By Nancy McCabe, Spalding School of Writing Creative Nonfiction and Fiction Faculty
Toronto. A busy life on Bloor Street.
For years, as a single parent with simultaneous full-time and part-time jobs, I was always on a tight schedule, determined to set aside an hour or two each day to write. Then, a couple of years ago, my daughter went off to college. With fewer errands to run and meals to cook and needs to attend to, after years of highly structured schedules and extreme discipline, I was ready to take a more relaxed approach to my work. But my luxurious illusion of unlimited time was just that—an illusion—and I’m still struggling to settle into a new writing routine.
With many students and writer friends facing similar struggles, I set out to write a blog rounding up strategies for maintaining motivation and productivity. I started by brainstorming some of the approaches that have served me best, but I also took the opportunity to tap into some of the massive stores of wisdom that surround me: Spalding students and graduates, some of the busiest, most energetic, and most determined writers I know, practiced in strategies for integrating creative work into busy lives. All of the alumni and current students I surveyed have full-time jobs and multiple obligations: children, grandchildren, aging parents, partners, and/or volunteer commitments.
Respondents were frank about their challenges, large and small. Amy Miller (CNF ’14), Executive Director of Louisville Literary Arts, cites “time, space, motivation, self-doubt, fatigue (from my chronic illness), being the only paid staff member at a growing nonprofit, my kids’ busy schedules.” Episcopal priest Elizabeth Felicetti (CNF) sets aside time for writing but can’t anticipate when people will die or have crises. In addition, while she has a supportive congregation, she says, members can still be disappointed when she draws boundaries. Joseph Myers (CNF ’19), a youth program coordinator for Domestic Violence Network, says that “almost daily, students share. . . their unhealthy and/or violent relationship experiences with me, which really weighs on me.”
Assistant English professor Jill Cox-Cordova (F ’17) has recently shifted from teaching five courses a semester to a part-time load that, I noted, is still equivalent to the full-time load of many academics. JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp (P ’10), a lecturer with multiple service obligations, has little creative energy left over, though she finds the academic writing she does to be fulfilling. Senior writing lecturer Michael Jackman (P ’12) has to carefully apportion his time on ADD medication to his teaching work, with writing often taking a back seat.
Instructional coach Dana VanderLugt (CNF) frequently lacks “the mental capacity for creative work in the evenings.” Editor JoAnne Lehman (CNF) mentioned the lure of “down-time activities,” as did principal systems analyst Nancy Chen Long (P ’13), who guards against the “great squanderer of time” that is social media and finds that research can be so enticing that she chases subject after subject and never gets any writing done.
Many offered their tips and approaches for keeping up with their creative work in the face of challenges and distractions.
Make appointments to write. Alicia Anthony (F ’16), an elementary school literacy specialist, can only block out writing time by getting up at 3:30 a.m. Others also get up early or have been able to arrange their work schedules so they have one day a week off; Nancy sometimes devotes vacation time to her work. Both Dana and Beth Dalton (F ’16), a teaching professor of honors humanities, have more flexibility in the summers. Dana says that she counts on those months “to be a super productive stretch.”
One anonymous respondent occasionally sneaks in late-afternoon writing sessions at the library and tells her family she has to “work late.” Jill finds making appointments essential. “Otherwise, I would utilize all my time helping everybody, anybody else, but me,” she says. She includes her writing goals on her daily to-do lists and limits them to five items, three work related and two creative.
The first time I met the Spalding MFA program’s co-founder and then-director Sena Naslund, she told me that every week she looked at her calendar for blocks of time, and then designated those for writing. I had previously been trying to arrange my schedule around my writing time, and after that conversation with Sena, I discovered it could be less stressful to instead arrange my writing time around my schedule.
Still, I often make appointments with myself, but have learned to avoid revealing to others the nature of those appointments when I say that I’m not available for a meeting or an event. Others will always see writing time as infinitely flexible even if I don’t.
Use Kanban Boards. Alicia is an advocate of organizational methods that help her maintain motivation and productivity. Her busy life requires that she carefully plan, and she finds “chunking” her time to be useful. This was a good reminder to me, since I’ve used a form of Kanban, Trello Boards, to break writing projects down into individual tasks. “Revise novel,” can seem overwhelming, but “Rewrite first paragraph,” “Make an outline of the first five chapters,” and “Draft such-and-such scene” can feel more manageable in an hour or two. Alicia also chunks a small amount of time every day for administrative tasks like social media, e-mail responses, and promotion.
Use whatever time you have. JoAnne and Joseph both carry notebooks wherever they go. Amy has been known to write on receipts in the carpool line. Beth tries to take advantage of “odd and unusual empty afternoons.” JoAnne says that “it helps when I’m willing to grab random and imperfect times to write—when I can let go of the urge to have everything else done/in order/perfect/calm before ‘sitting down’ to write.” Joseph writes when he has insomnia. Often I write when my students are writing (the only drawback being that I can lose track of time and forget to move them on to the next step). “I recommend all writers take a look inward and really be honest about how they best work,” Amy says. “I have a hectic life, so squeezing writing into quiet moments works well for me.”
“I can so easily paralyze myself with pressure to use my writing time well, to devote huge chunks of time and not ‘waste” any of it, to stare a project in the face and get it ‘right’,” JoAnne says. She finds that making use of whatever time is available works well because “it distracts me from all that self-conscious pressure and perfectionism.”
Establish writing routines. One deterrent to writing regularly can be making the transition from the craziness of the day into a more contemplative mood. I often psych myself out, telling myself that I’ll just write for fifteen minutes, and if it’s not going anywhere, then I’ll stop. Oftentimes I grudgingly put down words for ten minutes and then find myself crossing that line from resistant to inspired and losing track of time (I’ve never been late to a class, but I often arrive on campus two minutes before). Michael, who prefers not to take too structured an approach or make writing “like a job,” often writes “small poems” and takes his writing in small doses “until the ‘groove’ or ‘flow’ occurs.”
Several respondents talked about the importance of finding their way into a creative mindset. Jill starts her days with a short meditation. Nancy begins her writing sessions with low-stakes exercises, which she compares to musicians playing scales. “They aren’t focused on making music—they are practicing sounds. . . . I am not focused on making content—I am practicing words,” she says.
Work on more than one project at a time. “I always have multiple projects going, all in different stages of development,” Amy says. Maybe one day she’ll jot down notes on one, read a draft of another, rewrite a paragraph of another, write queries for another. I do this as well, keeping open files on my computer for a variety of projects I’m working on, dabbling a little on each until something takes. This almost completely eradicates “writer’s block,” since if one project isn’t going anywhere, I just move on to another.
Let your subconscious take over. I’ve also come to believe that there’s no such thing as wasted time, whether I’ve spent hours working on dozens of versions of a first paragraph and seemingly getting nowhere or simply chosen to take a break, reading a book or taking a walk. Alicia notes that “shifts in life and even mood can totally derail my best-laid plans,” and she allows herself to take time off as well, focusing on other activities.
JoAnne and Michael both swear not just by the health benefits of exercise, but by the way it activates creativity. JoAnne takes contemplative walks. “Often there is just this big stew of stuff—ideas, words, images, feelings, and the content and writing style of things I’ve been reading—that’s marinating, or simmering, or even coming to a boil,” she says, “and I think the physicality of walking also does something important to my brain.”
Like Michael, I find that road trips also can also trigger my subconscious process, especially when I’m the one driving. Alternating between consciously working on a problem and giving it a rest often leads to those moments when incoherent ideas finally reassemble themselves as if effortlessly. I’m not sure that would happen for me if I didn’t spend time making dozens of false starts alternating with breaks to let my subconscious do the work.
Participate in writing-adjacent activities and support systems. Many respondents noted that classes, workshops, writing groups, and accountability groups help to motivate them. Nancy sometimes makes a poem-a-day-for-a-month commitment with other writers. Michael, who gains motivation from his students, also points out that enthusiasm and cultural engagement have been shown to erase difficulties with concentration. Dana, Elizabeth, JoAnne, and Cynthia Ezell (CNF ’19), a psychotherapist, find their support and accountability group to be indispensable for sharing “writing goals, successes, and disappointments,” says Cynthia. Both Beth and JoAnne also have spouses who are writers, and together they sometimes dedicate evening time to their work.
Multitask routine or mindless activities. Nancy sends out poems while listening to the news. Elizabeth, who like many writers finds self-promotion to be uncomfortable but acknowledges its necessity, saves tasks such as building her Twitter following for evenings.
Establish deadlines. JoAnne, who is finishing up her third semester, echoes comments of many current students who find program deadlines helpful. Some graduates continue to create deadlines, in some cases basing them on magazines’ reading schedules. Beth, for instance, tries to have polished pieces ready at the end of the summer and the end of the fall in order to coordinate her own schedule with magazine reading periods. I’ve experimented with jotting down submission deadlines on a cheap desk calendar so that at the first of each month I can quickly see which markets are open and make multiple submissions of whatever work I have ready.
Frame your choices not as sacrifices, but as rearrangements of priorities. I expected the notion of sacrifice to come up more in the responses to my survey, and was pleased that it didn’t. This may be partly because respondents are so passionate about their writing that sacrifices don’t always register as sacrifices. JoAnne acknowledges that she sometimes has to make “hard decisions and even be willing to disappoint family/friends/pets to do the work.” She limits the time she spends going out for entertainment or to social events. “My spouse and I need down time, alone time, and puttering time to make our lives work,” she says.
Many students and alumni find themselves changing their priorities. Elizabeth anoints people having surgery the night or Sunday before rather than making early morning hospital calls. Dana hires someone to clean her house and keeps the door to her laundry room shut. Cynthia switched from Sunday morning church to Thursday night services.
While many writers have given up some social activity and had to ask for understanding from their families, the people in their lives are clear priorities. “Writing is a solitary endeavor, but life is not,” Alicia says. Cynthia’s motto is that “people come before writing.” Beth responded to my survey during finals week, when she knew that trying to write would just lead to “a lot of staring and sighing.” Even at times like those that she can’t write, she says, she aims to stay “wide awake and observant, grateful for all the human ties.”
Maintain perspective. Cynthia eloquently summarizes the philosophy shared by many when she says, “I try to avoid beating myself up for not writing more, as writing is something I treasure and want to feel blessed by.”
Nancy McCabe’s most recent books are From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood and the novel Following Disasters. Her sixth book, a memoir in essays, is due out from the University of Missouri Press in 2020. Her work has received a Pushcart Prize and eight times been named to notable lists in Best American anthologies. She directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and teaches creative nonfiction and fiction for Spalding.