08/13/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

If Only I Could Find the Time to Write


I would write more if I could quit my day job. I would write more if I had a million dollars. I would write more if I had my own office. I would write more if I had some quiet time away from the kids. I would write more if I took a vacation. I would write more if I knew it wouldn't suck.

As a writer, you think you would be well versed in the power of words to create reality. But instead, we often ignore this lesson as it applies to ourselves. Surely we can cheer on other writers through writer's block, through setting good habits, through the power of revision, but with ourselves, we often disregard the very advice we dispense cheerfully. But I would like to introduce you to this one simple idea: thoughts are things.

The thoughts we have shape our world. As Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't -- you're right." My goal for sharing this today is to help you examine the tiny mad ideas you have about writing and publishing with an aim towards revising them. Just as we revise a story, we can revise what we think about our writing practice.

Let's begin with the biggest, tiny mad idea: There are ideal conditions for writing that must be met.

We often elevated the practice to a sacred level. Many books advise lighting candles, playing soft music, and getting into the mood much in the tone of relationship advice book for middle-aged marrieds. Writers labor under the delusion that they must have a clear schedule, quiet room, and just the right tools to start composing their opus.

I'd like to turn this idea on its head. For a long time I thought I could only write well first thing in the morning. Well, I have a job and a teenager, and other things take precedence in the morning. Yes, I could follow the advice of many writing books and set an alarm for five-thirty and write in the quiet darkness of a sleeping house. I could, except I won't. I need more than five hours of sleep to be a functioning human being. My thinking about this, however -- that could change!

Instead of thinking about writing time as a sacred practice occurring only under the most exacting conditions, I looked at it with the same focus that I reserve for walking the dogs, paying the bills or brushing my teeth. Writing, it turned out, could be another item on the to do list. Just as I flexibly maneuvered all of the other items on my to do list to suit the day's ebb and flow, I too could add writing to the list. Instead of saying, write today, I started with write 250 words today. Or write for ten minutes. Giving myself a clear, actionable item and ranking it alongside all the other things I had to do gave me permission to write whenever I could during that day.

Imagine that -- write whenever! Using this approach, I wound up finishing a novel I had started the year prior. If I had just waited for the perfect mornings with a good cup of tea and unbroken silence for a few hours, I would still be on page twenty. If kept believing that I could only write one way, I would have never gotten any writing done.

I'm not saying it isn't wonderful to have your ideal writing conditions. Surely a desk with a scented candle and a cup of Earl Grey and no one screaming mom from the other room is a blessing. But writing is a blessing too. And we shouldn't limit ourselves from one because of the other. Writing is a vocation, which evokes the notion of both a job and a spiritual calling. Sometimes we forget the drudgery part of that definition. If you want to be an actual writer that puts words down on the page, you may need to change how you look writing and make choices to do it. It isn't the forces of the world that conspire against your time for writing -- it's your own way of approaching the world.

So fill in the blank: if I would write more if _____________. Name your excuses. Admit them. Then revise them.

Then ask yourself, when can I actually write? What would it take to fit writing into my day? How could I prepare myself at the start of each day so that I could seize those empty five or 10 minutes spaces in my day and fill them with words?

Be flexible with yourself -- maybe it's a voice recording app on your phone for capturing ideas while you drive, maybe it's a pen and notebook in your pocket at all times, maybe you send yourself text messages or emails throughout the day, maybe you lug your laptop when you drop your kid off at soccer practice and instead of chatting with the other parents you duck off and write under the bleachers, or maybe you do set your alarm at five-thirty and enjoy that quiet dark of your home. Whatever you do, explore the possibility that your time for writing doesn't need to be perfect -- it's just needs to happen.

The second tiny mad idea is this: I won't be good enough.
The fear of failure and curse of perfectionism, stops so many creative types dead in their tracks. Some cousins of this tiny mad idea are: What if it won't work? What if people hate it? What if people hate me? Again, thoughts are things. If we believe we are not good enough, we won't be. And why would you ever want to even consider starting something new under that way of thinking? It won't be good enough -- why even bother?

But I love to turn this thinking on its head. What is the absolute worst thing that would happen if something you wrote wasn't good enough? Probably the worst thing is that you would delete it. Or it would live on in your journal or hard drive until the journal made its way to trash or the hard drive gave up the ghost.

The word writer does writers everywhere a disservice. The verb phrase "to write" implies composition alone -- just putting the words down on the paper. This ignores the full spectrum of activities it takes to be a writer such as planning, drafting, and the most important piece of work, revising.

So when you are stopped in your tracks by the idea that it won't be good enough, try agreeing with yourself. Be honest. It probably won't be good enough. And nor is it supposed to be! It is a first draft. That's it. A draft. Which means there could be a second draft, third draft, and even a fourth draft. And even if you stuck with this process and got through all those drafts, you may still find a plot hole on page 59 and a clichéd ending. But even then, I am certain that not all is lost. You will have learned something. And the next first draft will be better for it.

We sometimes forget that writing is a practice. We don't expect Olympic Ice Skaters to learn how to skate one weekend and then head off to the Games the next. It takes years. Unending daily practice sessions with coaches and parents barking orders. Countless injuries and setbacks. Years of falling on their sequined butts in rinks filled with spectators. We writers sometimes forget that the worse thing we risk on a bad writing day is a glaring look from the dog who thinks your time could be better spent taking him for a walk.

We must remember that writing is a practice, a job, and a spiritual calling. I don't mean to diminish the powerful pull some of us feel to create and share stories, but I do want to empower writers with the tools to change how they think about their craft and process. If we can't move past our own limiting beliefs, we will never get to the spiritual part. If our words aren't on the page, they can't reach the reader. So let's dismantle our excuses, reframe them, and use them to push our practice to the next level.

If you want to continue this conversation with me, please reach out to me!