Time, time, time.
In an earlier Office Hours post on Story Club you addressed the topic of income and mentioned that fiction writing isn’t your full-time job—there’s teaching to attend to, writing gigs, journalism, publishing, etc.
Could you touch upon the subject of time? How many hours a week are you able to dedicate solely to writing/editing?
I’ve been working non-writing-related jobs since my MFA 25+ years ago, and am content with the arrangement of having a full-time job for income and still having time to dedicate an hour or two a day to write. I’m curious what it’s like "on the other side”: how much time do you have for at-the-desk writing/revising each week after all of your other writerly duties (and life’s demands) are met?
Loving Story Club (and loved Liberation Day).
Thanks for being here and for reading Liberation Day.
To have a full-time job and be able to dedicate an hour or two a day is really admirable - and challenging, I’m sure. I remember well the stress of that – and how easily that hour or two can get taken away, when real life intrudes.
So, that may be the biggest benefit of the life I have now – I can usually protect some semblance of a writing life, no matter how hectic things get.
In terms of the details….to be honest, it’s always changing around here. But, in a perfect week, if I’m not teaching, I’m able to write fiction from about 10 am until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. When I’m teaching, I’ll dedicate two days to reading the student work and making notes, and then there’s the teaching day itself. (I’ve cut my teaching back somewhat and am only teaching a graduate fiction workshop, these days, in the fall.)
If I get in a busy period, I try to get in there for at least an hour a day — even if it’s just going through a story once, pencil in hand. Just trying to keep the story alive in my mind until things slow down.
But other times I have to put writing aside for a little bit.
I remember with great fondness a certain day after I started teaching at Syracuse, a Monday morning, when I got up and we got the kids off to school and, instead of catching the bus to work, I sat at the kitchen table and just…wrote. All morning and into the afternoon. It was wonderful. I remember this as the first day of my “professional” writing life.
I was working on a story called “The Barber’s Unhappiness.” And it was amazing, to have enough time, rather than not enough – to be able to say, “I think that’s enough for today,” as opposed to getting interrupted by the real job and having to bail early, slightly annoyed, feeling cheated.
But…I’ve actually found that one of the hidden dangers of the “I have enough time” blessing I now benefit from is that I will sometimes overwork, and then have to spend the beginning of the next day undoing the mistakes I made there at the end of the previous day. (I’ve learned to watch for that moment when my “ear” goes fuzzy and inexact, and try to stop there.)
The real advantage of this life I have now is the built-in flexibility. If I get on a roll, I can usually make a space for a day (or many days in a row) of extra-long working hours. That’s a great blessing, of course, and not the case with most jobs that one has to go to.
I think it’s important to recognize that good creative work doesn’t necessarily bear a linear relation to time spent.
I’ve had some of my most productive periods when there was some a built-in constraint on my writing time. I like, sometimes, that feeling of having (as they say in Hollywood) a “hard out.” Like, if I know I have to quit at 1 pm, I can (sometimes) feel my mind kick into a higher mode of focus. (“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” said Samuel Johnson.)
A few posts ago we had a wonderful comment from a SC member who mentioned something his guitar teacher, Frank Potenza, had once told him, namely that “little 15-minute increments of focused practice throughout the day can be way more productive than two hours of just noodling around on the instrument.” This rings true for me.
We don’t fully understand the way the subconscious works, at all, of course, and I’m sure many of you have had, as I have, those bursts of ridiculous efficiency, when things came out right the first time, for paragraphs at a time, little or no rewriting required. And I’m sure you’ve also had (as I have) those, long blissful, uninterrupted periods of bounty, when you were lost in a blissful place of utter transport that, in the end, produced a lot of pages that, though they were fun to do, later got thrown away.
In the words of Chuck Berry: "C'est la vie", say the old folks/It goes to show you never can tell.”
So I advise my students, especially as they’re leaving MFA-world and going back to work, to be ready to accept any and all gifts the subconscious might want to give them, and in whatever form (including accepting the idea that all of the hard revising work they’ve been doing might enable those little miraculous bursts, where things just come out perfectly the first time).
The worst thing we could do is subscribe to the “all good work takes huge blocks of time” myth and thereby disadvantage ourselves. Better, I think, that we put ourselves at the service of our subconscious and just see what gifts it might want to give us, and when, and how.
Which leads to the question of attitude, something I still struggle with.
When I was working full-time as an engineer, I found myself, on some days, pissy and full of resentment. “How can I be an artist when I have to do all of this other crap for money?” On those days, I didn’t produce much, plus I was a grouch. Other days, I managed to feel, “Look, I’m still a writer, even though I’m too busy to write today. But I trust that my good, loyal subconscious is working even now and, as soon as I get a few minutes, it’s going to show me what it’s been working on — and this will turn out not to have been wasted time after all.”
I couldn’t always manage that bit of magical, optimistic thinking, of course. There were lost of days I’d spend muttering under my breath about Capitalism vs. Art while running the photocopier or binding 10,000 documents, then go home deeply discouraged.
But I also remember trying to will myself to understand whatever else was going on at work – the corporate politics, the little mood swings in the office, the weather, even the layout of the office, the view out the window, whatever – as possible future material. Trying to understand these things as part of the world itself, worth noticing, and not just “that which was messing with my writing time.”
In this way, then, I was somewhat still functioning as a writer – an attentive observer, interested in his time and culture. Or at least I could tell myself that, to get through the day: I was trying to look at things novelistically, I would have said, even (especially) things that might not normally be considered as fit subjects for a novel. (But: if it was happening, here in the world, it must, de facto, be a fit topic for fiction. “Originality” might just be whatever made it so.)
Those days (when I could manage them) were better days – I produced nothing, true, but felt better about life and was better at my job and more cheerful and helpful at home too. I wasn’t a non-artist, or a former artist, or an artist being cheated; I was an artist, getting ready.
Even now, as lucky as I am, I can get grouchy if I feel I’m missing out on my writing time. I’m still working on generating gratitude, not only for the nice artistic life I have, but for my talent, such as it is and, of course, for the world itself. But it can be a bit of a loop; the better things go, the more we want, and the more addicted we become to succeeding. In the end, I guess this is one more gift art gives us: a chance to work with our deepest and most intractable issues.
It would be interesting to hear how others approach this question of time - how to get it, how to manage it, how to manage a shortfall of it. It’s a big one. And leads, of course, to bigger cultural questions, about how much or little we, in our culture, value the arts and artists. (One way a culture tells us what it values is by what it allows time for).
I think we could argue that our culture isn’t particularly sympathetic to the literary arts, just from the way it has arranged itself economically. It takes a long time to write a book, and, apart from MFA programs, which many people can’t afford or which, for any number of reasons, aren’t possible for many people, there aren’t many ways for a beginning writer to get those quiet few years needed to write the first book that might (might) move her or him into a more amenable creative life. And, there are, I think, repercussions to this struggle– it must, of necessity, be shaping what our literature looks like, and who gets to write it, and under what conditions, which, in turn, have an effect on what our culture looks like.
How has it been for you, as you struggle to find time for the hard work of making art?
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C'est la vie" was written by Chuck Berry, not Emmylou Harris.
As a teen, I was accepted into the Creative Writing program at NYU, but I chose instead to study journalism at Syracuse because it was the only way I could figure out how to write and have money. I grew up on Social Security Disability and food stamps. Once I finished school I was able to work as a journalist, started a family, and stopped any creative writing for four years. I simply couldn't afford it. I remember hurling a package of frozen peas on the floor in anger, and then joining a local poetry group. For the next several decades an MFA was out of the question, but I made do with various local writing workshops and the occasional, affordable, conference. At one job interview I negotiated a four-day work week and sublet a studio on Fridays in which to write. 15 years after my first writers' conference, I got into an MFA program and graduated at age 55. Even that, I had to fight for - I was given scholarship money but had to quit my job and use some retirement savings for the privilege. It was scary to step away from my career to realize that dream at an age when most workers face age discrimination Now I'm back to having a full-time job and family obligations that make me chronically long for more time to write. George, one thing I love about your work is that you write *about* class, or at least there is a working class in your writing, something I feel is less and less common as fewer working class people are able to publish. There was a time when I thought I would scream if I were forced to read one more novel by/about someone who was a professional writer in Brooklyn. I think the working class perspective is more valuable in fiction than never, but vanishing. And how can it not? The barriers I faced are far worse for some many others.