Sunday, November 18, 2007

Far From the Sea

Kelly Herold over at Big A little a posed an important question about writing the other day:
I have a writing question for you all: How do you make space for writing? I don't mean physical space--not a room, a desk, a corner. I mean mental space.
Every writer has to confront this question eventually, especially on days when time itself seems to shrink, leaving less and less time for writing.

Somehow--and it's never really clear how it happens--life gets in the way of writing. A difficult deadline, a sick child, an empty cupboard, a dust-filled house, a bad hair day--something always needs to be done before the writing gets done, just as Kelly describes in her post:
Today is a typical day. I have a class to teach, a few documents to write, a few students to meet, and The Edge of the Forest to format. (October's almost over!) Also, tomorrow's what they call "beggars' night" and I have no candy yet. Oh, and did I mention the schools are closed today? So I have the kids tailing me from place to place.

Still, the kids are getting older and I should be able to clear two hours in the late afternoon for writing. So back to the space question: How do you clear your mind of all the other items on the "to do" list to focus on writing?
This struggle to find the the time to write--the "mental space," as Kelly calls it--can feel like being trapped in a cramped room far from the sea.

You might be able to hear the waves.

You might even be able to glimpse the sparkle of sunlight on water if you stand on a chair and peer out the window.

But you can't find a way to get to the sea... and play in the waves.

What, as Kelly asks, is a writer to do?

Well, listen to these writers describe their daily work routines in Author Talk, a collection of brief conversations with fifteen children's book writers, compiled and edited by Leonard Marcus:

Bruce Brooks: "I write twelve hours a day. I love to work--to figure things out. Until recently, I never had a special place to work. I wrote in hotel rooms, at this or that table, or on this or that couch. Now, however, I have a new desk and a new computer, and I expect that's where I will continue to write."

Now, admittedly, few of us have twelve hours a day to work... or want to work that many hours. (Few of us are as brilliant as Brooks either.) But it's interesting that Brooks never had a "special place to work" until recently. That suggests, I think, a willingness to write anywhere that he could find the time... and sometimes that's all you can do: write when you find the time... whether it's twelve hours or twelve minutes.

Karen Cushman: "At first, I would write every morning, take a break in the afternoon, then maybe write some more. As I have become more known, though, my schedule has become kind of crazy. I travel a lot, visiting schools and bookstores. I really enjoy those visits, but they make it harder for me to find the long, uninterrupted stretches of time that I need to travel back in time to write historical fiction."

Write every morning. Then again in the afternoon. And still more! But then... as Cushman's work gains in popularity... her writing time seems to disappear, replaced by visits to school and bookstores. And yet... given that she continues to produce her wonderful books... she must find the time. Long, interrupted stretches so she can transport herself imaginatively back in time.

Lee Bennett Hopkins: "I don't have a routine. I write whenever I feel like it. It's back to childhood: no rules! Even so, I'm very disciplined. I'm always working on several books at a time. I always have a lot of projects going. I can write anywhere, but I work best at my home overlooking the Hudson River, where it's very quiet and I have my library and study."

I love the fake-left, go-right nature of Hopkins' response. Nope, don't have a routine. Write when I feel like it. No rules! And yet... he considers himself very disciplined, always working on several books at a time.

James Howe: "I vary what I do. I work better in the afternoon and evening than I do in the morning. I aim for four hours of solid writing in a day. If I can do more than that--all the better! Usually, I write at home, where it is quiet. But sometimes I want to be among people while I'm working and so I will go into Manhattan and write in a coffee shop or museum or library."

Vary what you do. Find the time that works best: morning, afternoon, or evening. Aim for a set number of hours, or minutes, or pages. Find a quiet place, or a place where you can feel comfortable writing. Be flexible seems to be Howe's solution, doesn't it?

E.L. Konigsburg: "I get up, get dressed, and I come to work. Work expands to fill the time available. That's especially true of housework. So in order to have time to write when my children were young and going to school, I had to train myself not to make a bed or wash a dish until after they had come home from school at lunchtime. I am training myself now not to answer the mail until the afternoon. I am having serious talks about this with myself!"

Come to work...and train yourself to ignore the distractions. Even after you've published Newbery-winning titles, you'll continue to have serious discussions with yourself about how to avoid the distractions.

Jon Scieska: "I can write anywhere--on the subway, on airplanes, or in the park. I always have a pen with me. I'm always ready! I write later drafts on my computer, but I start out in longhand because I can write faster that way. The main thing is that I try to make myself write every day, no matter what. Sooner or later I write something worth rewriting. I have a notebook full of ideas. When I want to start a book, I come back to that notebook to see if I can get one of those ideas to take off."

Write anywhere. Always be prepared for the muse to strike. And write every day--no matter what--as a way to prepare for the work that is sure to come.

Each of these writers still struggles to find time to write, to clear space for writing, even though they've accumulated long lists of award-winning publications.

It seems whether you're an experienced swimmer or a novice, you need to wrestle with this question and find a solution that works for you.... again and again.

Experiment with different ways of writing and with different schedules.

Explore different places to write.

Try writing at different times of the day.

Don't stop until you hit on something that works.

Remember that finding the time to write is another part of the process.

In the end, if you still have to ask how to make space for your writing, maybe you're not ready to write.

That's not intended as a harsh response, but rather as another way of looking at the writing process.

Maybe you are writing...constructing characters and scenes in your head...and the words aren't yet ready to appear.

You'll know when they're ready because you'll have to find the time, even if it's 3 a.m. and you can barely focus on the page.

You'll find the time because you won't be able to live with yourself if you don't put the words down on paper.

It won't matter where you are--the bathroom, the bathtub, the car stuck in traffic, the check-out line at the grocery store, the teacher's lounge ten minutes before your next class--you'll find a way to steal a few minutes with pen and paper and write.

And once you begin writing, you may discover that the agonizing process of finding the time to write was actually leading you into your story all along, helping you reach the sea regardless of how far away it may have appeared.

Take a look at the responses that Kelly's question generated at her blog, Big a little a:

and at her follow-up post:

For more information about finding time to write, visit:

And to learn more about Leonard Marcus and Author Talk, check out:


Jack said...

Time to write, as much a question of self-discipline as of other commitments. It's always interesting to see what some of my familiar authors have to say about this, and these included Brooks, Konigsburg and Hopkins in your panel.

Twelve hours a day for Brooks, wow, that's intense. He writes such a range of books, too, intense stories like "The Moves Make the Man," "What Hearts," and "Midnight Encores," to light, 2-day reads in his hockey series, "The Wolfbay Wings." I liked it when he once told an audience of children's and young adult writers that, for inspiration and language, go back and dip into "The Aeneid," no less.

Bruce said...


The Aeneid, indeed. Brooks is amazing.

You've raised an interesting topic for a future post: which books do writers turn to for inspiration?

Probably just as important a question as how a writer finds time to write.

Kelly said...

Bruce: This is AWESOME! I'm linking to it now in part 3 of my roundup. Thanks :)

Sara said...

Kelly sent me. Great post!

I find that the time I need to write varies with the kind of writing it is. Rough draft time is the hardest time to find, because it needs to be uninterrupted (and because I struggle with how slow it is.) Editing time is the easiest, because I can do it in little snatches, and I feel like I'm making progress the whole time. Poetry time is the most rewarding, because it surprises me, and makes time stand still.

bruce said...

Kelly, thanks so much for starting the discussion!

And Sara, many thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I love the way you describe poetry time... the idea of words being able to make time stand still.

And, of course, the surprise of what appears on the page... sometimes when you least expect it.