Awhile back, at a writers’ conference, a young woman raised her hand during a panel and asked, “I just recently graduated from college and it’s hard for me to find time to write now. How can we be paid for our writing?”
One of the panelists made a noise that sounded like a cross between a bus door opening and a dog coughing. “No one is going to give you money to write,” they said. “I mean, get a job.”
The most appalling thing about that response wasn’t the rudeness, it’s what the panelist didn’t know — the questioner did have a job. That was her problem.
She’d just started at a large tech company and regularly worked 60-hour weeks. She worked weekends. She commuted an hour each way. She tried waking up early to write, but she was too exhausted to do anything except stare at the screen and cry.
Recently, Eric Maisel, author of Coaching the Artist Within, came up with a kinder, and smarter, solution for her, and the harried, exhausted writers like her. We can write during short bits of down time—like when you’re waiting for your lunch order, or in the check-out line at the grocery store.
Rather than trying to pick up the thread of your project, though, Maisel suggests making a list of easier, “bite-sized” tasks you can choose from in those down times. List scenes that need writing and work on the dialogue, he said. Or, name the “hard spots” in your project that you’re avoiding, and write one of those—his thinking being that with less time to agonize, you might actually write the hard stuff.
His lists might not work for you (they didn’t for me), so I came up with a few other ideas:
- Words or phrases—slang, jargon, or idioms—you’ll need to define for your reader.
- Characters you need to work in somewhere. Write a short description for each.
- What clichés can you find in your prose? Revise them.
- Short sensory descriptions. When you don’t have time to write a full scene, focus instead on the setting, the food the characters are eating, the smell of the marshy air, the piano playing in a noisy bar.
“You don’t have to use every spare ten minutes productively…but you also don’t want to squander all of them,” Maisel says. “It is almost impossible to make use of small amounts of available time if you aren’t mentally prepared to use them.”
Making a bite-sized-tasks list is a bit like ironing your work clothes the night before—only better. It trims away the worrying and prevaricating, and sets prompts right in front of you. All you have to do is write.
(Also, if you’re in the NYC area and looking for a time and place to write, check out our new class: Just Write.)
Dean of Faculty