Little by Little
December 28, 2015
These days, recovering from Lyme Disease, I have far less energy than usual, and I never know when I’ll become fatigued. It’s what all of us who have or have had this illness talk about: how we don’t know from one day to the next, or one minute to the next when we’ll be flattened, and so it’s almost impossible to live our lives according to a schedule or to make plans. I was a writer who (at least after my kids left home) thrived on routine: at my desk by a certain time, write for a certain amount of time, do this about five days a week. But now that’s impossible. And so I find myself living like so many writers do: in a condition of uncertainty about when and whether we can write.
I’ve spent some time being angry about this. But then I realized that anger wouldn’t change the reality of my situation.
One stumbling block is the myth that we need blocks of time—a few hours or more—to do our work—what one writer about creativity calls great swaths of attention. Well what if we don’t have those hours? Do we stop work until we recover, until our kids leave the house, until we can retire? Or do we find other ways to work that respect the situation we’re in? I think this is a myth that needs debunking particularly because there are so many important stories that need to be written by precisely those of us who don’t have hours and hours of uninterrupted time.
What’s key is honoring the circumstances we’re living with: respecting the situation we’re in; understanding what we can change (if anything); accepting what we can’t (this is an ongoing, never ending process, at least for me); trying to find a way to work nevertheless.
An illuminating exercise I give my students is to tell them to write for, say, five or ten minutes. And then to count the number of words they’ve written. And to match that number against the number of words a writer like Virginia Woolf penned during a workday. We then figure out how long it would take for us to write a draft, say, of a 60,000 word book if all we ever had was ten minutes a day to write.
We learn that we write more than Woolf did; we learn that if we worked when we could each day, if only for ten minutes, we would eventually produce the draft of a book that, of course, we’d need to revise. We learn that stopping ourselves by telling ourselves that we don’t have enough time is a bogus excuse. We learn that we can find ten minutes by giving up doing something else.
While I was still in the early stages of this round of this disease, I came across “The Pomodoro Technique,” a time management idea created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. He wasn’t doing as well as he wanted to do at university and he realized that he allowed himself to be distracted too often. He learned that the successful students stayed at a task and worked consistently. He also learned that working for too long without a break is counterproductive. So, after trial and error, he realized that if he briefly outlined what he wanted to accomplish (for example, write at fire scene), and he worked on the task for 25 minutes (using a timer—a “pomodoro”—one of those kitchen times shaped like a tomato: Cirillo is Italian), and he took a five minute break after, and recorded what he’d done so that he could evaluate how long it took to do certain tasks, he could be consistently productive throughout a day. When the timer rang, Cirillo stopped working no matter what. He called each 25-minute unit a “pomodoro”; after four of them, he took a 25 to 30 minute break (which strikes me as being a sane way to think about work). The technique is more complicated than this, but you get the idea.
I think it’s a great technique and I’m now using it to write the book about my sister’s suicide. It is working for me because I never know when I’ll have enough energy to write; and it’s working, too, because this is a tough subject don’t want to stay with for a long time.
I can’t work every day (days after IV infusions are particularly hard). And when I write I rarely write for more than one twenty-five minute period. But I have been able to work often enough for one or two 25-minute stretches that I’ve written a little over 10,500 words since I became acutely ill in September. Knowing that I can write this book little by little helps me enormously. Keeping count of what I’ve accomplished in these short periods of time gives me hope, helps me continue. For I’ve learned that even a little bit of writing whenever we can write adds up to a whole lot of writing over time.