What’s the #1 reason writers don’t write?
Wait, let’s rephrase that.
What’s the #1 reason writers say they don’t write?
If I had to bet, I’d stake it all on the answer being some variation on this:
“I don’t have time to write.”
The details vary: I have to work, I have kids, I have a husband, I have to clean the house, the dog needs to go to the vet, my elderly parents require care, I’m taking night classes, I need to rake the leaves/shovel the snow/mow the lawn/etc. But it all comes down to the same thing: I want to write, but I don’t have time.
For a long time, I thought that the people who were saying this really didn’t have time. Then, I noticed how often these same people found hours and hours to be on the internet, posting about politics or pets or their favorite television show. Or they’d talk about how they couldn’t write because they needed to go out drinking every Friday night with friends and family members—they called it “filling the creative well,” but the truth is, it was going out and having fun. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s call it by its right name.
Only recently have I figured out that more often than not, the problem isn’t a lack of time.
It’s lack of energy.
We work. A lot. We’re tired. Screw that: we’re exhausted.
Everything in us longs for a world where we can revel in peace and quiet. Where we don’t have to worry about taking Mom to the doctor or the kids to soccer or the cat to the vet or the car to the mechanic. Where the whole family has clean underwear. Where clients don’t insist on having their projects yesterday. Where we don’t have to notice that the pump keeps coming on even when nobody’s using water, which means there’s probably a leak back into the well and we really should call the water guys to come out and fix it, except we only remember to do that at ten o’clock at night, and besides, it’s probably going to mean a whole new foot valve assembly, or maybe a whole new pump, and we don’t have that kind of money to spare, so it’s cheaper to pretend it’s not happening. Where nobody gets sick or has a loved one die or has any other kind of emergency that means we have to drop everything and be there because it’s what you do for the people you care about.
The problem is that writing requires more than just a chair and a pen (or laptop): it requires mental focus. Discipline. Intent.
At the end of a hard day (or week, or month, or whatever), summoning the mental energy to create pearls of literary genius is just too much work.
So we go the brain-dead route. We log into Facebook, or we fold laundry while watching reruns of “Frasier” that we’ve seen a million times, or we sack out on the sofa while Hubby snores in the recliner and Junior focuses on his phone while his sister texts with friends and the dog farts in its sleep, and we call it family time.
And we tell ourselves that someday, we’ll write that book. Someday, when we retire, and the kids move out, and the dog dies, and we finally have time. Except we don’t, because lack of time isn’t the problem. It’s that we lack energy.
Where do we find that?
Brace yourself, because I’m about to make the most controversial recommendation you’ll probably ever get on the subject.
The way to get the energy is . . . steal it.
Seriously. Start with this:
Make an appointment. With yourself.
Write it in your planner. Treat it like any other appointment, except that unlike the dentist, this one isn’t subject to rescheduling because your kid needs cupcakes for the next day. (Buy the damned cupcakes. With all due respect, they’re probably better anyway.) For once in your life, let somebody else accommodate you, not the other way around. It really is okay. Trust me on this. Schedule an hour, and make it inviolate. If somebody asks what you’re doing for that hour, say, “I have an appointment.” If they press for details—well, if they do, they’re rude, inconsiderate, and utterly not entitled to a response (and yes, this includes your family, and if you haven’t taught them better by now, it’s high time to start). So feel free to tell whatever lie you need to in order to keep your appointment. You have my permission. Whatever you have to do to steal that time, do it. As the L’Oreal people say, you’re worth it.
Let’s assume nobody gets in the way of your appointment. You’ve carved out a nice block of time—an hour, an afternoon, a day, a weekend–and the time has arrived. What now?
Keep the appointment. Use it for whatever fills your soul.
No limits. No judgment.
See a movie. Read a book. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Go to a museum or concert. Paint a table. Plant tomatoes. Pray. Sack out in your recliner with a back issue of Cosmo. Have lunch with someone who delights you. Take a nap. Watch a football game. Get a massage. Dress up and go out to dinner by yourself.
Whatever leaves you feeling more energized and refreshed than when you began.
Then—and this is important, because it’s what the refreshing is all about—before you go back to your regular life, with all its demands, take at least fifteen minutes and write something.
Write a piece of a story. Or an entire story. Or an essay. Or a poem. Or a journal entry. Or just write random notes about what’s around you, or what you did, or something you think would be fun. Get out your pen and notebook, and spend time turning life into words on the page.
Okay, you say. I did that. Now what?
Good. Now, do it again. Tomorrow, if you can. If not tomorrow, then some time soon. Put your next appointment in your calendar. Make it ironclad, this time to refresh.
But I don’t have time. Everybody needs me.
Maybe. But remember what the flight attendants say: put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help somebody else. I know this sounds like a dumb ass cliché, but it’s true. If you’re out of gas, you can’t get anybody else where they need to go. You sure as hell can’t help yourself.
Finding energy isn’t easy. Trust me. I spend more time exhausted than in any other state, and I don’t even have to juggle the kids and the husband. Between work and health and house and family, I crave an entire day when everybody and everything, with all their demands, will just leave me the hell alone. If that could happen for an entire week, I’d be convinced I’d died and gone to heaven.
This past weekend, for example. It looked so promising. But it began with a Friday spent at a funeral, and it went on to a variety of household obligations, clients with rush projects, bills to pay and groceries to procure, and a Sunday morning where I had to sing three services and handle communion in between. By the time I came home Sunday afternoon, I was spent, and I crashed. Sunday afternoon–that entire gorgeous block of time when I should have had time to think and write, and maybe clean the bathroom–I was dead asleep. Sometimes, that’s what real life looks like. It’s not about accomplishing; it’s about refilling.
Having the energy to write doesn’t happen often or easily. Yes, discipline is involved, but even that assumes a certain level of mental stamina. Sometimes, that stamina just isn’t there. Demanding clients, elderly parents, the quirks of an old house, the unexpected blips of a snowy driveway and a sick cat and a voicemail system that doesn’t work—the energy suckers don’t have to be major or mind-boggling. A swarm of tiny unceasing demands drain your lifeblood like so many gnats on a summer evening.
I’m not saying it’s easy. What I’m saying that it comes down to choices. If you choose to go to bed early instead of watching Colbert, or you choose to let someone else handle the laundry (or insist on it), or if you carve out time to refresh your mind so you can pursue this dream of yours—those are all good choices. If you do them, you’re more likely to have the energy to write.
As for me on this Monday night: the dinner dishes are in the sink, three client projects remain unfinished, and the laundry is still on the drying racks. On the other hand, I’ve worked, cleared snow from the driveway, taken the cat to the vet, met with the pump repair guy, and written this post.
That’s enough for one day. I’m going to bed.
Go thou and do likewise.