Dear friends, readers,
I am having trouble keeping up with all the writing I want to do. My son is now a month old, and he is the best thing ever, but he isn’t yet able to play a full role in the society of our family, and like all babies he needs attention at regular intervals through the night, so my wife and I haven’t slept a full six hours, uninterrupted, since before he was born. Four hours is a rare blessing.
I’ve also been teaching an extra class this term, to make sure the family can afford some maternity leave for my wife: the powers that run Tennessee, despite their claims of favouring families and children, do not require employers to offer paid parental leave. Nor do they provide assistance directly.
Plus I’ve been working on a few side projects, now and over the summer, to generate a little more income. I feel very lucky, on the one hand, to be able to earn this money; yet I feel infuriated by the work culture I currently live in, which makes having a child such a struggle for non-wealthy families.
In such a situation, you might think re-writing my novel would seem like a luxury, but, perhaps strangely, I feel inspired to complete it, to write the third draft of this year, and to try to sell the book early in 2017.
Over the summer, I felt like I had to take a break. I was exhausted by the end of my PhD and the frenetic writing I had done from January to June.
Now I want back in.
As I’ve mentioned before, the basic plan of the second draft, which I completed in a blaze of writing in April and May, was to simplify the story. After feedback from writing partners and my dissertation director, I’ve realised that for the third draft, the story needs to be simplified still. Clarified. A focus on the four major characters, on Edinburgh, and on the strange magic that pervades the story.
However, after a long break, and lacking time, and lacking sleep, the effort of returning to the page is a tough one.
I have a very supportive wife: on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I don’t have to teach, I go to our local coffeeshop for the morning, and I write for a few hours, then mark one of my class’s batch of essays. Some days, this goes well. Some days, I simply stare at the screen.
The other day, I sat in the coffeeshop, knowing the scene I had to write. I simply couldn’t work out what words to type.
No matter what I did, the word pipes felt dry, empty. My head felt hot and weary.
Perhaps you are in a similar situation to me. Perhaps you feel like you have no time.
I understand the feeling, better than ever before. But it is worth remembering that it takes very little time to write a novel.
If you can type 20 words a minute, then you can write five-hundred words in half an hour.
If you can do that on four days a week, then you can easily write an eighty-thousand word novel in under a year.
(20 words in one minute * 30 * 4 * 50 = novel)
Almost everyone can force themselves — and inconvenience those closest to them –to find two hours a week in which to write.
Now, of course, this little formulation is dubious for a couple of reasons. Firstly, writing fictional prose is not the same as “typing” — we hope for something intricate, layered, well-constructed, and this may require you produce fewer than twenty words a minute. And secondly, a novel requires lots of non-writing work: research, outlining, and so on.
However, the point remains: you probably have time to write a novel in 2017. What stops everyone finishing novels is not the writing of them, but the massive amounts of time used up feeling stuck, feeling exhausted, feeling unsure what to write. Revising takes real time. Not-writing is what takes most of the time.
That’s why it was so stressful to be sitting in the coffeeshop unable to make progress. I was using my rare writing time to do not-writing: I knew what changes I had to make to my opening scene and I could not find the words.
In such moments, I think it’s important to trust one’s genius. By genius, I mean — one’s imagination, one’s capacity for creation, one’s hard-earned skill. To not indulge doubt too much, and instead, in rough moments, to give the mind time to consider, to seek out stillness and a little peace.
That day, when I was exhausted, I stopped trying to write, took out a bunch of students’ essays I had to mark, and marked them. Then I walked outside and sat in the sun for a moment. I wasn’t checking my phone, or contacting anyone, or listening to a podcast. I just took a moment to breathe, relax. To go blank with, for a few minutes, nowhere to be.
And then my imagination woke up, words began to percolate into my consciousness, and I could see exactly how to write the scene. I jotted down notes on my phone, knowing that the next trip to the coffeeshop would be a good one.
Best wishes with your writing.