A Parent’s (or Grandparent’s) Writing Schedule

With summer vacation upon us, it seemed like a good time to revisit the subject of writing when you are involved with children or grandchildren.

When my children were small–and even as they grew older–I struggled to find a writing schedule that worked most days of the week. After much trial and error, I would hit upon a schedule that allowed me to write nearly two hours per day.

Bliss–but boy, was it temporary!

Not For Long

That “bliss” lasted a very short time usually–until I once again had morning sickness, or someone was teething, or my husband switched to working nights, or someone started school, or someone else went out for three extra-curricular activities and we lived in the car after school and weekends.

It was many years before I realized there is no one right way to schedule your writing. The “right way” (by my own definition) is simply the schedule that allows me to get some writing done on a regular basis.

[For the five types of parent-writing schedules, read the rest of the article. This is an excerpt from More Writer's First Aid.]  

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Beware the Fuzzies–and Focus!

“How’s your focus?” It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with lately.

Last year my calendar was so full of very good things, but I was frequently exhausted and vaguely dissatisfied. (Well, not vaguely actually. It was a very pointed dissatisfaction with the amount of writing I finished on any given day.)

My children were grown and on their own. I had long ago given up time wasters (TV viewing, hanging on the telephone) and most hobbies (quilting, gardening), and yet…the struggle to write for quality periods of time persisted.

A Busy Blur

A recent sermon gave me a lot to think about. “Beware of living your life without focus,” he said. He talked about how often we substitute being busy for being focused. He finished by challenging us to really give this prayerful thought.

I wrote down his questions and applied them to my writing life:

  • Do you know where you’re going?
  • If you stay on the road you’re on, where is it leading?
  • (And my own corollary question: Are you busy qualifying yourself for a writing life you don’t want?)

Pull Back for Better Focus

You may need to get an overview of how you spend your time before you can answer those questions. It can be an eye-opening exercise to keep track of your activities, hour by hour, for a week or two. For example, you might truly believe that you spend two hours writing every day, plus one hour marketing, and a fourth hour studying. [That's what I thought I was doing.]

After keeping track, you might find you actually write twenty minutes, but stop frequently to check email. Your marketing hour might actually be spent reading about marketing methods, but not truly doing any marketing of your own projects. Your hour of studying the magazine article on character development might actually boil down to twenty minutes of study and forty minutes of reading ads or following related links.

Training for What?

You may dream of writing novels, but your time tracker might reveal that your writing time is eaten up by writing free newsletters for two organizations you belong to. Or, if you’re well published, you can’t say no when asked to write an endorsement or review of someone’s new book. (That may not sound like much, but reading the book takes several hours, and a well crafted review takes another hour.) Maybe you haven’t had time to work on your own novel for three days because you’ve been critiquing for other writers or writing guest blogs.

All these things make you feel like you’re furthering your writing career as a novelist–but are you? Or are you busy qualifying yourself for something other than your dream? You’re actually gaining experience as a reviewer, a critiquer, a blogger, and a newsletter writer. (Those are fine jobs, if that’s truly what you want to be doing in the long run.) But if you stay on this road–if you continue to spend a large chunk of your writing time this way–do you like where it will inevitably lead you?

Solution?

Beware the fuzzies! Know what your dreams and goals are. We all have our own criteria for choosing goals–and different methods to determine what we’re supposed to do with our writing gifts. (Prayer and journaling work best for me.)

Once you’ve decided, don’t be vague about how you intend to get where you want to go. And stop being an automatic “yes” to each request, no matter how flattering. You must live on a higher plane–above the constant demands for your time–and say “no” to things that don’t further those goals.

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Perfectionist Writers

Does perfectionism keep you from getting started on your writing? Does trying to write your best create pressure for you?

If you, you’ll be encouraged something in Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s about being a perfectionist–and how to deal with the pressure it generates in all artists, including writers. Read about this experiment:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class, he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work–and learning from their mistakes–the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Quality from Quantity

Isn’t that a fascinating experiment? I know that we get better by writing more, like a piano player gets better by practicing more. But what struck me is how much more FUN the first group must have had (while at the same time producing superior pots.) They were just trying to create a lot of pots, without any emphasis at all on the finished product.

Could I use the results of this experiment to revamp my own writing that was often stalled by the perfectionist demon?

Reforming the Perfectionist

I decided to try an experiment of my own this morning. Most days I more closely resemble a pot maker from Group B: stewing, not writing, being unhappy with results and scrapping them, judging, blocking, and finally quitting for the day. Today I decided to be a Group A pot-making writer and just relax. I stayed off the Internet till noon and just wrote–a lot. [I had already outlined my book.] My only goal was to produce a lot of pages. I wrote for three hours with intermittent short breaks, and I had fun! From what I can tell, the nice pile of finished pages aren’t half bad either.

I think I’m onto something here! Don’t try to write the Great American Novel today. Just make some pots, lots of pots!

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Honor the Process

Every piece of new writing is a voyage into the unknown. There are things you can do that help the writing process–many things! There are just as many that dishonor the writing process.

Wiser published writers than I am often say, “You have to honor the process.” What does that mean exactly? I think it means you have to accept the complexity of writing, how it happens for you, and what you need in order to nurture the process. (Simple example: If you know you need seven hours of sleep in order to write well the next morning, you honor the process when you go to bed early enough to sleep those hours. You dishonor your writing process by staying up till all hours and arriving at the keyboard the next morning in a mental fog.)

Ways You Dishonor the Process

There are many ways we unknowingly and accidentally dishonor the writing process. We may:

  • get a great idea for a story, but wait until we have time later to write it down, and when “later” comes, we can’t remember it.
  • rush into writing a rough draft before we’ve given the idea time to gestate.
  • tolerate habits detrimental to our health.
  • allow such critical voices in our heads that everything we write sounds like rubbish, so we give up in discouragement.

We all probably dishonor our writing process in different ways, depending on personalities.

Ways You Honor the Process

If you wanted to honor the writing process, you might:

  • keep a pen and notebook handy to jot down ideas immediately.
  • let your idea grow and simmer before starting the rough draft.
  • eat good “brain” food, get enough exercise, and do what’s needed to avoid injuries from sitting all day.
  • do whatever’s necessary to silence the negative voices (e.g. pray, do positive self-talk, read motivational books, see a counselor).

In Deep Writing, Eric Maisel made this observation:

“I hope that you’ll take seriously the notion that you can help or harm the writing process and that, in a corner of awareness, you already know which of the two you are doing… When you find the courage to explore your own truth about honoring and dishonoring the process, some writing successes are bound to happen.”

What about you? In what ways do you honor the writing process? Make one small change today that honors your writing. (And then, tomorrow, make another one!)

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A No-Guilt Writing Life

Does taking time to write make you feel guilty? In her book Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise DeSalvo said, “Many people…have told me that taking time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even.”

Does that describe you? Do you fight your own guilty feelings that say you should be doing something more productive? Does writing–especially if you haven’t sold much or aren’t making piles of money from it–feel selfish to you? Do the real (or imagined) opinions of others keep you from spending time writing or making it more of a priority?

The Stages of Guilt

When our children are small, we fight the guilt that comes with motherhood. Are we taking too much time away from the kids? is it really good that they’ve learned to entertain themselves so well? Is it really the responsible thing that my kids are the only ones on the block who know how to run the washing machine and cook meals? Will the children remember Mom as someone without a face, only a hunched back and tapping fingers?

I used to wonder all those things when my kids were small. But we needed the money from the book contracts I was receiving, and at least I was home. (Only technically, it felt sometimes.) You may know the feeling. When you’re writing, you feel like you should be doing crafts or baking with the kids. When you’re making the umpteenth finger painting, you long to be writing.

This Too Shall Pass…or Will It?

Once my children were grown and on their own, I thought the guilt would stop. But I really identified with Carol Rottman in Writers in the Spirit when she said:

“Now all I have to do is quell my guilt over the things I displace because of my indulgence in writing. There are so many worthy causes that regularly tempt me to leave the desk. A sister describes me as ‘driven’ when I am so serious about my work, and friends wonder why I don’t join them for lunch. My children and young grandchildren, all within a twenty-mile radius, can use as much time as I can give.”

The Cure for Guilt

As in so many cases, the cure for guilt seems to be in finding the right balance. Balance between time for writing and time for family/job/home/church/community. Have you found the balance that works for you and your family? It will look different if your children are babies than if they’re teens or adults.

But how do you find that balance and banish the guilt? Take some time on your own and prayerfully answer the following questions:

  1. What/who pushes your guilt buttons when you’re trying to write?
  2. How do you choose whether to keep writing or not?
  3. What questions do you ask yourself in order to find the right balance and keep your priorities straight?
  4. What are you willing to give up of your own in order to make time to write?

Once you’ve decided, make a schedule for your writing, inform friends and family, and then make a firm commitment to banish the guilt. Trust me on this. Even if you now prioritize your days according to guilt (like I did for decades), you can do this. And in a surprisingly short amount of time, when you see the world goes on functioning while you’re writing, the guilt will fade away.

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