The first ingredient of discipline is finding time and space to write. Don’t wait until you have nothing to do; set aside specific times for writing. Treat these as appointments with yourself. Write down your chosen times in your datebook. Keep your appointments. Of course, you’ll find it easier to keep your writing appointments if you begin with very short stints of writing time – say, twenty to thirty minutes – and choose times that are easier for you to set aside.
Let’s suppose that you work full time or have full-time kids at home. How about writing before you go to work? When you put the twins down for their nap? During your lunch break? Or after the dinner dishes are done and you would normally turn on the TV? In nineteenth-century England, Anthony Trollope wrote almost 50 novels, all by waking up early and writing before going off to his job at the postal service. In the 1980s and 1990s in America, Scott Turow wrote several best-selling mystery novels on the train commuting to his job as a trial attorney.
Sylvia Plath, who had three children, wrote most of her highly respected poems in the early morning before her household woke up. Yes, it’s true that she killed herself, but it wasn’t because of the hours she chose for writing. If the mere thought of early morning writing makes you suicidal, go for evening or night hours. I heard of one writer who went to bed at 9 or 10 and set his alarm for 2 am so he could write for two hours when his neighborhood was utterly quiet. Then he’d go back to sleep.
Let’s suppose, on the other hand, that you have no regular obligations. You’re retired, or unemployed, or living off your inheritance. You might feel tempted to expand your expectations and the time you’re going to set aside for writing. “Gosh, there’s no reason I couldn’t write every day from 9 to 5,” you say to yourself. Don’t do this to start out. Would you go from not running at all to trying to run ten miles a day? Set yourself up for success by starting with a relatively small period of time and gradually lengthening your stints up to your natural limit.
This might sound odd, but too much empty time can be a curse for some writers. In 1989 I spent a month at Cummington Community of the Arts, an artist’s colony in Western Massachusetts where there was little to do except writing, take walks, and talk to the other writers and artists. For me having none of the ordinary responsibilities of life was precious. I completed three new short stories in one month. But in those conditions, some people couldn’t get anything – anything – accomplished. And when they left the community early and returned to their life where they could barely save a couple of hours three times a week for their sculpture or songs, they became productive again. It’s an individual thing.
Neil Fiore, a psychologist who wrote a book called The Now Habit, cured some longtime procrastinators by telling them they were not to write at all for several weeks. Don’t write! The next step was that no matter what, they could write for only an hour a day. This reverse psychology sets up an eagerness to write, instead of a dynamic of guilt and avoidance. Discipline does not necessarily mean long hours.
Finding a space for writing will be equally individual. As you may know, Virginia Woolf wrote a book claiming that women particularly need a room of their own in order to write. Yes, for many people that’s ideal. But don’t use the absence of the ideal as an excuse not to get started. Jane Austen wrote her novels at a writing table in the family living room with her family members talking and moving about. For three years I wrote full time with my desk in a corner of the kitchen.
If it matters enough to you, you can adapt. Novelist Salman Rushdie revealed that during the period when he was hiding from the Ayatollah’s death sentence, being ushered by the British Secret Service every few days to another strange house, the hardest thing for him was having to write in unfamiliar places. He had never written anywhere but his study at home, surrounded by his favorite books, mementos, and other props. Yet he learned.
If you don’t have a space for writing that you like, try out different possibilities – different rooms in your house, different chairs, your office before working hours, public or semi-public spaces like the library or cafes. Two writers who collaborate on mysteries, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, said they do their best writing in the local McDonald’s. Think of creative solutions, like going to a friend’s house to write while he or she is at work.
Think about what you need to do to carve out time and space for writing. In the next lesson, we’ll discuss why and how to cultivate a regular writing habit.