When Life Gets in the Way of Writing

When I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts last year, I had it all planned out. I would take the six chapters that made up my creative thesis and finish the rest of that novel. I’d give the chapters to my critique partner, incorporate her wise and helpful feedback, and do a final pass with a checklist of things I wanted to revise throughout. The plan was to finish by the fall, get a full-length beta read from a couple more classmates, and start querying in January.

Then in late September my spousal unit got an offer he couldn’t refuse and we made the decision to move from Chicago to Tennessee. Within six weeks of the initial headhunter contact, he had started his new job in Nashville while I remained in Chicago to coordinate the move. We’ve done corporate relocations before, and while they have a lot of benefits—it’s nice when someone else moves your things—they also have a lot of finicky requirements. Between real estate assessments, inspections which led to more specialized inspections, and appointments to get things fixed, I had 18 meetings in my house over six weeks. Then I had to clean, organize, and otherwise prep the house for sale, by myself.

After that, there was the search for a new house in Nashville, and all the preparations for the move, including how and when to transport two cats who hate traveling. Needless to say, my schedule for revising the novel went out the window.

I could have let my broken schedule get me down—I’m no spring chicken, and already worry too much about how long I’ve been trying to get published—but instead I let it go. I had a secret weapon giving me a boost: my daily drafting journal.

Journal 1
The first journal, including the sticky notes I used to help with plotting.

The drafting journal was born of desperation during my final semester at VCFA. Each residency we participate in a workshop, submitting 15-20 pages a couple months beforehand. To get the most out of it, our pages should be not-too-polished yet meaningful (ie, not something you never intended to work on again). I had already repurposed old pieces in my first three workshops, and had nothing meaningful left for my fourth. That semester I desperately scribbled a 20-page story in five days in between homework packets. No way did I want to do that again, especially since I was eyeballs deep in my creative thesis and just didn’t have time.

So I thought I’d try something new: what if I spent 15 minutes a day, first thing in the morning, on an idea I’d been kicking around for a while? I started several weeks before the deadline and made it part of my routine. I got up, fed my cats (you can’t write with hungry cats staring at you), made a cup of tea, and wrote by hand in a journal for 15 minutes. I did this almost every day without fail, and before the deadline arrived I had 20 new pages of a new novel. Sure, they were very drafty pages, but bonus! That meant I didn’t have to agonize about their reception in workshop. I knew they weren’t great.

I made it through workshop and graduation and the inevitable post-grad collapse where you don’t want to write anything ever again, at least for a few weeks, and when it was done, I started picking up my daily journal again. I had discovered it gave me several benefits. First, it’s perfect for a first draft, since you’re forced to just crap it out. You can’t write perfect prose in 15 minutes—and you shouldn’t try! Expecting crap gave me freedom to just write the story. And 15 minutes = one scene, or part of a scene.

Second, since I only had to write for 15 minutes, I didn’t get stuck often, and if I did, I had the rest of the day to let it stew in the back of my mind. If I only wrote one sentence in 15 minutes, it was just 15 minutes “wasted”—and at least I was one sentence further along. Third, 15 minutes was also short enough that I didn’t feel bad for cheating on my novel revision with my new idea. Thus a brief addition to my daily routine gave me a looser first draft, time to let characters and story cook in my head, and permission to play. All in 15 minutes.

This was crucial when all the changes happening because of the move became overwhelming. There were many days I couldn’t sit down at the computer, or when I sat down to write I couldn’t focus and ended up visiting real-estate and travel sites instead. But I could still manage that 15 minutes every morning. So when I got to the end of 2017 and still hadn’t finished my novel revision, I could look at my journals—yes, I filled the first and started a second—and feel like I’d still accomplished something.

I did manage to finish my revision and send it to my beta readers at the same time I was watching the movers unload my stuff in Nashville. And now that I’m starting to get settled into my new routine, I’m having trouble getting back into the groove of daily revision. So I’ve been transcribing my original handwritten journal into digital form, and today got to the end of journal one. I’m in the middle of chapter 11, and 100 pages in. Journal two has another six chapters in it. People, I wrote more than 100 pages over the course of a year by spending just 15 minutes a day!

Okay, now I sound like a bad infomercial, but this has really made a difference for me. If you’re someone who keeps saying, “I don’t have time/I can’t get started/My writing is crap,” I say, “UNTRUE.” You can take 15, or even five minutes a day. Get started. Embrace the crap—you can make it better later. Build it sentence by sentence, day by day, make it a habit, and you can get around those roadblocks that life likes to throw in the way of a writer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s