THE BLOG
08/02/2012 11:16 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2012

The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: Making the Most of Your Writing Time

Now that you've decided that you do have what it takes, that you are worthy of taking the time to "live life twice," as Natalie Goldberg tells us writers do, I have a couple of well-worn tips in my arsenal to help make your writing time more productive and less agonizing.

"Wait a minute," you might be wondering. "Agonizing? I thought writing was something I wanted to make time for. Why would that be agonizing?"

As anyone who's tried it knows, creation is often painful or difficult because nothing brings you face to face with your innermost desires and your greatest fears, especially your fear of failure, than a blank page or a lump of clay. Additionally, taking the time to make space for writing in our busy lives places a certain degree of pressure on the act itself. Consequently, showing up when the words don't come can make you feel that you're wasting your time. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but you might want avail yourself of a few techniques that will at least make you feel productive while you're waiting for inspiration. By the way, I almost ended that last sentence with "the muse" instead of inspiration but decided against it because the word "muse" has always seemed a bit too precious to me. Besides, in a culture where muses are supposed to be feminine, what's a heterosexual female to do? Even if muses could shift genders and my muse could take the form of, say, Alan Rickman, I cannot imagine how "courting" a muse could do anything but get in the way. I don't need to personify or romanticize my work; I just need to do it.

So. There's always the good old prompt to get you going, or, because elementary teachers long ago murdered the phrase "writing prompt" via overuse and continue to stomp on it to make sure it's really dead, what most writers like to refer to as the "self-assignment," a word or a phrase or a photograph to get you going. There are a number of places to find these, a simple scan of the internet will yield a bounty of sites, though I warn you, you will probably have to use the word "prompt" as one of your search terms. Still, if the thought of wrestling with the blank page a moment longer is beginning to seem like torture, this is a good cure. By far the richest of these sites is Easystreetprompts, and I say that not because the creator is my enormously talented friend, Monda Strange Fason, but because the site rightfully has a huge following and has been named to the Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers list for several years running. Further proof: my students love and it yields great work from them. So check it out; you won't regret it -- in fact, keep checking back to the site and the word "prompt" may soon be evocative of not of mucilage pots and hall passes but of glamorous women in cloche hats and somber postmen with stories to tell.

Another trick is to go to your desk with some sense of what you want to do or how you want to get started. If you're in the middle of a poem, story, or essay, you already know you're over the hump. But if you're not, it's good to have a list of images you've always wanted to write a poem about or of scenes you need to write in your novel. At the embryonic stage of this series of essays (part of a longer book) I sketched out a basic plan of what I wanted each chapter to be about and the stories and examples I wanted to elaborate on in each, to give me a starting place for my work sessions. Thanks to Hemingway, it's also an old saw that if you can help it, you want to avoid finishing a work session with the end of a scene or a poem, that you want to leave some work left to be done so you can just pick up where you left off next time.

Finally, one of the benefits of making time to write is that your brain will be in writing mode even when you're not writing. Lines and whole scenes will come to you unbidden and if you know what's good for you, you'll get them down before you lose them, even if it's not your "official" writing time (here is where I would tell my students to pull over first if they're driving and the same goes for you too). For this, you'll need some sort of writing receptacle, something to receive that flood of great ideas; a journal, notebook, something ideally small enough to be carted about.

To clarify, I am not talking about a diary in which you dutifully chronicle your every thought but an easily accessible place to receive your ideas. Too much has been made in the writing world about diaries. True, some writers love to transcribe every detail of their lives and it makes for great reading after they die (except for The Journals of John Cheever, which seemed so dark to me when I read them as to make even the most chipper among us want to slit our wrists). But most of us don't need this ritual transcription and we don't need to feel guilty about it either. We just need a receptacle. Anything goes, really; many of my students jot down good ideas on their smart phones. I may be old-fashioned, but I like the idea of keeping it real with the writing receptacle; something you can hold in your hands and ferret away for posterity when it's full. My receptacle right now is a chunky hot pink leather notebook I've carried in my purse since January but at times it has been as demure as the tiniest of moleskines -- whatever was convenient.

An important added benefit of hard copy you can hold in your hands is that it makes the archivists happy. I worry about the archivists. How are they going to archive everything being transmitted into the ether today, otherwise known as the cloud? How are we going to read writer's archives in the future? I'm sure there are digital archivists toiling away on this problem at this very moment but until a solution is found, I think we need to leave some hard-copy proof of our literary existence. Something you can leaf through whether or not your internet is being funky that day, something full of ideas and images that can replace the pressure of being creative on-demand with abundant reminders of why you wanted to write in the first place.