Writing: Find the Time or Don’t
Over the last couple of months I’ve gotten a fair number of letters from aspiring writers who want to write but find themselves plagued by the vicissitudes of the day, i.e., they’ve got jobs, and they’re tiring, and when they come home they just want to collapse in front of the TV/spend time with family/blow up anthills in the backyard/whatever. And so they want to know two things: One, how I keep inspired to write; two, how one manages to find the time and/or will to write when the rest of life is so draining. I’ve addressed these before, but at this point the archives are vast, so I’ll go ahead and address them again.
The answer to the first of these is simple and unsatisfying: I keep inspired to write because if I don’t then the mortgage company will be inspired to foreclose on my house. And I’d prefer not to have that happen. This answer is simple because it’s true — hey, this is my job, I don’t have another — and it’s unsatisfying because writers, and I suppose particularly authors of fiction, are assumed to have some other, more esoteric inspiration. And, you know. Maybe other authors do. But to the extent that I have to be inspired to write at all on a day-to-day basis (and I really don’t; you don’t keep a daily blog for twelve years, for example, if you’re the sort of person who has to wait for inspiration to get your fingers going across a keyboard), the desire to make money for myself and my family works well enough. Another day, another dollar, etc.
Now, bear in mind here I’m establishing a difference between inspiration for writing on a daily, continuing basis, and inspiration for specific pieces of work; those inspirations aren’t necessarily related to getting paid, and can come from any place. But even then, I find the two inspirational motivations work in a complementary fashion. I am inspired to write a particular story or idea in a fanciful way, and then the practical inspiration of getting paid gets my ass in a chair to write the thing. It’s a congenial, if somewhat unromantic, way of doing things.
As to the second of these, my basic response here is, Well, look. Either you want to write or you don’t, and thinking that you want to write really doesn’t mean anything. There are lots of things I think I’d like to do, and yet if I don’t actually make the time and effort to do them, they don’t get done. This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them. So I guess in really fundamental way I don’t want them, otherwise I’d make the time. C’est la vie.
(This sort of skips over the question of whether I’d be good at either acting or music, but that’s neither here nor there. By not trying, I’m not even achieving failure.)
So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.
If your answer is “yes,” then the question is simply when and how you find the time to do it. If you spend your free time after work watching TV, turn off the TV and write. If you prefer to spend time with your family when you get home, write a bit after the kids are in bed and before you turn in yourself. If your work makes you too tired to think straight when you get home, wake up early and write a little in the morning before you head off. If you can’t do that (I’m not a morning person myself) then you have your weekend — weekends being what I used when I wrote Agent to the Stars.
And if you can’t manage that, then what you’re saying is that you were lying when you said your answer is “yes.” Because if you really wanted to write, you would find a way to make the time, and you would find a way to actually write. Cory Doctorow says that no matter what, he tries for 250 words a day (that’s a third of what I’ve written in this entry to this point), and if you write just 250 words a day — the equivalent to a single, double-spaced page of text — then in a year you have 90,000 words. That’s the length of a novel. Off of 250 words a day. Which you could do. On the goddamned bus. If you really wanted.
This is why at this point in time I have really very little patience for people who say they want to write but then come up with all sorts of excuses as to why they don’t have the time. You know what, today is the day my friend Jay Lake goes into surgery to remove a huge chunk of his liver. After which he goes into chemo. For the third time in two years. Between chemo and everything else, he still does work for his day job. And when I last saw him, he was telling me about the novel he was just finishing up. Let me repeat that for you: Jay Lake has been fighting cancer and has had poison running through his system for two years, still does work for his day job and has written novels. So will you please just shut the fuck up about how hard it is for you to find the time and inspiration to write, and just do it or not.
And to repeat: It’s okay if you don’t. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that when it really comes down to it, you want to do things other than writing. It’s even okay to start writing, work at it a while, and decide it’s not for you. Being a writer isn’t some grand, mystical state of being, it just means you put words together to amuse people, most of all yourself. There’s no more shame in not being a writer than there is in not being a painter, or a botanist, or a real estate agent — all of which are things I, personally, quite easily do not regret not being.
But if you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake. It’s not that hard, and it doesn’t require that much effort on a day to day basis. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.