A few years ago, a trusted mentor (a well-established writer and generally wise woman) told me: “Write for twenty minutes a day . . . period.”
“What?” She had to be joking. I knew my own writing process; I’d been writing for many years. It took me an hour just to warm up. The good stuff didn’t start happening until the second or third hour. “There’s no way I’m going to write anything of value in twenty minutes,” I said, and I explained my writing process to her, thinking she would drop this tack and come up with another that suited me better.
But she pressed on, insisting I give it a try. I had come to her in a quandary. I wasn’t writing at all. I had a particularly full plate at the time, editing and coaching other writers, and didn’t feel I had any energy or creativity for my own writing. Every time I tried to get back to my own project, my paying work received less time and attention than it needed. Ultimately, I would end up ditching my own writing again in order to catch up with my “day job.”
The cycle kept repeating. It began to seem an impossible juggling act.
So I took my mentor’s guidance and tried writing for a measly thirty minutes a day (yes, I’d negotiated an extra ten minutes!). After trying this out for a couple of weeks, the same thing happened that always happened. My energy poured into my own writing, and my other work suffered.
I came back to my mentor for further guidance.
“Did you stop when the timer went off?” she asked.
“Well . . . no,” I confessed. “But I kept getting on a roll . . . and you don’t want to interrupt a writing flow, right?” I had ended up writing for an hour or two each time.
“Stop when the timer goes off,” she said. “If you’re excited about what you’re writing when you stop, you’ll be excited to sit down the next day to pick up where you left off.”
So, I tried one more time. I had been “granted permission” to make some notes when the timer went off, so I wouldn’t lose track of the good ideas that were bubbling up, but other than that, I intended to obey the timer.
Well, the following weeks, and months, brought quite a surprise. I got to learn that my writing process was not as fixed a feature of my personality as I’d thought. I wrote four chapters over those few months, writing for only thirty minutes a day, five days a week, and usually producing less than a page in each sitting. In this slow-and-steady manner, I finished the first draft of that novel (and my paying work didn’t suffer for it).
Sure when I read over those chapters at the end of those months, they were a little rougher than something written in a series of three-hour sessions. But they were written, which was much more than I’d been accomplishing with my prior tack.
Now when a client or student tells me, “I just don’t have the time to write,” I ask: “Do you own a timer?”