How Do You Do It? by Louise DeSalvo
May 18, 2010
It’s a truism that bears repeating, that to write, we have to sit down and write. Yes? But it’s not as simple as that, of course. Most of us writers have other compelling interests and activities in our lives – day jobs, child care, relationships, household tasks, health care and wellness – all of which bleed time away from what many of us need to do most days: write.
The question I’m asked most often from other writers is “How do you do it?” Most people who know me know that I raised two children while being a writer; I taught full time while being a writer; I dealt with health issues while being a writer; I cared for aging parents; I cooked, did laundry, shopped, cleaned, organized my household (with a lot of help from my husband) while being a writer; I traveled; I knit a lot of sweaters; I saw a lot of movies. We’re a close family: my husband and I spend much time together; we see our sons, daughters-in-law, grandkids a few time a week. All of this requires a commitment of time, and energy. But also a commitment to be “there” for whatever you’re doing, rather than wishing you were at the desk, a commitment to write when you’re writing, and to put the work down, put the work away, when you’re not.
So, how do I do it?
First. I’m no superwoman. I need at least eight hours of sleep a night; I often take a nap. I don’t subscribe to the “you can have it all” vision of womanhood. I know you can’t have it all. I don’t have it all, but I do have a very small, very carefully chosen, slice of what life has to offer. That means saying yes to much, but saying no to more. Early in my writing life, I was given a superb piece of advice from a mentor which I pass on: if you want to write, you have to make a sacrifice, you have to give up something; often, you have to give up a great deal. In my experience, what you have to give up is often not worth doing anyway.
What I don’t have in my life, what I don’t do: meaningless telephone conversations; lunches with people I don’t love; meetings that don’t have a clear-cut agenda; face book, twitter, net surfing; shopping for the sake of shopping (I buy what I absolutely need, mostly online); boozy nights out on the town that would rob me of my next day’s work; friendships with people who take and don’t give; television watching (except for planned film watching); virtually all parties (I don’t like parties; I like small, intimate gatherings); writers’ readings (I can’t process writing when it’s read; I have to see it). There’s more, but you get the idea. The guiding principle behind this is self-protection: I can’t be rushed; I can’t be stressed; I can’t be overworked. If I am, I can’t do my best teaching, my best writing. So I spend some time in a kind of cost/benefit analysis for most of what I can/what I’m asked to do. What will it cost me? What will I gain from it? If the cost outweighs the gain, I don’t do it.
I’ve read a lot about how creative people live their lives, and I’ve garnered much from my reading. For example, Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life spells out, in detail, how See organizes her life so she can write. Reading someone else’s plan helps illuminate how prolific writers get the work done. But we each have to make our own plan; we each have to look at our own life and figure out how we can do it.
Even so, I have some guiding principles I’ve evolved through the years that might help a writer plan her/his writing life, and I offer these as suggestions, rather than as hard and fast rules.
1. Establish a routine. And try to stick to it. (I write five days a week, not seven.)
2. Write at the same time each day, to the extent that you can. (I write in a two- to three- hour block, usually from 9 to 12, sometimes from 8 to 11.)
3. Commit to a realistic time range, not to a specific number of hours, otherwise you’ll be wrestling with guilt about not doing what you’ve planned. (Mine is two to three hours; when I teach, it’s one and a half to two hours.)
4. Touch the work in some way every day. (I don’t write seven days a week; but on the days I don’t write, I scribble ideas that come to me into a notebook.)
5. Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted during your writing time. That means no text messages, no e-mails, no telephone calls. (I know this is hard, but remember that a creative person requires twenty minutes to get back into flow with each interruption s/he allows; this means that if we work for two hours, and get interrupted after ten minutes, we’ve essentially lost twenty minutes of that block of time. Once, a student of mine finally, after years of urging, decided to try this; she told me she wrote more in that two hours than she had in a week’s worth of interrupted writing.)
6. Think about establishing a flexible routine; change it as needed.
For me, one of the hardest parts of being a writer is that no one tells us what to do each day. Each new writing day can become an existential dilemma that takes away an enormous amount of energy from our writing unless we develop a routine so that we don’t have to think about when we’ll be writing, when we’ll be working, when we’ll be doing laundry, when we’ll be cooking, and so on.
So the answer to the question “How do you do it?” is really quite simple. I have a routine. Not a schedule (which sounds constricting). But a routine. For what it’s worth, I’ll reproduce it below. But it’s not worth much. Because each of us has to develop our own. Still, I know there’s a value in models.
The routine below is my summer routine, not the one I use when I’m teaching, which is far different. Keep in mind that, during the summer, I’m a full-time writer and that, I understand, this is a very privileged position, one I didn’t have, by any means, in my earlier writing life.
Here it is.
7:00 AM – 8:00 AM; awaken; do laundry; organize bedroom; have breakfast; time with Ernie; scan newspaper; discuss what has to get done for the house, with the family, with Ernie
8:00 AM – 9 AM: knit
9 AM – 10 AM: exercise, shower, dress
10 AM – 12 or 12:30 or 1:00: write
12:30 or 1:00 – 1:30 or 2:00: lunch – shorter, if alone; longer, if with a family member or a friend
2:00 – 3:00: writing, teaching business
3:00 – 6:00: time for household tasks, shopping, reading, resting, doctor’s appointments – the business of life
6:00 on: cooking, dinner, time for family and friends, reading, film watching, music listening, etc.
But what if you have a day job that takes hours and hours of your time?
I started writing when I taught four classes (and had a hundred students to deal with) and was raising two young children. Then, my routine was very different, of course. But I had one. I always carved out an hour and a half each day to write. In those days, my husband took care of our children all day Saturday to give me a full day at my desk for my own work. So the routine you see above is not the one I had then.
Back then, I adhered to one principle: when my children were napping or, later, when they were at school, I spent a chunk of that time writing. Many young parents use that precious time to do household chores; I didn’t. I did the laundry, shopped, cooked when they were around; I engaged them in these tasks. I put my writing first; I put my preparation for classes, second, during this free time. Many teachers do it the other way around and never get to their writing. I found that my prep went faster, was easier and more productive, if I’d written that day.
I learned, early, that if we wait until there’s a perfect time to write, we’ll never write. It’s our responsibility as writers to figure out how to write during hectic times. But often, we make our lives far more hectic than they need to be. And, often, we sabotage our writing life by partying too much, drinking too much, socializing too much. Julia Cameron is an astute guide to why getting/being sober is necessary for the writing life.
The routine I describe above is idyllic, and I know how lucky I am. Still, whatever the circumstances, I’ve learned that most of us can carve out an hour and a half to write. And if we establish a routine to do that, we’ll have far less anxiety about our lives as writers than if we don’t.