by Jennifer Farquhar
Mother to three kids, one of whom is a night-nursing toddler. Half-time elementary school teacher. Squeezing in work late at night until my eyes burn, because there’s no other time to do it. Every single one of the readers here can match, if not trump, my busy-ness, am I right? And then the inevitable question: on top of all this, how do you possibly make time to write a novel?
My answer to this is quite straightforward, actually. Simply punch a few buttons on the ol’ time machine and bang out an extra three hours per each twenty-four. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. But for those of us who are quantum-physically challenged, I have some other straightforward tactics as well.
When I started writing my debut novel, Watermark, I wasn’t part of a writing community. I was a busy working mom who had decided that her 40th birthday present to herself would be the gift of a daily commitment to writing the novel I had always assumed I would write someday.
I had been procrastinating for years, and it was becoming clear that there might never be a time slot for serious writing in my life unless I proactively created it. I didn’t want to spend more time or money on pursuing any more formal education, so along with my daily writing commitment, I tailored a writer’s craft syllabus for myself. I ordered a stack of well-reviewed books about plot, structure, how not to write a novel, etc—my personalized Master’s writer’s craft intensive all shipped directly from Indigo in one tidy order.
One of the twenty-some books I read strongly resonated with me: Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
In it, King outlines his own approach to daily writing quotas and getting that first draft of a novel written. He holds himself to a strict quota of 2000 words per day—on birthdays, Christmas, you name it. And he feels that three months is the maximum amount of time it should take to write the first draft of a novel. Any longer, he explains, and the plot starts to go a little flaky around the edges.
As a first time novelist looking for a guiding principle, and with no other writer friends with whom to compare notes, that number—three months—got imprinted on my brain. Were I part of a circle of busy mom writers my age, juggling the demands of work and mothering young families, the rough draft template imprinted on my neocortex would have undoubtedly been unrecognizable to Stephen King. But I didn’t know any other writers, and so King’s recommended work quota became my default setting.
And with the near magic that is actually fierce intentional goal setting, I learned to adapt my situation to produce the necessary results. Seeing as I am not Stephen King (this I recognized), I lowered my quota a titch, down to 1000 words (King himself concedes that the rest of us mere mortals can be satisfied with 1000), and that done, I committed to it.
But how? What’s the trick? The trick is that you make the promise to yourself to actually do it. And astonishingly, for me, once that promise was made, I was able to find pockets of time which, when smooshed together, somehow almost always added up to the writing time necessary to get my quota in. How much time does the average adult spend on unnecessary screen time? Cutting out most of that, alone, created a decent chunk of time for my writing.
I was fortunate to be teaching only half-days while I was writing Watermark, so until baby #3 came along, I was able to carve out writing time in the mornings (now that I’m home with a 13-month old, that writing time has been reassigned to two separate daytime napping slots.)
I’ve learned to become very efficient with a two-hour time slot. I create my writerly version of a visual and audio deprivation tank to quickly remove myself from the world around me, and delve into that deep creative place that is necessary for creative writing. For me, this consists of being in a room with a closed door (just about any room will do—I wrote most of novel #3 sitting on a bed with a notebook in my lap because the house we were living in didn’t have an office), inserting earplugs, then industrial earmuffs, then a hood or scarf on top of it all. Once I have blocked out the external world in this way, I then add in a well-chosen layer of sound: for me, it’s often Glen Gould’s Goldberg Variations.
I’ve also re-examined my belief that I only have the creative capacity to write during the mornings. I discovered during my first round of revisions with my debut novel that, once the kiddos are tucked in, tomorrow’s school lunches are made, and the last of the dirty dishes have been washed, as long as I have a pot of weak tea at hand for comfort and fortification, I can usually open my manuscript and get more writing done. The night writing sessions don’t come as easily as the morning sessions, but beggars can’t be choosers. And I find that for the revision stages of my writing work, which don’t require that same deep, immersive creativity that the blind journey of a rough draft demands, night writing has been a helpful answer to the HOW?
But, the mechanics of the how is the easy question, isn’t it?
The tougher question I continue to battle, as the kids clamour for my attention, and my husband slogs away at work that actually brings in a decent income, is: WHY? Or, put a different way: How do I justify spending so much of my precious time, in these treasured early years of my children’s lives, on a pursuit that is statistically unlikely to bring in reasonable financial rewards, and often causes much stress and anxiety?
It’s not an easy question to answer. I’ll put this one to my readers. How do you justify it?
Originally from Manitoulin Island, Jennifer Farquhar lives in Kitchener, Ontario where she is an elementary school teacher and mother of three young children. Her short stories have won awards in the Manitoulin Expositor and the Toronto Star. Her debut novel, Watermark, was released last week.
Lauren here: If you’d like to put your name in the draw to win a copy of Watermark, jot a comment about the strategies you’ve used (or would like to) to forge a path back to your own writing and why this is important or simply what resonates with you about the post. I’ll be collecting the names next week and doing a random draw.
Thank you for this post! Forging a way back to my writing has been on my mind a lot. A few years ago I stumbled upon a group of women scattered across the US and Canada who committed to each other that we would write – every day. We set goals, even if it meant one word a day. With this group I was able to finish the first draft of the manuscript I’d been working on for years but had completed only three chapters. I was also able to get through a complete edit of that manuscript as well as start a new story. However, I started to feel the strain of meeting that goal after two years of it. I was chafing. I needed something different. So I left the group last December and continued on my own. My stamina held up for less than two months. I haven’t written ANYTHING in over three months and I feel incredibly guilty. Two things here:
First of all, I love how Jennifer gave herself the “gift” of committing to writing everyday. That is a real perspective shift. Writing is truly a gift, but I’ve been treating it lately like a burden. Also, I may experiment with the “deprivation tank” she suggested.
Second, I heard Lauren speak at an online workshop on Inked Voices awhile back and I took an important idea from that. I wrote it on a sticky note and attached it to my laptop. It reads “Nobody cares if you write. You have to care. Keep setting that deadline and forgiving yourself.”
Maybe it’s time to call up my writing group again. Maybe I’ll try setting a goal of 500 words a day as a gift to myself. Either way I will continue forgiving myself when I don’t meet my own expectations.
Thanks for your comment, Heidi. I hope that you do what you need to do to get back to your important work – even if it’s just 100 words a day 🙂 Having support and community can be so helpful when our own fortitude lapses – and, yes, keep forgiving yourself… I’ve been taking part in a mindfulness practice lately that talks about treating ourselves as we would treat a puppy: with patience, friendliness, even humour. Knowing how crazy it can be to train a puppy, this was an especially valuable metaphor for me 🙂
Great post, Jennifer. It’s always grounding to read about writers writing and the shared challenges and struggles that go with it. Makes me feel better to know there isn’t some super-human quality that’s required—just good old prioritzation, dedication and perseverance, I’m like Phyllis: I am not my best self unless I make time for some creative expression (I move around among writing, journaling and sketching). I do best in the early mornings and on weekend afternoons, but I am inspired by your post to try an evening here or there. As you note, the expression may not come as easily at night as it does in the morning, but progress can be made. Thank you Jennifer and Lauren!
Thanks for commenting, Cheryl! I found that inspiring as well. Learning how to work when the time is available has always been a tough one for me too, even while knowing how important it is. Glad you found this valuable. I’ll have to host more guest posts!
I find myself fumbling right now. This post was an excellent reminder that writing can get done in spite of circumstances in our daily lives. When I feel like I have nothing to say, I read. Books about writing, journals, novels, poetry, the newspaper! Trying to open my mind to many different forms. One morning, I read all the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Report and it inspired a new poem. You just never know…
I hope it gets easier, Conni. Inspiration does come when we least expect it 🙂 I often find value, as well, in throwing on a timer to write for just ten minutes even when I feel like nothing’s there. Sort-of like looking at the soil which is full of seeds whether we realize it or not (I say, realizing I neglected to weed my garden today!)
For me, the answer to the question is that I can only be present and emotionally available to the important people in my life when my needs get met. Creative expression is a need of mine and if I don’t get to do it, I’m resentful, cranky, and distracted. I’m a better mother when I do the things that give me purpose. ??
Yes, oh, yes. Thanks for commenting, Phyllis. 🙂
Nice blog post Jen! Your words have definitely stuck with me about the 1000 words a day – you mentioned it when we chatted a few weeks ago. And I realise it’s so possible and I’m cheating myself of my novel when I don’t prioritize my goal. You’re an inspiration!
Thanks for the comment, Suzanne! So glad you found Jen’s post inspiring! 🙂
I struggle with that central question: “WHY? Or, put a different way: How do I justify spending so much of my precious time, in these treasured early years of my children’s lives?”
But I suspect that the *time* I put into struggling with that question would be better spent writing!
My coping mechanism is to use the the timer too. Though, I think I could benefit from the closed door, earphone, earmuffs and hood!! Thanks for this post.
You nailed it, Angie (putting time towards writing rather than struggling with the ‘why’). We can spend so much time trying to figure out the best way to do things or the reasons behind doing them when all along we could simply be doing it. I am currently in the process of learning this lesson all over again 🙂
Very inspiring post. I must admit I’m much older than 40 but am thinking the same thing–that it’s time if I’m ever going to do it. I’ve just finished a contract job and have some “me” time so I’m going to start with writing something every morning. And finishing my novel. And finishing some of my own faves from my collection of writing books. And being from northern Ontario, I too look forward to reading your book. The locale and the subject matter are both very appealing to me.
Thanks, Pauline! I think morning pages are key. Firstly, the day hasn’t drained us of our creativity (which can sometimes be a problem if writing gets put off until everything other daily task has been put to bed), Also, it’s much more likely to get done if it’s the first task of the day, before ten new little fires require putting out.
I look forward to hearing what you think about Watermark!
I’ll put this one to my readers. How do you justify it?
Starting with justifying why we work so hard at doing what obviously does not bring huge financial rewards. When I hear someone tell me how helpful my writing had been at helping her relax at night and sleep, this justifies all the hours of labor put into the writing.
When another tells me how much closer my books bring them to God, this also justifies the labor.
Jennifer,I also love the setting of your book. I was raised in Sesekinika (that’s near Kirkland Lake) Ontario. My books are set in the village where I grew up and the school I attended until grade eight.
I’d love to read this book.
Thanks, Grace! I agree that writing is a wonderful way to connect with others, although in a time-delayed way during the actual writing process.
Glad to meet another Northern Ontario writer! I would love to hear what you think of Watermark.
I love the setting and theme of your book Jennifer, and I’m going to suggest it for our book club. One of our members spent a lot of time on Manitoulin Island! As far as writing, I love your personalized Master’s program. I don’t know if I count as a writer, but I have started doing ‘pages’ every morning. I set the timer for 10 minutes and just do a brain dump. I don’t lift my pen; I just go wherever. It’s been amazingly freeing…I feel lighter, more in touch with myself, not burdened. I feel like I’m taking care of myself. I wrote a couple of poems the other day (Haiku) which came out of the pages I had written the day before.
Thanks for your comment, Susan! Writing can be such a great practice for connecting with oneself and that’s terrific that you’re writing poems (sounds like you’re behaving like a writer to me 😉 ).
Thank you for suggesting it for your book club! The fictionalized Manitoulin Island setting is almost a character in this book–I think the setting will resonate with anyone who has spent time on Manitoulin.
And yes, your morning pages sound great. They remind me of what Julia Cameron recommends in her wonderful book, The Artist’s Way. Best of luck with your writing.