, the pacing, the constant flickering hunt through the buttons on screen.

But, whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t here.

The boys came home, breaking my trance.  I broke free of the leather chair (who may find itself summarily dismissed for its continued failure to aid in productivity), went upstairs to where the beginning of twilight lit the bay window of my room like a treehouse.

Sitting here reminded me of the hour stolen before teaching last Thursday: writing the scene where this elusive character revealed himself, pulling the long unused key to his parents’ house from his wallet, his men turning away in denial of how his hand shook, scraping the brass face of the lock before he could turn the key.  The house of the death he’d caused, the main character still thinking him a victim while the shear act of turning away had revealed to him that his closest friends had thought him at fault all along.

Where all day there had been restlessness, I am now there in that novel — in the scene just written, in the race getting ready to be underway in Northern Ireland (in the real world) which the elusive character’s father was famed for winning before his death (in the novel).  In the scene still in my head, wanting my attention.  Awareness fills me, as it does, with the engulfing physical and emotional presence a work in progress can have.

I realize with a mix of frustration and relief this is the answer I looked for all day.  The novel.  I want everything else — the grading, the cleaning, the movie, the duties — to fall away and leave me dozens of hours to disappear into finishing this story.  It’s frustrating because the timing is off.  I budget time for fiction, but today’s hours were allotted to getting grades entered and I’m being bratty to complain about it.  I’m lucky enough to be working only part-time this year, to have 3 days off for a workshop this week, to have 2 months home this summer between teaching.  Wait, impatient novel.  Your turn is coming.

But, even with the limited time, I pause to enter this post to say one thing: what a relief it is, and a joy, to know the writing I am doing has this powerful a pull on me.  To know that, even when it has to wait its turn, it is strong enough to leave me pacing and craving the work.  Relentless: that’s the nickname of the motorcycle race coming up in Northern Ireland this month.  I like that, as it fits the relentlessness of this urge I have to get this story down.

* * *

5 Things I Could Have Done to Make Today More Successful:

Yeah, I know better.

1.  Write first.  What relief I would have felt, had I given myself an hour, even, to get that one scene down before trying to work on other things.

2. Not let interruptions begin, in the first placeBad, leather chair, bad.   Sounds like I’m kidding, but fact is, this chair is aimed at the tv, in a room crowded with the boys’ toys, causing stifling chi even when the tv is off.  I know this to be true.  The trick is to know yourself and not invite the disaster in to begin with.  I should have begun the day in the room where I knew I worked more productively.

3. Don’t worry what other people think.  I started my day in the family room because I was waiting for the boys’ dad to pick them up. He would have taunted me for “sitting in bed all day” if I’d been working in my room when he got there.  So what?  I should have done what I knew to be best, regardless.

4. When you get in a rut, break it right away. Okay, so yeah, it was hysterical seeing the crazed big man stuck in the passenger window of his car, fighting to keep the tow truck driver from pulling away.  But, yo.  As I procrastinated into the third episode of Miami Towing?  Take a hint.  Break the trance.  Go for a run.  Go to that movie with the boys.  Do anything — but don’t let the procrastination take over.

5.  In avoidance mode? Use a timer and break work into 15 or 30 minute increments. Grade 30 minutes, then give 10 to something rewarding, whether that be a break with friends online or reading for the workshop later in the week, or a turn with fiction, getting that new scene down.  Several 30 minute increments would have left me much more productive than the day turned out.

* * *

Worth Reading:  For friends who have been participating in Robert Lee Brewer’s Social Media Platform challenge this month (#mninb on twitter), I’ll end with a link to a great article by Jane Friedman: read this for the great checklist, providing an interesting approach for deciding how to balance time between writing and building platform. Comments following the article are just as insightful.

* * *

Best to all of you, who struggle with the ongoing need to balance writing with the other demands of life.  If you have similar challenges, or insights for what works well for you, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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For more on managing writing time:

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Filed under Novel Writing, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother

16 responses to “Writing Life: What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here (& 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time)

  1. Thanks, Elissa! I needed this for both the content and the momentary diversion as I complete Day 29 of the MNINB April Platform Challenge. My May is looking a bit more doable.


    • Thanks, Lara! He sure got a fire lit beneath us this month – and it’s great he’s ending with making sure we keep it up. I’ll be hectic through the end of the school year, but am managing to chisel out some decent work despite days like today. I hope your days are going well, too!


  2. It’s always a challenge — and then I finally have the time and the quiet and I’m a complete blank, or I had all of these great ideas I couldn’t act on, and by the time I get to them, gone, or not as well worded or powerful as I remember them being. I suppose this is why writers run away to cabin retreats.


    • Thanks for commenting, Jeannine. You know, I always wonder about those cabin retreats – I’ve heard reports back from friends who’ve gone and gotten entire manuscripts finished or stories done… But can’t help wondering if I’d be conversely distracted by the quiet! I guess it takes discipline, no matter where you are.


  3. Jennifer Kirkpatrick Brown

    Whenever I’m not writing, I have the vague feeling that I am supposed to be doing something else–so I know exactly what you mean.

    Also, I so understand the leather chair thing! I often talk myself out of sitting at the table where I am more productive because it is comfy on the couch–but then I’m so comfortable that I accomplish less than I should. And the whole “write first” thing! My days would all be better if I would get better about doing that!


    • Thanks for commenting, Jennifer. I have enjoyed reading your posts at your blog — especially being reminded of John Gardner’s Art of the Novel in your post MFA in a box.

      The “write first” advice is a great piece of advice I first picked up on from a writing mother. It does ease the anxiety, and makes sure some productivity is getting done every day.


  4. kkcarver

    Hi Elissa. I can sooo relate. I have a couple of leather chairs, one of them not so comfortable, and a nice office downstairs which I rarely use because I’m too far removed from the rest of the house (and my four dogs who would be getting into mischief). Time management is a hard balance sometimes, something I’ve never been as aware of as this month during the MNINB challenge!


  5. Oh how familiar. Your list of things to do takes me back to the English teacher days and the never-ending grading/planning. I, too, feel that draw to be in the writing I am or am wanting to do. And I cannot do that writing until my writing voice (for the piece) speaks.


  6. Great post, Elissa! Sometimes I find myself in one of those thoroughly unproductive trances (as opposed to being in The Zone), which of course results after spending too much time on the interwebs. Next time it happens I’ll think of #4.


  7. This was as powerful as it was perfect, and having been there, having ignored the sensible thing of getting something done because the resistance was so strong… The list was needed.

    As my husband often says: “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”


  8. Thanks to KKCarver, Mary, Camille and Eden for your comments! Eden, I love that advice: “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”

    Hmm. Maybe that will start a blog for today. :)


  9. Great list of things to do. I have a terrible time sticking to my lists, but at least they remind me of what I should be doing.


  10. Stopping by to say hello to my fellow MNINBer. Thanks for the tips. I like tip #1- write first! Since the Platform challenge, my writing has been put to the wayside. So now I will spend an hour to write first then check my social media for 30 mins. at the most. Thank you!


  11. So helpful; just discovered your blog.Staying focused on the work is sometimes so difficult. Need to shut the inner voice screaming ‘laundry need you’ …


  12. Kim, Romelle & deeplycaffeinated, thanks for your comments. Especially on heels of Romelle’s comment about budgeting time, do consider clicking through to read Jane Friedman’s advice (link in the post above). Each of us are at different points in our writing career and she uses that as a way of helping to decide what percentage of time should go to writing (the fiction) and what percentage to building platform. Building community is important to me right now, but her advice reminds me that the key is still to get stories ready and submitted.


  13. Yeah, that’s the right path to wisdom : writing FIRST and NEVER feel guilty about that (all in all, in 30 years from now, everyone would have forgotten if our shirts were perfectly ironed or not).
    After all, how can we do a living if we do not allow enough time to create and write?
    It’s always good to see that one does not struggle “alone”, and the blog community, by allowing the sharing of discouragement and meager harvests of satisfying writing, helps us looking up and moving forward. Keep on! Keep us posted with your wonderful posts, we support you and encourage you! You do what you love, and you do (it) right! Cheers to creativity and writer’s block!


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