The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Tiny Points of Life

A Matter of Time: One Writer’s Strategies for Making Room in the Day

It is an agonizingly familiar lament. You have an urge to write something; now, before it’s too late. A scathing expose, before someone finds the audacity to fix everything you think is wrong. Your memoirs, before you forget your own life. A screenplay, before Liam Neeson gets any older. Maybe you have a novel inside your head banging its little red fists against the walls of your skull, trying to get out. It needs a name, this thing inside of you. Let’s just call it that thing you want to write.

But your life will not accommodate that thing you want to write.   Why? Because you have to pay the bills. You have to pick up the kids and take them to soccer. You have to keep the house from falling into shambles and you have to convince your spouse or partner that you are still 100% in that relationship. Also, the car is making a funny noise and your parents need attention. Or vise-versa. All of which means that you are forced to spend all day every day doing things that have nothing whatsoever to do with writing. So the memoir, the screenplay, the novel all go unwritten as your life history gets less and less distinct and Mr. Neeson loses more and more credibility as an agile air marshal or a CIA agent or an angry lumberjack or whatever else you may have in store for the poor guy.

So, just how is an aspiring writer to find any free time amidst a busy life?

The bad news is that you will not find any free time amidst a busy life. Sorry, but it’s true. You are not imagining things. Your life really is full of other things. Other interests. Other important responsibilities. That, by the way, is precisely why they call it life. There is no time to be found. Certainly none for free.

So you’re just going to have to make time. The good news is that there is a really effective strategy for making time in your life for writing.  Spoiler: it’s also known as “stealing time.”

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I may think of myself as a fiction writer, but my day job for the past three decades has been working as an employment litigation attorney. I spend most of my waking hours managing a medium-sized law firm in Alaska and tending to a full case load for clients who, strangely enough, care a whole lot more about their own lives and businesses than they do about my yen to write novels. I’m up at 7:30 in the morning and often home at 8:00 in the evening. Working weekends is not uncommon. The stress can be outrageous. On top of that, I have a wife who likes to see me every so often, a car that needs attention, and parents that make funny noises. Free time is hard to come by in my life. I can honestly say that if I had waited to find time just lying around looking to be put to good use, I never would have written anything.

I published my most recent novel, The Lion Trees, earlier this year. It’s a beast: two volumes and over 1600 hundred pages. I wrote another book of interconnected stories and novellas called Signs of Passing, that just won the 2014 Pacific Book Awards for short fiction. Signs of Passing weighs in at 750 pages. So where, you ask, did I find the time – with the employees and the clients and the judges and the wife and the neglected car and the noisy parents – to endlessly combine twenty-six letters into over three-quarters of million words all arranged in some kind of entertaining order?

I didn’t find the time. I made the time. I stole the time. And you can too. Here’s how:

STEP ONE: Start Something.

You will need to make an up-front investment of quality, uninterrupted time. Two or three hours. Maybe five. Whatever it takes to bring into the physical world something to represent the collection of thoughts in your head that up until this point has been, simply, that thing you want to write. Mind you, I do not mean to suggest anything of publishable quality or something that you would feel good about sending off to Liam Neeson. The point, rather, is to give that thing you want to write an independent existence, outside of your head. Think of that teenager – maybe a younger you – who was never going to amount to anything until he moved out of the house and established a life of his own. The goal in this first step is to give that thing you want to write a life of its own. A paragraph. A page. A scene. A chapter. An outline. Something. The more you can put down onto paper (or a computer chip) the better off you will be. Once you give your ideas an independent address in the real world, then those ideas will start, however timidly, demanding your attention, just like your job and your kids and your car and your parents.

This, then, is the crucial first step in making time: give that thing you want to write a voice. Beg, borrow and steal enough time up front to get a good running start. Call in sick. Stay up late. Sacrifice a sunny Saturday. Make the time.

Don’t worry about polish. Keep your standards low. It’s going to be ugly. Let it be ugly. Two hours. Three hours. Five. Just get it out there. Screw polish. Worry about shape. Worry about form. What does this thing look like? Give it an identity. Name it. Just feel good about it existing. Let the sight of something finally down on the page inspire those creative stirrings in your chest. Those feelings are important. Those are the feelings that you will carry around with you as you earn a living and pick up the kids and call a tow truck. Those feelings are the sound of that thing you want to write calling your name. Now that it has its own place in the world, that thing you want to write is going to help you make the time to finish the job. The puppy you bring home wants to be fed. The seed you plant wants to grow. The thing you start wants to be finished. So start it already. Let’s give it some oxygen. Give it a voice.

STEP TWO: Do Something Every Day.

Yes, every day. But notice I have not said you need to “write” every day. Do Something. You must do something every day that counts as writing, even if it is not actually writing.

If you can actually spend significant periods of time writing every single day, then you are wasting that time reading this article. You and Stephen King and your other time-bending friends need to leave the rest of us alone to figure out how we can string enough minutes together to actually produce something longer than a Post-It note. Writing takes time. Lots of time. And that is the problem: there is no time.  So what is an aspiring writer to do when there is no time to sit down and write even once a week, let alone every day? This second step requires you to change how you think about writing and about time.

I used to think of “writing time” as two or three-hour blocks of time in which I could disappear into my imagination and work undisturbed. The problem was always that there were more unicorns in my life, by a factor of ten, than there were three-hour blocks of time. Consequently, that thing I wanted to write waited and waited. And waited. I had a good start (see Step One) but without any attention, the story grew cold and threatened to fall out of this world and back into the caldron of unformed ideas.

Out of desperation, I eventually began writing in my car between meetings or sitting in a parking lot outside of some fast food joint, frustrated that I only had forty minutes, or twenty minutes, or ten minutes to spend crafting my novel. I like to tell people that I wrote my first novel, Lying Under Comets: A Love Story of Passion, Murder, Snacks and Graffiti, fifteen minutes at a time. It’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. The limitations of time I experienced with that book forged a new and fundamental understanding about writing: There is a whole lot more to writing than coming up with words and arranging them on the page.

I know this will sound heretical, but the wordsmithing part of writing might just be the least of it. Writing is really about thinking or, if you are a fiction writer, imagining. The words are obviously important. Duh. But the words are only there in the first place to effectively translate thoughts and ideas that already exist in your head. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy, old Liam Neeson. Before you can write that sentence, you have to imagine it. If you are trying to write something without first having thought it through, without fully imagining it in all of its detail (see that sleek fox, the kilt, the terrified old man expression), then you are in serious trouble as a writer.

A lot of advance work has to be done before you can start slapping words together. Much of what I ended up doing parked out in front of Subway was not writing-writing, but thinking-writing. I was taking care of the essential preconditions to writing. Thinking. Imagining. Creating. These things may not involve actual writing, but they are critical enough to the writing process to count as writing. And while it may be tough to get much wordsmithing done in 10 or 20 minutes, you can cover a universe of mental, imaginative groundwork in that time.

Let’s be clear: I am not suggesting that you sit in your parked car and idly think about… stuff. I am not talking about daydreaming. I am suggesting a very deliberate, focused concentration on the details of that that thing you want to write. What are you going to write – what details are you going to render – the next time you can steal enough time to actually type it out? Names. Places. Basic chronology. Mood. Themes. Once the details start to come to life in your head, you will be amazed at how compelling that feeling is. It’s the feeling of something new in your life. I can only imagine that it’s a little like feeling the unborn baby kick for the first time.

When amorphous thoughts begin coalescing into sharper and sharper detail, the effect is both compelling and synergistic. I found myself looking for anywhere in my workweek that I could steal twenty to forty minutes just to ladle back into the caldron of ideas and work on refining larger concepts into concrete details. The quick brown fox, chased by angry bees, is collecting kilts for his den. Lazy old Liam, suddenly defrocked, stands up shouting and waving his arms. Cue the bees. Liam shows aging action hero agility here. Reaches for gun and starts shooting at angry bees. Run, Liam run. See Liam flail. The point is that forty minutes in a Subway parking lot provided an ocean of quality time with which to create and sort through the details of that thing I wanted to write.   Was that forty minutes just lying around? No. Was it free? No. I had to make it. I had to steal it from lunchtime. 

I was also eating, of course, which is strangely relevant. I cannot eat and type at the same time. I have to choose. When you only have forty minutes between meetings, then one of those things – eating or typing – is not getting done. You can guess which one usually comes up short. But, and here is the point, I can definitely eat and think at the same time. I’ve done it my whole life and I don’t think I’m special in this regard. I put those 20, 30, 40-minute intervals to spectacularly good writing use. I developed character arcs and refined plot lines. I solved problems. I imagined endings. And all with my mouth full. I made time to write, or at least I made time to do something that counts as writing. Before starting the car had heading back to work, I tried to take about five minutes to scribble out a few notes about what I had resolved, pulling the ideas out of my head and into this world. I took those notes everywhere I went. I took a second here and a minute there to add to them. It was like feeding a baby. A growing baby. A colicky baby.

All to what benefit? There were actually three consistent benefits to these micro-sessions. First, when I finally had time to write for an hour or two on a weekend, I knew exactly what I was doing. Fox. Kilt. Bees. Pre-arthritic naked action star. Gun. Undignified flailing and running. I was free to spend my writing time actually arranging words on the page. I had enough plot, character and thematic details accumulated from my 20-minute sandwich-chewing-think-sessions that I was not wasting any of my precious writing time trying to orient myself in an ocean of ill-defined possibility. My little micro-sessions had made me much more efficient.

Second, and maybe even more importantly, those 10, 20, 40-minute sessions meant that I was interacting with that thing I wanted to write every single day. Every day of the week I was doing something focused and deliberate that counted as writing. Thinking about characters. Tuning the plot. Shaping themes. Sketching an outline. Solving problems. Making notes. Reading a draft. Editing. Casting the movie adaptation of the novel (starring Harrison Ford as Liam Neeson). Ten minutes a day counted as over an hour of writing time a week. Forty minutes a day put me at almost five hours of quality time per week.  If someone had told me that if I wanted to write a novel I would need to find five unused hours in my life every single week, I would have given up before I had started.

Ironically, and this is the third benefit, the more time I spent on that thing I wanted to write, the more time I wanted to spend. Five hours a week made me want ten. A creative synergy took over: the more minutes I fed it, the bigger it grew. The bigger it grew the more I wanted to feed it. Before I knew it, that thing I wanted to write had an independent existence in the real world and was yowling for attention. It was impossible to ignore. It wanted more of my time and it would not accept the excuse that my life was just too full. Beginnings naturally seek endings. My biggest ally in my mission to make more time for writing was… that thing I was writing. I don’t have any children; but suddenly, I kind of did have a child. I couldn’t let it starve. One way or the other, I made the time.

STEP THREE: Keep a Writer’s To-Do List in Your Head.

Like so many things in life, success begins with knowing what you want to accomplish. Even with lots of thinking and imagining and sandwich-eating it is not so easy to sit down and spin it all into a novel, or whatever it is you want to write. Inevitably, there are snags. Problems. Questions. Where, exactly, is old Liam anyway, and why is he lying down? Why are the bees so angry? In fact, the more details you nail down, the more problems and questions will crop up. How is the quick brown fox able to snag lazy old Liam’s kilt in mid-air? What is the fox’s name anyway? This is the literary equivalent of whack-a-mole. But there is no getting around it: you have to answer all of the questions and solve all of the problems. Why? Because you’re the writer. If you don’t answer the questions and solve the problems, no one else will.

It will help tremendously if you carry around a mental to-do list. This is your list of questions that must be answered and problems that must be solved. Actually, it is best to have a written to do list, but the focus here is on the mental part. As you go about your busy life, watching your kids chase a soccer ball and buying groceries and directing traffic around your broken car, you should make an effort to think about the problems and questions on your Writer’s To-Do List. Cycle through the items on the list that you can remember until you find one you want to work on. Then work on it. You will be amazed at how productive you can be when you keep coming back to that same nagging question. What should I name the fox? You will be working on the answer in the background even with the rest of your life rushing past you in the foreground. This is important work that must be done at some point; so why not while you are directing traffic or eating a sandwich or walking your dog?

When I am working on a book, I try to go to sleep at night with a single problem or question that I want to cross off my question/problem to-do list. For those five, ten, fifteen minutes before drift off to sleep, the only thing in my head is finding an answer or solution. Is this time I could ever realistically spend crafting sentences on my laptop? Of course not. I’m in bed. The lights are off. My eyes are closed. But it counts as writing time and I am making forward progress on my book that would otherwise be impinging on that elusive two to three-hour block of time that I want to devote to actually putting particular words in a particular order.

A collateral benefit of the Writer’s To-Do List is that it keeps that thing you want to write a fresh and active presence in your day-to-day life.  You are no longer waiting around hoping to find enough time to sit down and write your Magnum Opus. You are engaged in a constant scavenger hunt for answers and solutions, pulling information and inspiration from the life around you to push your writing project forward to a place of greater and greater clarity. All of that requires that you have a to-do list that you carry around in your head; a list that you can work on within the tiny nooks and crannies of time that are otherwise unusable for writing. And then, out of the blue, as you hand some wealthy auto mechanic a credit card, the answers and solutions will hit you like a ton of bricks: Old Liam is lying out in a field on his Scotland estate. He’s lying down because his knees are weak from age and punishing action sequels. The fox is able to snatch his kilt in mid-leap because he is dragging a small grappling hook affixed to the end of his tail. And the fox’s name is… is… something cuddly, like ‘Twentieth Century.’

More questions. More problems. So it goes. But you just made a bunch of writing time.

STEP FOUR: Words on the Page.

None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that there is some way to finish that thing you want to write without actually spending a whole lot of time sitting still someplace and actually writing or typing specific words in a specific order. There is no getting around the actual writing part of writing. This is going to take a lot of time. The time will not be free. You will need to steal it from other things – fun things, important things – and reprioritize your life. All of which is possible. Not everybody in your life is going to be happy about it and it may not be very comfortable. But it really is possible.

Now, stealing that kind of time will require serious motivation on your part. You’re going to need all the help you can get. Steps 1-3 all have the incidental benefit of boosting your motivation to do the hard work of making writing time. Remember, the more of that thing you want to write that you have managed to pull into the real world – by shaping it, giving it detail, and working with it every day – the more motivated you will be to continue and ultimately finish that process. We are far more likely to change our behavior for a reward that actually exists than a reward that is purely imagined. Our hunger drive is stimulated more by the smell of food actually on the table than the abstract thought of food. Even within the realm of ideas, the thought of a slice of bubbling, freshly baked blueberry pie that is just beginning to soften the outer slope of a scoop of vanilla ice cream is far more motivating than the thought of “some kind of food.” If you are going to rearrange your life for the sake of writing time, then you need to be chasing something real. “Some kind of food” is not going to do it. The more time you spend conceptualizing that thing you want to write, pinning details to it, ironing out problems and inconsistencies, naming it, giving it color and history and populating it with memorable characters, the more you are hardening that amorphous mush of ideas in your head into an actual thing.

So steal an hour or two from some other part of your life and add them to the pile of hours, minutes and seconds you have already stolen and invested. For this step, it will not do to steal from lunch or the drive to soccer. This requires major-league theft. Steal a couple of hours from cable television. Or from a good night’s sleep. Tell your kids you hid fifty bucks “somewhere in the neighborhood.” By hook or by crook, make some time to sit down and really put some words on the page. Throw as much time at it as you can. Progress will be slow, even agonizingly so, but it is going to feel good. It’s going to feel like progress. It’s going to feel real. The more time you steal, the more time you are going to want to steal. The problem of “finding time” is never harder than before you have started. This is a problem that gets easier and easier to solve because, first, you will realize that it really is possible to make time for writing and, second, because you will have less and less emotional choice in the matter. You will need to worry less about having time to write and more about staying married and employed.

Furthermore, once you have stolen that precious, expensive block of time, you will need to use it as efficiently as possible. Pick a time and a place that you can make your own. Deep breath. Let it flow. The point it this: you do not want to spend any of this precious time wondering about what it is you want to say and how you want to say it. Steps 1-3 mean that you already have a base to work from; that every single day you have been figuring out what you want to say and how you want to say it; and that you have been ironing out all the problems and answering all of the questions that might otherwise get in the way of the actual writing process. When you finally have that rare two-hour block of time to sit down to write, you should be taking full advantage of a lot of momentum.  All of those micro-sessions – all of those stolen minutes and seconds – in which you have been doing things that count as writing, will have resulted in what is known as “creative pressurization.” This is a completely made up term that will get you strange and alarmed looks from others, so best not to use it. But “creative pressurization” is a completely real phenomenon. If you have been using the time between your actual writing sessions effectively, that thing you want to write will always be outgrowing the confines of your head. All of those details, answers and solutions will want to be outside in the real world. You will be highly motivated to relieve the pressure. Conveniently for our purposes, the only way to relieve the pressure is to release it, letter-by-letter, word-by-word. Get it out. Write it down. Make the time. An hour. Two hours. Three. It gets easier. Because you no longer have much choice.

Success, ultimately, will mean fully realizing your creative vision; making what was once an amorphous blob of cognitive impulse foolishly looking for a gift of free time, into an actual memoir or exposé or novel or screenplay, forged into something real, one stolen minute after the next.

If you are really successful, then maybe your screenplay gets picked up, or your novel gets published and you make a small fortune on the movie rights. One day you will open the newspaper and there it is, above the fold on the front page of the entertainment section, proof that that thing you wanted to write really was meant to be alive in the world:

Liam Neeson, the rapidly aging action star, as you’ve never seen him before! Twentieth Century fox brings you a Bee-Movie adventure classic! A powerful performance worthy of an actor out-standing in his field! Raw, tender, undignified! It’s kilt-free fun for the whole family! Starring Harrison Ford as Liam Neeson.

Sorry. Now go write something already. I’m late for court.

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