Someday when I have the time, I’ll write a book.”
I hear that phrase often. At writers’ workshops it is intoned wistfully by silver-haired ladies whose children are the age of my husband. These women assure me they are so busy that there is simply no time to write, though they want to, of course–more than anything else in the world.
Professors of my acquaintance plead a lack of writing time with annoyance in their voices, as if the faculty senate meetings and those term papers to grade were all that had prevented them from writing Cold Mountain, achieving fame and fortune, and quitting the old day job.
Each time someone blames his unwritten masterpiece on a lack of time, I smile sympathetically and nod.
I am thinking: “Crap.”
Someday when I have the time . . .
One day that well-worn phrase will make me snap, and I will snarl back: “Someday, when I have the time, I am going to dance Swan Lake with the New York Ballet Company.”
Procrastinators get no sympathy from me. In 1986 when a publishing company accepted my four-page book proposal, the catch was this: In order to meet their spring deadline, the editor would need the completed novel in six weeks. I did not have six weeks to devote to writing a novel. I was working full time at the university. I was teaching a night class in fiction. I was taking two graduate English courses that semester, both requiring research papers. I had an 8-year-old daughter, and a husband balancing a job with his own graduate course work. I was six weeks pregnant, and I felt awful. I had always wanted to be a writer…. Still, I could have told the publisher with perfect truth that I didn’t have time to do the project.
I wrote the book in six weeks.
It won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Paperback Novel in 1987. It’s still in print.
The success of that novel set in motion a chain of events that led to my getting published in hardcover the next year, and then to making The New York Times bestseller list a few years later. When I think of that opportunity offered to me at a time when I was least prepared to accept it, I am reminded of something Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in
shallows and in misery.
On such a full sea are we now afloat:
We must take the current when it serves or
lose our ventures.
Perhaps I would have succeeded anyway if I had let that chance to be published go by, but I wouldn’t want to bet my life on it, which is what I would have been doing if I had let time, or the lack of it, make my decisions for me. I had plenty of wonderful excuses for not writing a novel: graduate courses, a full-time job, morning sickness. I could have said no.
Instead, I wrote the book in six weeks.
Were they six fun weeks? No. They were terrible. I was exhausted from putting in full days at the office. Too tired to eat. I remember hearing Halloween that year as the doorbell kept ringing, and children’s voices echoed in the hall, but I saw none of it. I sat downstairs at the keyboard and cried. And wrote.
I wanted to write that book more than I wanted to celebrate Halloween. More than I wanted to jog, or watch television, or play bridge, or dust the furniture, or get eight hours of sleep. The book came first. So I have very little sympathy for the excuses of the unpublished. When people who are retired, whose children are grown, tell me they don’t have time to write, I wonder what it would take to free up a few hours for them. Being marooned on a desert island with a copy of Sports Illustrated?
Nobody has time to write a book. Some people just do it anyhow.
I think “someday when I have the time” is the excuse all of us use for neglecting the thing we would like to accomplish if the achievement required less effort. Someday when I have the time (and nothing better to do) I’ll lose 30 pounds, learn to play the piano, take Japanese lessons. Sure. Someday. When I have the time. (Which means: It would be nice, but I’m not inconveniencing myself It’s not that important.)
When unpublished writers say to me, “Someday when I have the time . . .” what I hear is: “It’s not a priority for me. It’s not that important.”
I never argue with people who say they have no time to write. We are all issued 24 hours per day; how you use it is your choice, not mine. You need to want to write a book more than you want to do anything else. If you don’t have that kind of commitment, it is best that you discover it now, before you waste any more … time.
You need to know, though, that if you are an unpublished writer, you have more time now to write a book than you will ever have again. Trust me. I know. I am a full-time writer now. I finished graduate school; quit my job; the baby is in fifth grade; and I promise you that I have less time to write now than I did during those six terrible weeks in 1987.
It’s always something.
Theoretically my days are devoted to writing fiction. (Never mind picking up the dry cleaning, making salt clay for the fifth grade, and doing endless errands and chores. We all do that sort of thing.) I’m talking about the writing-related chores that eat up my time. The German translator faxes to ask me ten questions, including what are the botanical names for rhododendron and mountain laurel. The audio people have questions about the abridgment of the new novel. One publisher is doing a new edition of a 1990 book of mine, and they send a new set of galleys–300 pages. Would I please proofread them? Organizations ask me to come and give speeches; readers write letters that must be answered; and the publicist wants to discuss the book tour I’ll be going on in May. I could spend eight hours a day–every day–on the business of writing, without setting down a single word of fiction. I have a staff of two, mind you, but I still need to tell them what to say, and there are some things that only I can handle.
The truth is that by the time you are successful enough to quit your “day job,” your writing career has become your day job–and you have no more time than you had before. So you might as well learn to make time now, because you’ll never have any more of it.
I have two suggestions that have worked for me.
* Write at night or very early in the morning, depending on whether or not you are a nocturnal being. Many writers are. I find that I write best late at night, when my family is asleep, when the telephone and fax are silent at last, and the dark outside invites me to imagine the world any way I wish it to be. By writing for a couple of hours in the quiet of night, I can focus on my work, so that I can accomplish more real work in less time.
* Set small, manageable writing goals. Sitting down to “write a novel” is like setting out to run a thousand miles. You can’t do it. But if you run three miles a day, then in a year you will have run that thousand miles. And if you write a thousand words a day–fewer than 50 sentences for most people–then within a year, you should have at least the first draft of the book completed.
You must make writing a habit. The habit of writing is more important than the number of words you write. Start with a goal of 500 words a day. Start with 200. As long as you make yourself write every day, it will not matter if the word count is small. Many people try to wait until a large block of time opens up before they try writing–an unencumbered Saturday, for instance (good luck!). But 200 words every day for a year amounts to more than a thousand words written every Saturday, and since the 200 words requires a smaller block of time, you are more likely to stick to the regimen.
If you write a few paragraphs every single day, soon you will become accustomed to having a writing time, even if it is only half an hour, and when you are comfortable with the writing habit, you may increase your daily word limit, just as joggers increase their distance as they build up stamina.
If you tell yourself that you don’t have time for your writing, ask yourself what you mean by that. Do you need to manage your time more wisely, or is writing not as important to you as you thought it was?
Don’t waste any more time making excuses when you could be making a book.