Why it’s good to write when you’re busy: Part II

I wrote Part I (not knowing it would have a Part II) in February of 2013. Meaning, I’ve been f-ing busy for over a year. A crazy work schedule, family stuff, weekend trips, wedding planning, honeymoon planning, and a couple half marathons (with the requisite weeks of training) has made it difficult to find any time to write. I wanted to have my book done by January. It’s April now. A few weeks ago, I printed out my latest draft to line edit. I haven’t looked at it since it left the printer.

Thankfully, a recent plane flight gave me time to read through a stack of magazines I subscribe to but had neglected for months. I came across an article in Poets & Writers that reminded me that it’s good to be busy. Well, good for my writing. I’m not sure it’s good for my sanity.

The article is titled “Rethinking Restriction: Creative Limitation as a Positive Force” (author: M. Allen Cunningham). I underlined several paragraphs. You know I’m excited when I underline.

rethinking restriction

The article features several writers who tout the benefits of having limited writing time. Ethan Canin is one. When asked by an audience member at a public reading about roadblocks with writing fiction, he said:

“Restriction breeds invention!”

Canin claims he deliberately confines himself to a half hour of writing time per day. He said the amount of productivity generated by so miniscule an allowance is astonishing.

I’ve seen this in my own life lately. Some days, I can only manage 10 minutes of writing time, but I milk those minutes, let me tell you. I get more done in those spurts than I do if I have a blank hour ahead of me with nothing to do but write.

Annie Proulx shares Canin’s views, saying, “I don’t have a regular writing regimen. I write whenever I can get the time–and usually it’s a matter of shoehorning some work in somewhere or it doesn’t happen.”

That’s exactly it–shoehorning. While waiting for a meeting to start at work, for example, I’ll scribble down notes for my novel on a corner of paper–that kind of thing. I’ve never believed that every writer must have a specific routine for writing. My life doesn’t really allow for that right now. I take what I can get, when I can get it. If I had a set routine, I would just feel guilty all the time for not sticking to it.

Cunningham says:

“The great lot of us, I’ll venture to say, have always got an idea or two simmering on the back burner–but tend to despair of ever realizing them. Our creative sweat and tears, we feel, are sucked dry in making a living. Our time is gobbled up ‘on the clock’ at work. We embody the modern dichotomy of creative energy at odds with practical demands, and we get…well, depressed. Working for the buck, we feel we’ve been coerced into betrayal of our own more creative impulses.”

(Um, how many times do I say this–in far less eloquent words–to my poor fiancé every night after a long day of work?)

He goes on:

“But how liberating to think that obligatory distractions, ‘creative roadblocks,’ and the scarcity of time may be made to serve and benefit imaginative production–and not prove strictly detrimental, as many a creative soul tends to believe.”

Back in the 1930s, the great American thinker John Dewey touched on this, saying, “Resistance accumulates energy… The resistance offered to immediate expression of emotion is precisely that which compels it to assume rhythmic form.”

In short, not being able to write as much as I want makes me really hungry for it. That’s why those 10-minute spurts are so productive. There is more of an urgency, a need.

Cunningham continues:

“Pushing through resistance, our ideas get toned up, driven to evolve into something better, more creative, and more robust, somewhat in the way a body grows immune to disease by low-level exposure to it. The final execution of ideas may altogether outshine our original concepts. What’s more, we may find that the whole process of germination, resistance, and achievement has taken us to new personal and creative heights.”

Another reason those 10 minute spurts are so great: Because I have limited time to actually write, I do a lot of “work” while I’m doing other things. My subconscious is always thinking about my novel. So when I do sit down to write, what comes out is more refined than I expect it to be. It just sort of…flows.

“We do much of our work while asleep–or while standing in the shower, or sitting behind the wheel en route to our day jobs. Always, little cogs keep silently turning. Some rich mineral water seeps up through the strata to surface as a glimmering idea.”

At the end of my 10-minute spurt, I’m usually so excited that I can’t wait for the next block of writing time–whenever it is. I’m always left wanting more. In the past, I’ve set aside hours to write and forced myself to sit. This just leads to lots of cursing.

Hemingway said: “I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day…”

I call this “the cliffhanger approach.” Always leave yourself with a juicy bit of story to tell the next day. It will encourage you to come back to the desk.

Hemingway went on: “I learned not to think about anything I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to it.”

Even if I wanted to, I just don’t have time to actively think about my writing. What I’ve learned is that’s a good thing. I’ve given my subconscious a chance to really shine. (Seriously, you should hear about some of the dreams I have at night…)

Andre Dubus once said: “I gestate: for months, often for years. An idea comes to me from wherever they come, and I write it in a notebook. Sometimes I forget it’s there. I don’t think about it. By think I mean plan. I try never to think about where a story will go…I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender.”

That’s just it–surrender. I’m not good at that, generally speaking. Life has kind of forced it upon me in relation to my writing. I’ve had to let go, accept the lack of routine, and make due with the time slots I have. It’s been illuminating to see that my writing is better than ever (I think). It’s just slow going. But that’s okay. What’s the rush?


3 thoughts on “Why it’s good to write when you’re busy: Part II

  1. This was awesome to read as I also feel that my life stage is “too busy” to do any productive writing. I’ve been trying to discipline myself to just sit down and write 1-2x/week, even if I don’t have a ton of time or a clear idea of what to write about. That discipline is good, but to be totally honest, the best blog posts flow out of me in minutes because I’ve already been “gestating” (like Dubus said) on the thoughts I want to share. Those words HAVE to come out, so I make writing happen…not the other way around. I think that as a writer, you need a balance between the words that HAVE to come out and the discipline of writing even when they don’t flow as easily. This was a great post. Thanks Kim!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! It was such an epiphany to me to realize that I don’t HAVE to have a set routine. I actually do better without one. I’m not as productive, page-wise, as before, but the quality seems way better. I totally agree that it’s best to pay attention to those words that HAVE to get out. Those are the important ones.

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