Strategies for a Writing Schedule
Maureen Eppstein is a poet whose latest chapbook, Earthward, comes out this month from Finishing Line Press. (A reading is scheduled for Nov. 15, 6:30, at Gallery Bookstore.) Previous collections include Rogue Wave at Glass Beach (2009) and Quickening (2007), both published by March Street Press. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Crossing the boundary between the arts and the sciences, her poems have been included in a textbook on computer graphics and geometric modeling and used in a university-level geology course. She is a former executive director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. Her website is http://www.maureen-eppstein.com.
All praise to the writer who stumbles from bed at 3:00 am and, wrapped in an old plaid robe, types feverishly until dawn.
All praise to the night owl who tiptoes to her writing desk late in the evening, when the house is quiet and the children are asleep.
I am not one of these. I like to sleep. But I am one who, over the years, has learned a few other strategies for carving out precious writing hours.
My writing career started on a New Zealand city newspaper. When I left to go abroad, I took with me an invitation to send back freelance articles about people and places of interest. My last in this series was on maternity services under the British National Health system. For the next few years I was too intent on making ends meet and caring for two small children to bother finding time to put fingers to typewriter. It was only when we moved to California, my elder son started school, and the younger one still took an afternoon nap, that I had a daily hour to myself. I returned to my first love, poetry, since it was easier to focus on a few lines in short bursts of time. I took to writing in the laundromat, in the car while I waited to pick up the kids, wherever and whenever I had time to kill.
Making time for writing takes self-confidence. I’ve had dry spells that lasted years, when I felt that what I had to say had so little value there was no point in trying. A mental breakthrough (albeit temporary) came one day when the boys were in elementary school. A phone call from a PTA volunteer: “We’re short-staffed for handing out hamburgers at lunch. Can you come and help?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m working.” You liar, I told myself as I hung up the phone. You’re only working on a chapter of your novel. You could have made yourself useful. I gasped as the realization hit me: I was working. Writing was my job.
The breakthrough didn’t last. Rejection slips piled up. I took a part-time job, then a full-time job. Along the way I met other struggling writers, joined a writing group, and fell in with a bunch of poets who hosted a monthly open reading. This is another key to carving out writing time: find a group of peers who will force you to produce so you have something to share when you meet.
While I was working full-time, I would complain that I didn’t have time to write. When I sounded off once too often my practical office mate sat me down for what she called an Inquiry.
How much time did I need? An hour or two.
When was my most productive time of day? First thing in the morning.
When did my husband leave for work? Before 7:00 am.
When did I start work? 8:00 am.
Did our office allow flex time? Yes.
Voila! Two hours each day of dedicated writing time. All I needed to do was arrange with my boss to come in to work an hour later and work another hour in the evening.
I work best when I have the house to myself. Sometimes this is not possible. When I retired, my husband had been working from home for a year. We shared an office and, after a few spats about his loud radio, his burbled nonsense rhymes, and his exclamations about interesting tidbits he found on the web, we came up with a solution: a little Writer at Work flag on a stick that I mounted on the desk divider. When the flag was down, I could be interrupted. When the flag was up, it meant I was working on something that required total concentration. It worked.
My final key to making time to write is discipline. We all have our distraction strategies. Mine is email, which can fritter away the entire day. I’ve learned to forbid myself from opening my email program until I have completed my writing task: the first draft of a new poem or essay, or satisfactory revision of a work in progress. It’s hard. The icon grins from the taskbar on my computer, daring me to resist.
To sum up, here are my strategies: