Sunday, July 13, 2014

Making Time When You Don’t Have Time

For the two people on the planet that I have not told, I’ve been writing a poem every day this month and posting them on the 30/30 Project page, along with eight other marathoners writing like crazy to raise some funds for the wonderful Tupelo Press.
     How’s the marathon going? Actually, better than I expected. My fellow marathoners are a social bunch of accomplished poets, which makes for a supportive and fun environment. And posting my poems on such a public forum sets the bar high for the quality of my work. That means that I’ve have to make some serious time lately—more than usual—to write.
     To keep myself from getting overwhelmed by this project of 30 poems in 30 days, I've cleared my evening schedule and am sticking to a late-night writing regimen. Basically, I took the time when I would normally read before bedtime and turned it into writing time. That’s working well, but two things may make it unsustainable in the long run: 1) It makes me stay up late because writing takes longer than reading, and I’m groggy when I go to work the next day, and 2) I hate, hate, hate routine and figure I’ll get rebellious sooner or later.

What’s a working stiff to do?
This business of making time to write got me thinking about an old conundrum that I often get asked about: How can anyone with a full-time job manage to write and send stuff out and do all the ancillary things a writer needs to do? I’ve worked full time most of my life, and my short answer to this is: I don’t manage. I never feel that I’m writing enough. I’ve got scads of unfinished writing work sitting around—a half-done poetry manuscript, a novel in need of revisions, notes for two or three other novels, blog posts, articles, a nebulous memoir—and it pains me to think I may never have time to get to them all. But I do get to some of them, and the only way I can do that is to guard my evening and weekend time jealously. Luckily, I’m not very social, but I have to make a conscious effort not to book up too many evenings of the week. It’s a bit of a paradox: Social outings provide great material for stories and poems, but by the time I get home from them, I’m too tired to write about them. And the next morning, it’s back to the job—I work as the publications manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a job I’m happy to have but that takes a large amount of energy and brain space, and at least 40 hours a week. And honestly, the job alone makes me too tired to do much writing most nights.
     I got curious about how other writers who work full time tackle this question, so I asked a few writer friends who have busy work lives. Here’s what they have to say on the challenges of finding time to write when you spend eight hours a day in an office.

Pepper Trail works as a forensic ornithologist at the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory and writes regularly for Jefferson Monthly, southern Oregon’s NPR-affiliate magazine. He also serves as a teaching naturalist for tour groups that go to some mighty exotic places. He makes me feel like a slacker; here I am, grumbling about how tennis lessons take up too much writing time, while he’s leading a hiking group across Kamchatka or Patagonia. He says his job provides a lot of material for his writing (five of his poems are here in the fine Cascadia Review). The challenge for him is finding time to revise. He puts it this way:

“I find that my job helps with inspiration, but hinders execution. A significant number of my poems come from my forensic and conservation work, but I feel that I lack the time to make these drafts into the best possible finished work. Of course, this is a convenient excuse, and someday when I retire I will probably find myself no better able to concentrate than I do now. But I look forward to trying!”

That last comment about retiring echoed in my talk with Steve Dieffenbacher, whose latest book, The Sky Is a Bird of Sorrow, won a bronze medal for Book of the Year from Foreword Reviews. Steve has had a long career as a newspaper editor, during which he’s had the added challenge of working nights. Steve has moved into semi-retirement this year, but in his full-time days he was remarkably disciplined about finding time to write:

“Writing is a matter of priorities. Working full time, I had to schedule writing at the same time every day, like an exercise regimen, or I wouldn’t do it. Since I worked nights, I wrote an hour or two every morning just after my coffee because that’s when my creative energies are at their height. Then I’d take my daily walk. I’d supplement the weekday writing with an hour or two of editing the week’s output on Saturday or Sunday, usually in the evenings when I’m at my most relaxed and receptive.”

But Steve added that semi-retirement has presented its own challenges, echoing Pepper’s comment. “These days,” Steve says, “I find it harder to write than when I was working for 40 hours (or more) a week. Somehow the part-time schedule throws me off balance, and I can’t get a rhythm going.” He added that, as with most transitions, it will probably take a while to figure out a new regimen. 

Connie Post is some kind of human dynamo. This former poet laureate of Livermore, California, does more readings in a month than I do in a year. She recently released a well-received book titled Floodwater, organizes Crockett’s popular Valona Deli reading series, is a generous and prolific social media maven, and has kept up this pace for years while holding down a full-time job as a materials manager for a manufacturing company. I asked Connie how in the world she finds any time to write in her busy life. I mean, she’s got to sleep sometime. She says:

“I have poetic thoughts and moments throughout the day, even when I am at work or in the car or brushing my teeth. When the images or ideas finally start to congeal, I find a way to get to a notepad or the computer and at least write the core of the poem down. It’s like being dizzy—you have to stop and slow down and, if necessary, breathe into a paper bag. Stop and listen to what the world is saying.”

You just have to…
Of course, there’s no verdict here. As with religion, no one method works for everyone who spends 40 hours a week working for the man. I’m still searching for ways to fit the writing life around my job (or vice versa), ways to sit down and produce more poems/stories/novels/runaway nonfiction bestsellers without riling my inner teenager, who will walk out in the middle of all that regimentation and head for the beach. But I’m inspired by my fellow worker/writers, whose main message seems to be a Nike-esque “You just have to do it.”

Office photo by Karen Apricot.

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