Today, I gave in. I admitted that this simply wasn’t going to be a very productive week for many reasons:
- Worry about the war in Gaza/Israel. I was good at not reading news first thing in the morning for a while, but now, with the moment of a ground offensive upon us, I keep looking for updates. I have resisted adding to oversimplified interpretations via social media, because don’t we all know it’s tragic, no matter your political point of view?
- Add to that: the tragedy in Maine.
- Physical discomfort with a minor health problem for which I am having a small procedure next week; I’ve lost sleep all week due to night-time pains.
- Fascination with a book I just finished reading, as well as its author, prompting me to start googling interviews. The good stuff distracts, too!
There will always be reasons not to write. (In case you missed it in the subhead: I’m going to tell you to write anyway.)
Where has the day gone?
[Time check: 11:34 a.m.]
Your reasons for not writing today may include the bad and the good—news, family, finances, side jobs, chores. Very few of us can rely on hard deadlines and certain rewards. We have to make time to write, even knowing that each day’s writing may end up producing little—yet if we don’t check in with our stories, with our own ideas, the well dries up.
Don’t let that well go dry.
I had a self-congratulatory blogpost ready to share with you—already written, proofread and formatted!— about a great writing week I had two weeks ago, in which my new novel gained much-needed traction. But maybe what you need to hear instead is that it doesn’t always happen. Honestly? I’d say the “oops” weeks of lost and wasted time outnumber the “yeah, baby!” weeks of productivity and purpose by two-to-one.
The day before yesterday, I had a Zoom with a coaching client who quoted back to me how I’d described my writing routine as about “three to four hours,” most days of the week. Yeah, but, I felt the need to tell her quickly. Not always. Perhaps I was describing a platonic ideal, a week in which my writing takes priority over all the other ways I make a living. It does happen. But it doesn’t have to happen that perfectly in order for books to get written and published.
(I also felt the need to tell her I balance low-productivity weeks with extremely productive albeit high-calorie writing marathons, especially when I am finishing or revising a book. But let’s be clear—the marathons, as important as they are, are not the norm. I do them maybe three to four times a year.)
Today, instead of starting my writing day at 9 am, which would have been advisable, because my mind works best before I clutter it, I’ll be starting around noon. I’ll also be delaying until Sunday a big swim workout I had planned for today, about which my husband will say, because he is a normal person and not somebody who signed up for an Ironman, “That’s okay, hon,” and I’ll say, “No, it’s not okay! It’s really not!”
Meanwhile, the dishes sit stacked in the sink, the floor is disgusting, my bureau is covered by a mixed pile of dirty and clean clothes, I haven’t read my book club’s book for next week, I have an entire forthcoming book of my own to proofread yet again (last chance for changes), and oh my god I’m leaving on the big triathlon trip in less than three weeks and just thinking about it makes my heart race. Plus: the upcoming minor medical procedure. Read those instructions!
Today will be yet another day when not everything can fit. When this happens, I pull my expectations back to the basics by selecting the three top things I need to do and the shortest amount of time I can reasonably commit to without triggering major resistance. I say, “One hour for X side job, one hour for novel-in-progress, one hour for workout or domestic to-do.”
That’s only three hours, and yet sometimes I can’t even achieve those modest goals. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve spent the entire day at the computer and I look back and can track only one hour spent truly productively, in the way I had planned, rather than on some sidetrack.
It would be different if I’d given myself a “day off.” That would be grand!
But how can it be that we spend entire days “on” without getting much done, aside perhaps from loads of email, meal prep, a podcast, reading newsletters, a bit of a freelance assignment, more email, errands?
[Time check: 11:42 a.m.]
[Time check: 11:47 a.m.]
Can you believe I just went to check email? Why did I check email?
None of this is getting me where I need to be, writing about a big day in the life of my main character—the day her teenage son is arrested. You’d think I’d be excited to find out what happens! Shouldn’t we follow her to the station? Shouldn’t we be worried that she went off a prescription and isn’t feeling very well? Shouldn’t we be worried that she can’t afford a lawyer?
Hello, author! Why aren’t you accompanying that poor woman right now, on her worst possible day? She needs you!
[Time check: 11:50 a.m.]
My late mother used to say, from about 11:00 a.m. on, “Half the day gone!” Oh, how I hated that, especially as a teenager who didn’t wake up on weekends until 9, 10, or later. Even for her, an early riser, half the day was not truly gone. It’s not like she went to bed at 5 p.m.!
But it’s how we feel, right? The day gone. The year or even the decade gone.
If we have a few hours, we can write a scene. If we have an hour, we can start one. If we have only twenty minutes, we can write or we can edit or we can simply read our own work, to keep the pump primed. All of those things are important.
House of Sand and Fog author Andre Dubus III wrote his best-known book in short bursts, for about seventeen minutes at a time, parked at a cemetery on the way to and from a teaching job.
That anecdote means so much to me that having heard it several times on podcasts, I personally arranged my own phone interview with him (for a Writer’s Digest article, but really, for my own personal edification) in order to confirm it. It was true! (You’ve heard me tell this story before. I love that book and Dubus was such a nice guy during the call.)
[Time check: 11:57 a.m.]
In the time it’s taken me to write this newsletter, Andre Dubus III would have completed half of his writing day, back in the HOS&F days. Now he has more leisure and writes for several hours most mornings—supposedly! Even so, he throws away many more pages than he keeps. Still, it’s enough. For him and for us.
I’ll leave you with an Annie Dillard quote—abbreviated because noon is upon me and your task is in front of you: to spend some part of this day dedicated to your project, even just seventeen minutes, whether it is pleasing or bedeviling you.
[Time check: 12:00 p.m.]
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. … A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. … It is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of six novels including The Deepest Lake (Soho Crime, forthcoming May 2024). She is teaching a 49 Writers class about suspense on November 4 and 11.