Except for the Almighty, who is not bound by time and space, creating any kind of art, be it writing, painting, music, sculpture, or what have you, is done within the confines of space and time. You have a space in which to work and you have time during which you may create (ideally). In fact, these were some of the most basic requirements Virginia Woolf suggested a woman needed in order to write in 1929. (Men need these things too, of course, but in her day and her rung of society, they already had them, so she didn’t bother treating that subject.) Despite our progress in nearly all things over the past 83 years, last I checked we still need time and space to create.
All sorts of advice is out there for the person who longs to write but doesn’t have the time. Get up earlier, get take-out, stop cleaning your house, stay up late after your kids have gone to bed. There’s advice to be had on carving out space. Turn an unused closet (because we all have so many of those hanging about the house) into a mini office or write at a coffee shop. But I think the real secret to writing, at least in my experience, is finding one’s own personal writing rhythm.
What does that mean? It sounds a little flaky, a little ethereal, a little pie-in-the-sky. And it can be.
I have an ideal writing space in my head, the situation which seems perfect to me. It involves close contact with nature, a strategically placed window, a room of worn hardwood floors flooded with natural light and preferably with slanted ceilings where I can see the rafters. It is a place of slowly-moving sunbeams and the perfect amount of dust in the air and a toasty cat (that never meows) curled up nearby. There is a magical unending pot of coffee and a china plate sprinkled with the crumbs of a yummy scone. When I was younger, this vision included a black vintage typewriter and absolutely no white out or correction tape (after all, the perfect space leads to perfect inspiration and, therefore, perfect writing).
And I have an ideal concept of time in this ideal world. First, it is limitless. Second, it is impenetrable. There are no interruptions in this mystical, sacred space. There is no dog barking to be let in moments after being let out because it was standing at the door whining pitifully as though someone had cruelly stolen its favorite toy. There is no mailman. There are no phone calls. There is no laundry waiting. There are no questions from small children about the location of a particular toy. There are no demands whatsoever from the outside world. The only reality that exists is the perfect room around me and the world unfolding within me.
But I cannot stress this enough, folks: This perfect writing situation DOES NOT EXIST. And if it did, I think we’d find that it’s not so perfect after all. When you look closer you realize the windows are drafty in the winter and the place is sweltering in the summer and the neighbors play their music too loud and sometime you will have to get up and go to the bathroom.
Finding your writing rhythm within the confines of real life is what is tricky. Ideals aren’t real. So what can you do to discover the times and places you are most able to focus your creativity and make progress on your art?
Perhaps it’s stating the obvious to say that this is different for every person because every person is living a unique life with unique challenges. And space and time are just the beginning of discovering one’s own writing rhythm. We work in different ways. Some goal-oriented people write to word count or time goals and that spurs them on, while to others writing to a particular goal (like in National Novel Writing Month) sounds like sheer torture. Others may try that key-pounding style for a little bit only to find that it undermines their enjoyment of the writing process and results in sloppy work that is hard to redeem and therefore choose to abandon the NaNoWriMo ship in favor of a slower pace that will result in a better first draft and a more fulfilling writing experience (um, that’d be me).
Today I read a great blog post from Lee Lueck at Sketches and Notes about gushers and bleeders (read it and then pop back over here). Lee determined that she is a bleeder while her husband is a gusher. After some thought I determined that I am probably somewhere between the two, starting as a slow bleeder and building up to gushing once I get a real solid footing and a clear picture of what is to come. I bled the first half of A Beautiful Fiction but I gushed the second half, and then I spent the better part of a year trying to mop up the blood that got on the walls and floor (my beautiful, perfectly worn hardwood floors!) through editing.
Next fall I hope to lead a session at a writers conference on finding your writing rhythm. In preparation, I’ve quizzed about a dozen or so authors I know, asking them the following questions:
- What genre do you write?
- Describe your daily routine (if you have one). Do you write at a particular time of day? Do you give yourself word count goals or time goals?
- Do you find that you tend to write more during particular times of year? Do the seasons or the weather affect your creativity?
- What do you do when you find yourself suffering from a block?
- What are the things in your life that break your concentration and make it harder to write?
- Do you have any strategies for dealing with those things?
- What tools do you use to help you get in the mood to write? (music, lighting, change of venues, etc.)
- Have you ever lost your passion for writing? What did you do to get it back?
- Of everything you’ve written, which book/article was the hardest to write? Which was the easiest?
- Do you have any advice for young writers who are trying to be more intentional about writing?
It’s been fun to read the varied answers and contemplate how to put them into my presentation in a way that is helpful and freeing to writers who are struggling finding the time and space to create.
I have personally found that I don’t produce good writing and I don’t enjoy the process when I’m under the gun of 1,667 words a day. I’m still working on dealing gracefully with interruptions and managing my household and work responsibilities while saving good creative energy for writing. It’s ever a process. But even though our ideals may be unrealistic, I do believe we can shape our surroundings, our schedules, and our attitudes in order to make the most of the time and space we do have.
Perhaps some of the questions above might help you determine your own writing rhythm. Perhaps you’d like to share your answers to some of these questions with us in the comments. I’d love to hear from you on how you find the time and space to create, and also how you harness those natural times of peak creativity. So if you’re reading this post as a form of procrastination (you know who you are) then here’s my permission to procrastinate a little longer in order to examine your own creative life and share a bit of it with us!