Any writer serious about her work has undoubtedly heard or read the “written in stone” prescription for success: anywhere from 2 to 6 hours daily must be spent writing or the writer simply isn’t – either a writer or writing. This level of diligence and commitment should be applauded and if a writer has the sort of life, temperament, and/or physical make-up and stamina that allows for that kind of daily time-on-task, even if that means surviving on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night while still accomplishing all of the other myriad tasks of a busy family and work life, then I think that is fantastic. It is a remarkable feat and inspires awe.
But the truth is that not all writers are cut from the same cloth and various factors contribute to one’s ability to commit to so many hours a day, or even every day, to work on a project. And when life starts reeling off major curveballs, such as those I’m experiencing, finding a more REALISTIC, and less stressful, schedule that allows you to keep flexing your writing muscles while still allowing you to attend to the have-to’s can make the difference between moving forward (albeit at a snail’s pace) and abandoning the project altogether.
You can see this playing out on the ball field all the time. For example, the Los Angeles Angels star pitcher Jared Weaver was put on the disabled list for an elbow fracture and so was unable to continue his usual (epic) pitching schedule and performance. As of this writing, he still has not been returned to the line-up. Similarly, the Angels new 1st baseman, Albert Pujols, was moved to designated hitter in the lineup when a heel injury prevented him from handling the responsibilities of his field position — not quite the performance the team, the fans or Pujols himself expected from his gazillion dollar contract.
My point here is that things change, often drastically. Ball players know this and need to deal with the curves accordingly. Sometimes they’re benched for an entire season because of the intensity of the curves they’re dealing with. Why can’t we writers cut ourselves some slack and reorient our vision and our schedule in consideration of the way our ability to work has changed?
So ask yourself this question: Before your life took on the velocity and complexity of piloting a Stealth bomber, how often and for how long were you able to write? If your typical 3 hours every evening during the week suddenly proves to be impossible, can you write for 90 minutes two or three times a week instead? Or if you were writing for an hour every morning before you went to work, can you try cutting back to 15 or 30 minutes on several days? Taking some of the pressure off may just make it possible for you to keep writing through whatever difficult situation(s) is demanding the majority of your time, attention and energy.
In my case, before the curves started coming in hard and fast I was writing for 15-20 minutes nearly every morning and often more on some weekends. (Wait! Do I hear snickering and snorting? The prelude to incredulous laughter? Before you start wondering why you are reading this and what kind of writer I could possibly be at that commitment level, do yourself a favor and check out Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s brilliant and wholly unique book Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. The book changed my life: Barbara’s approach is that a book CAN BE written in just 15 minutes a day. I haven’t seen this advice in any other book on writing. And guess what? It works. In a little over a year, I’ve got nearly 300 pages, and I didn’t even write every day. Guys, don’t let the title of Barbara’s book deter you from reading it. It’s hands-down one of the best books on the writing life out there.) Now, as I was saying . . .
. . . when the curves came in hard and fast and made even those precious 15 minutes impossible, the first thing I had to do was to make peace with the fact that THINGS HAD CHANGED. This is essential to letting go of the pressure, both the pressure you place on yourself and the perceived pressure the “industry” places on you. Both Weaver and Pujols had to get their heads around this fact — they’d have been foolish to think they could continue to play the game the same way in light of these new curveballs. As a writer, I needed to do the same.
Then I came up with a plan that could work in light of the new challenges I was presented with – I’d write for several hours a few weekends a month. These days got blocked out on my calendar and I made a promise to myself to set some boundaries around this time so that I actually could continue writing. This meant saying “no” to some – but not all – invitations and events. The important thing to remember is that no one is going to come up to you with a silver tea tray and serve up hours for you to write in. You need to find the time and take it, make it your own. This can be done, provided you make peace with the reality that things have changed. You may not be able to control the curveballs coming your way, but you CAN control yourself and how you approach the challenge they present. Look for niches of time that work best for your process needs. And don’t laugh off something so small as 15 minutes. Even 10 minutes. I’m proof a book can come out of miniscule increments of time.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in negotiating how to let the pressure off is that you also make a promise not to beat yourself up if you CAN’T do it. That means that if you’ve blocked off a certain time to write, but the baby cries and you need to tend her, DO IT. If your nephew’s wedding is on that weekend and attending it means you won’t write until three weeks from now, go to the wedding. If you’re thoroughly wiped out from dealing with the curves and desperately need a nap, take one. Guess what? Your book will survive and will be waiting when you get back. Life happens. The key here is to be realistic and protect the time against less important commitments and distractions.
If your life and your body are in complete turmoil, chances are you have enough pressures and worries weighing on you – don’t let your project be one of them. Keep working, but get pragmatic: let the pressure off, come up with a plan of action for dealing with the curves, and move forward with a changed game.
What are some of the ways you have found to let the pressure off so you could continue working on your creative project even amidst major life changes? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you, and perhaps some one else who is struggling can benefit from your strategy!
This is part one of a six-week series. You can find the series introduction here.