Every time I add information to my Notes.doc, I included the starting date and time. When I am in an exceptionally diligent and mindful place, I also include the ending date and time of the entry. My reason for doing this is simple: I need to track my output and set realistic expectations for myself—all artists do, especially neophyte artists.
When I was teaching, I assumed I wasn’t writing because I was lazy or not dedicated enough. Then I went on a writing retreat and realized how wrong I was. For clarity, I use the term writing retreat to mean 7-14 days in a secluded space where one writes about 70-80% of the time and sleeps, eats, exercises, meditates and performs the basic bodily functions the other 30-20% of the time. On this retreat, I decided to log all creative work with dates and times. If I did research, I date- and time-stamped it in my Notes.doc. If I wrote or revised, I date- and time-stamped it in my Notes.doc. At the end of my two-week retreat, I realized that I was not lazy at all. I simply need large chunks of undisturbed time to create.
Any significant research took me a minimum of four hours. For instance, on that retreat, I researched how shrapnel penetration physically affects the brains of soldiers in the Iraqi War. Since I am neither a soldier nor a doctor, it took at least an hour for me to educate myself on the proper terminology (e.g., mortars, I.E.D.s, T.B.I.’s, intracranial hemorrhage, parasympathetic nervous system, etc.). Next, I had to find credible and reliable sources (i.e., actual war videos and peer-reviewed articles) on the topics. Then I had to read the articles and/or watch the videos and take notes in my Notes.doc. There was also the matter of emotional exhaustion. After reading a shitload or articles and watching three videos of soldiers who had been hit by I.E.D.’s and rushed to the nearest I.C.U. for surgery, I was spent. I ate lunch then shifted to writing for the next four hours just so I could have some emotional breathing room.
In my opinion, a writer needs a block of time to put anything of significance together on the page. I should state that I usually revise as I go. I do not move onto the next paragraph until the previous paragraph is tight. If I come to the end of a page, I re-read and revise the entire page again before I start a new page. All that to say, I’m slow as a motherfuck when I write. This is not the case when I am pressed for time. Under these circumstances, I throw the ideas in my Notes.doc (or in the QuickMemo app on my phone or on scrap paper) with little concern for spelling or outside-reader coherency. As long as I can connect the points, that’s all I care about since I will go back and revise anyway. But on that retreat, I was lucky if I had three typed pages of fiction after eight focused hours of writing and revising (not including food and bathroom breaks).
Thanks to date- and time-stamping, I learned that my normal writing pace is four to eight hours. Now, I am more patient with myself. When I was teaching and working 16-20 hour days, I learned to let go of the foolish expectation that I could get a significant or even minor amount of writing done during the semester. It simply was not possible if I wanted to get all my grading done and challenge my students the way I believed they needed to be challenged. So, I wrote when I could and in the summer when I could be unapologetic about securing my writing time. Now that I have a normal work day, I write about two to four days a week during a writing stint (but this is the luxury of being a child-free aspiring writer). Some weeks I don’t write at all. Hell, some months I don’t write at all then there are periods when I write obsessively.
I often think of people who have children and full-time jobs…hell, even people who have children and no job. Parenting is a like having a job and a half in and of itself. It’s not possible for parents to carve out four undisturbed hours of their day every day for writing, not unless they have a househusband/housewife, a saint of a relative or paid help. I also think about the many published authors who state with such authority that one must write every day. These authors fascinate me because they seem to disregard the constraints that normal people (i.e., unpublished writers who do not have a househusband/housewife, a saint of a relative or paid help) face. I subscribe to Alice Walker’s schedule. She said she sometimes writes for three months then takes a month or two off then starts writing again.
My advice to fellow-aspiring writers is this:
- Date- and time-stamp your research and writing time over the course of a week or two, so you can establish a realistic pace;
- Write when you can;
- When you have a chunk of writing time, make it sacrosanct and guard it unapologetically.