Fitting Writing In

Most book authors can’t rely on their writing to support themselves and instead work full-time jobs and write on the side (unless they’re Barbara Kingsolver or Kathy Reichs). We are thus exhorted to write whenever we can: early in the morning, before our family is up. At the pool, while our children take swimming lessons. At night, when everyone has gone to bed. A friend of mine wrote her book on Saturdays, adding an extra day of work to her 5-day work week. One author I talked to texted notes to herself while nursing her infant daughter. Another got up early to write, only to give it up in winter when her body craved sleep. The assumption is that if you want it badly enough, you’ll work harder, fitting writing into any small fragment of your day. 

I used to buy into this model. If I could snatch at any small moment for writing, I could be a productive writer with books and essays to my name. Unfortunately, I’ve realized that I don’t have the luxury to work that way, and I’m sure there are many of you out there who don’t, either.

In the past year or so I wrote the way I’d thought I should. If I had a 15-min time period here and there, I could start putting together questions for an author interview. I could write a bit of my weekly blog post. I could outline the main points of an upcoming book review. I could read—either for research or for a book review. You can do an amazing amount of things in a small window of time. That is, if you have the energy to do it.

That’s how I wrote published pieces—in the stolen moments between sleeping and eating and house chores.  

But it’s not an ideal way of doing things for someone with my illness. It meant that I was always thinking about how to get the most out of a small unit of time. It took up time that I could have spent on other hobbies. Important things that quietened my mind, like looking at shapes and colours through a camera lens or on my sewing table. Once I started using my time nuggets to write, I gave up photography and fabric art. I always had writing that needed doing, and didn’t have the ‘spoons’ to do anything else. I had overcommitted myself by falsely thinking I had an endless supply of time nuggets to draw on.

My ability to snatch at time nuggets is difficult, especially during my low phases. I lose the initiative to write and spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping. When I’m awake I read essays and news on the web, read novels, waiting for yet another day to be done. I’d rather zone out than do anything writing-related. For me it would be healthier to take a walk than to write.

It turns out I work better with having a set time in my schedule to write. I wrote my book, about being a field researcher with both historical and present-day mentors, and the challenges of being a woman in science, over five years of evening writing, when I had a bit more energy to devote to it. Some evenings were a wash, however, as I just couldn’t muster up the energy and drive to write. That was when I watched TV or read a book. Or went to bed early. I had to accept those days and hope that things would get better in time.

I wrote in my New Year’s post that I wouldn’t take on any freelance pieces in 2024 because I’m working on book number two. I have mostly adhered to that goal, except for projects that I agreed to last year or that the editing of which has stretched into this year. I notice how they take up my mental energy and my time, and realize that they’re not healthy for me.

Book number two, however, is much more accommodating. It requires that I get out for a challenging walk several times a week, and write for half an hour when I come back. It’s straightforward and doesn’t require me to fit it into the empty spaces around other tasks. Instead I can spend that time reading, or maybe get back into photography or fabric art. Or just take it easy, which is super important for my mental health.

Next time a writing guru tells you to grab every moment you have to write, think hard about how that will affect your mental health and your energy to do hobbies that are important to you. Do you have enough spoons to do it all? Maybe you’re someone who thrives on that approach. Maybe you’re not. Either way, you can fit writing in the way that works best for you—no matter what the gurus say.

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