Time, by far, is one of the writer's most valuable commodities. From the gestation of ideas, to the discovery of the first draft, to the reworking and trial and error that consume the revision process, writing takes a great deal of time. It is not something we can rush, as those of us who have tried quickly learn. Like baking bread, it takes its own time. But unlike baking bread, it can be wildly unpredictable.
A writer can be eager to write, but end up floundering with subject matter or struggle with eliciting an engaging character. Or a writer might have an overflow of ideas, plots and characters at the ready, only to end up paralyzed while sitting in front of the page. I often get questions from writers about how to deal with this issue. “How do you write when you can’t?” writers will ask. Or, “What do you do when it's just not coming? My answer—garnered only from my own battles with the blank page is both simple and maddening:
In hide and go seek you have to wait quietly, without movement, so you're not caught. Waiting in line, you have to stay in your place, otherwise you may lose it. In the doctor's office before a procedure, one patient might read a magazine to take her mind off what is to come, while another might pray. Waiting, in each instance, has its own set of guidelines that can help make the waiting productive. That's true of the waiting that accompanies the act of writing. Like the patient before a procedure, you have to find the approach that works best for you.
Here are a few ways I've made waiting productive.
Write through the waiting:
This is a good way to reduce the waiting time and get to the writing—the good stuff—more quickly. The trick, though, is that I can’t always stomach it. But when I can, it’s a great way to keep myself focused. In a recent moment of frustration when I wanted to work on something new but didn’t have something at the ready in my consciousness, I wrote down a list of phrases, as nonsensical as I pleased: “making mosquitoes,” “play by poems,” “glass creatures,” “harper coins,” “coconuts on mars.
Playing with words and reaching for connections in my mind kept my hand moving and—I soon discovered—my brain was revving while doing so. I launched into a story idea that I didn’t know was even there. It has nothing to do with any of the phrases I came up with, but the act of searching and the use of language led to something. Perhaps even the connotations and connections of the words I was playing with helped fuel the story. If you keep the hand moving, you will eventually gravitate toward something that intrigues you.
When the words are flowing, writing can feel like a process that is simply happening, tapping into a different part of my brain than the one that figures out problems, analyzes
stories, knits or makes up games with my nephew. It’s a place that doesn't involve thought, so much as the experience of a moment. I don’t think about the emotion of tenderness, but rather imagine the man’s hand resting on the hip of a woman he’s just
met before becoming aware of the intimacy of it—and that he doesn’t know her well enough for that—and pulling it away.
When the words aren’t flowing, a lot can be said for getting comfortable, closing your eyes and imagining your characters in action. Look at them in your mind’s eye. Watch them move. What might they do next? When you don’t have specific characters or storylines, this can be particularly fun. Answering this question—“What are people capable of doing?”—can be an endless source of ideas when you jump straight to a moment of visualized action.
Taking up a short story or a chapter in a book can be great inspiration. Seeing the way another writer puts words together and evokes in you an emotional response can reinvigorate your own process.
The same is true of writers writing about the writing process. I recently read a lovely essay by Andre Dubus from his collection Broken Vessels called “Selling Stories,” which talks about the difficult and often very low paying venture of publishing short fiction. In it, he writes about the safety in being a short story writer: “There is no one to sell out to, there is no one to hurry a manuscript for; our only debt is to ourselves, and to those stories that speak to us from wherever they live until we write them.”
These different perspectives on writing can open up new ways of looking at the process, of thinking about writing and being a writer. Sometimes, they can simply inspire for the way those words resonate with your own sense of being a writer. It is important that when you read during the waiting time, you give yourself a limit. A story or a chapter or an essay. Perhaps two. Or a time limit. If you let yourself go with this, it can become a procrastination tool and lose its productiveness and the likelihood that waiting will soon lead to writing.
Take a walk. Go for a bike ride or a swim. Mow the lawn. A simple activity that doesn't take much thought and the act of doing it in isolation, without others to intrude on your thoughts, can get your mind wandering in productive directions. It’s important not to think of your “to do” list, or the fact that the checkbook needs balancing while engaging in this
movement. If you center your thoughts away from such responsibilities, you free yourself up to more creative—and productive—thought.
Being pressed for time is often a reason writers find this whole process even more frustrating. If you only have a half an hour to write, you don't have time to jog around the block, or read a short story and still have any left over to write. Often, this frustration becomes its own loop and writers give up and go attend to the more immediate demands.
Engage in ritual:
Another approach that writers have found useful is the practice of rituals. Just like setting the table and preparing dinner gets us in the mood for a meal—signals, in fact, that the meal is approaching—so too can we train ourselves to anticipate writing. If we prepare for the arrival of that time, we may find ourselves more ready to write when the time comes. This is one reason many writers find it useful to write at the same time every day.
A ritual to signal writing might be very small. A writer might meditate, turn on a specific kind of music, acknowledge a certain talisman. Even the act of preparing to write can be its own ritual. The writer who writes outside the home may find ritual in simply gathering together the supplies—a laptop or a pen and notebook in a certain bag and walking to a particular place.
Think about your own writing. You might actually have a ritual you already enact, one you’re not even aware of doing. You might think of creating one, something that symbolizes the transition into that space where you can create. Over time, it can mean the difference between writing and not writing.