Whenever a new year, new month or even a new day begins, I always find myself asking, What's next? The promise of what might come inspires me some days and other times, weighs heavy on me. I want that strong push of motivation to cheer me into each new moment, but I often get stuck trying to figure out how to create the best conditions for myself to be motivated, to be ready to do something, anything.
As a writer, one is the things I struggle most with is making time to write. I would imagine that for most writers who are not financially sustained by their writing (that group is extraordinarily small), this is a common theme. Cutting time out of the work you need to do to pay your bills, spending time with your family, chores, running errands, cooking, walking dogs, etc. is a challenge at the very least. Well, I should say, it is a challenge for me. But considering the many writers I have had conversations with about this, I think it's safe to say I am not alone.
The act of writing is this incredible gift that you give yourself. Anyone can do it. To write you need nothing more than a pen and paper (or that note app on your phone). The difference between simply writing and stepping into that space where you think you want your writing to echo out there into the world, is the place where this cultivation begins (or could/should begin). Because presenting your writing in the world requires a bit more from it. It requires focus on the work, rereading and editing, the research into journals or presses where it might be a good fit, creating a strong cover letter, and then, of course, submitting it. It is not a fast or easy process, and as such you must cultivate time in your life for the hard work of being a writer. Or a better writer, as the path forward is always one of evolution.
Before I found my writing/editing group, before my MFA, before beginning my own foray into submitting my work, there was a time when I just wrote. And I wrote a lot. Back then, I wrote only for myself. I did not think about submitting my writing anywhere, honestly, because I wasn't tied into the literary world and had no idea I even could or where to start. I just wrote because it was a thing I did to process the world around me, my life, and who I was becoming with each sunrise. I wrote on napkins or scrap paper when I was working, tucking them into a journal later. I never really thought about editing my work once it was in my journal. I didn't transcribe my writing into my computer. I just wrote whenever the inspiration hit. I didn't really need to make time for writing as it just came out when and wherever.
Here is a picture of a sampling of my journals from the last two decades (note that I went through one heavy period of not writing at all (for fear of anyone finding it; this is a whole other story, I know) and another span of about five years where I only kept an online blog, though that was mostly about my running training).
Since 2015, however, I have had a consistent journaling process which is when a vast majority of the journals in that photograph are from. What changed seven years ago that made me really focus my energy back on writing? Well, honestly, nothing in particular. I was in a kind of rough place mentally; in a codependent relationship that I was subconsciously using to try and get over a horrible breakup, unhappy in my work life and career trajectory, and on an assortment of meds - none of which were working. I picked up the pen and paper again to try and ground myself. I found an old journal that I had been using to track my mental landscape (but had given up on) and just started writing in it. My journaling soon morphed and grew into another notebook, and another.
In one of these notebooks, I began working on a story that would eventually become a chapter in my someday novel, The Living Room, The Dying Room (you can read this chapter by purchasing a copy of Landing Zone's Issue 1). Writing that chapter, that story, grew so big in my life. Any chance I had I would sit down and work on it. That being said, a lot of my writing for that story came in either the very late hours of night (after work and running/climbing and dinner) or at some horrible early hour when I woke up and the thoughts of this story were pushing through my brain, demanding time. An early version of this story was what I ended up submitting as my writing sample when I applied to Goddard's MFA program and what helped me be chosen as the 2017 winner of the Goddard-PEN scholarship award. That little story bloomed into so much. It was the first time I actually put the work into my computer. It was the first time I edited and let other people read my work and help edit it. It propelled my writing experience into a new zone. But before it did, I didn't have to sacrifice anything to make time for it. It just came and I let it.
As time went on - with school and work and then family obligations - I just didn't have time like I did before. Especially when I was in school, and had to turn in assignments, I had to cultivate time for writing (and also sleep, because I found that without adequate sleep my creative side dried up). And that was a very new experience for me.
Everything in life is an exchange. You take a little from this, give a little to that. We can't do everything all at once all the time. When I was cultivating time for writing then, I was pulling from exercise time, family time, partner time, and sometimes still sleep time. Because I had school deadlines, it was easier for me to sacrifice my time to that work, those projects. It in some ways felt easy to have that structure because I had paid money for school, I was invested in it, and there were finite deadlines. I could say, well when I am done with school, I will spend more time on my fitness goals or with my dogs or with my family. The word someday hung heavy on my back. Then swiftly, school was over and my life was finding a new balance without all that focused alone/writing time. I will be honest with you, it did not take long to fall back into my other activities that I had held at arms length for a couple years. Soon I was back to writing when I could, but not setting aside time for it, not making it a priority.
Some writers are really good at giving themselves specific blocks of time for writing. They naturally are able to cut out portions of their day/schedule and say this is my writing time. They give it to themselves like a gift, a well-deserved gift. I have never been one of those people. In fact, writing is often the most-likely bumped time chunk in my life. I will sacrifice writing for running, time with R., going for a walk with my Dad, watching an episode of something on TV, cooking, reading, writing letters (close but still not writing-writing), etc. I struggle immensely with making time for this thing that I love. You are probably curious why this is.
Well, if I am being honest - which I am trying to be in these musings, it is probably because writing is something I take a bit for granted. Literary inspiration has always been there for me. I am often able to tap that well easily and without much effort (please look back up at that photo of ALL those journals above). I have a note in my phone with all the titles of books I'd like to write and ideas about them. There are about forty-five. I am lucky in that the shortage of creativity has always been there. That being said, it is important to note that all that creativeness requires structure to *be* something. When you write in your journal, it is in the embryonic stage. A first hint. But curating a poem or a story or a whole book so that it is ready for submission to journals and presses takes a lot of dedicated time and energy. I struggle to make time for that part, so the ideas stay scattered in my brain. Like anything, being a creative body takes focused time.
This is where cultivation comes in. One must put in effort to receive and develop. It is like this with all things in our life. If you want something bad enough, you will find the space for it. Well in the last few months, I have been working up to making space for writing. Creating a dedicated practice which would help me stay consistent with the actual writing portion of my writing process (and then subsequently with my submitting process). This sounds so easy, but for me, it's a whole thing. Like I said, I have spent months just *thinking* about doing this.
Usually, with me, cultivation follows a familiar pattern. I think about doing something for a while (like, a while, usually months). I fantasize about how wonderful it would be. I obsess. I plan, but only in my head, what it will look like. Then finally, I say this something that I want to cultivate out loud, and usually to a person (in my case, it's almost always to R.). By putting this verbal commitment of I want to start doing ______ out into the world, I feel like I am taking a real step.
Then I always feel that I need to plan. This is for two reasons. The first is that my life is heavily scheduled and thus quite busy. Between all my life stuff (mostly caregiving and spending time with my Dad, spending time with R. and our dogs, and exercise) and work, there is rarely any free time in my day. I want to be transparent with you here, this is by design. I have found that one of the things that helps in a massive way with all my mental illness stuff is having a diverse but fully scheduled week/month. Having a schedule helps my brain feel secure (that things are planned and thus somewhat in control), which probably doesn't sound super healthy. However, my brain just really likes knowing that there IS a plan, and even if something in the plan changes or things move around as the week flows, I find it easier to adapt having had a plan in the first place. Knowing that the overall plan is there gives way for a fluidity when things don't quite go as expected. Because if I have a plan, I often have contingencies (even if I don't specify them, I can think about them, they are there). What I cannot handle is unplanned, unorganized, dead time. I am not going to get into all the details of the how and why this process works for me in this post, but having a tight (but not rigid) schedule helps me feel safe. So planning it is.
My plan for incorporating writing (which includes actual writing, editing, research, submitting, etc) into my schedule looks a bit like this. I will review my calendar for about four weeks at a time and see what is reoccurring and what big/small events are coming up. Then I look for pockets of time that reoccur (even though I am busy, I am not so busy that I don't have free time - I just usually fill it in at the start of each week with stuff). Then I will pick a day and time in that free space, say like Thursdays from 3-5pm, and make that my writing time. I will pencil that into my calendar (both my physical calendar that I keep at my desk and the one on my computer/phone) blocked off as busy time. Having this built in - especially in the calendars I share with my Dad and R. - allows me some freedom to own this time and say to myself and others, sorry, busy writing.
Really, this is harder for me to do with myself than to do with others. I definitely have a hard time saying Emma, it is okay to literally sit still and write for a couple hours rather than exercise. I (probably like many folks) really struggle with body image issues and thus am always trying to create more and more time in my day for exercise. Sitting still can really exacerbate this, as my brain will get in the way and tell me I am being lazy, that I should be doing more fitness, should be working harder on this or that goal. One way I combat this line of thinking is with a standing desk. This past year R. bought me a standing setup that allows me to spend my work (and writing) time standing rather than sitting down. Standing setups can be really expensive or pretty affordable depending on what you feel you need, so if you are like me and struggle with the sitting part of writing, look into it. I will say that this only especially helps me when I am doing the computer side of writing (transcribing from a notebook, editing, research, and submissions), but that is a Large part of the writing process for me. Being able to stand while I do it has been another win for my brain and my body. By giving my body a way to feel productive, I feel less included to dump off my writing block for other exercise endeavors. I also end up being more comfortable with the sitting portion of writing-writing time, as I do nearly all of my initial generative writing with a pen/pencil and paper (notebook). I am one of those people who is unable to create directly into my computer. That's just my way.
Another way I work toward cultivating writing is by "naming" my journals. By this I mean that I give them a kind of title, and write it on the first page of the journal. This applies more to the writing-writing side of my writing process, when I sit down and hand write in a journal or dedicated notebook. This motivation tactic helps guide me through the process of creation. A kind of meditation each time I pick up the book and began to write. Sometimes the writing is literary and poetic. Other times I am just processing something that happened or complaining about a situation. It all moves. Through that movement is where a lot of that creative literary stuff comes from, those first hints. I find this to be really helpful when trying to generate work. Also if I am working on something longer, like a set of essays or a fiction story, I might write the theme at the start or top of the page to give me a guide. I might then draw a map, the branching of ideas flourishing and growing into more and more.
The last way I will share that I cultivate time for writing is through attending workshops. I love to take writing workshops when I can (and when I can afford them). Taking workshops are a SUPER helpful way to generate new work, as well as learn more about the editing and restructure process. I consider this part of "writing time" even if I am just learning because it all adds up in my brain toward what I am trying to do with my work. There are tons of great workshops out there offered through a myriad of different organizations and people. Personally, I have found Instagram is the easiest way to find out about these. I will follow authors and presses/journals that I like and respect, and often they will post about classes.
With that, a small plug.
Myself and Heather of The Champagne Room Journal are offering a generative workshop this evening.
Thursday, January 26th at 7pm via Zoom, ONLY $10. Read more about the workshop and sign up HERE !
I think I will wrap this up here as I want to begin my cultivation process. I hope this month's sharing gave you some insights and some motivation to create time for the creative things you love in your life - whether they are for the consumption of others or not.
Much light and respect.