Last night I had one of those anxiety dreams – you know the one where you‘re in college and completely forget a deadline. So, in this dream, I was sitting in the garden courtyard of an unfamiliar but lovely restaurant, possibly in Greece (dreaming!) waiting to meet someone important it seemed, when my daughter (who was somehow my contemporary in college – another thing that occasionally happens in my dreams) asked me what topic I’d chosen for my research paper. I went off about it – something about Eleanor Roosevelt – and then she asked me how many pages I’d written. I laughed, confessing that I hadn’t actually written any pages yet, but had lots of ideas about how it would go. When she said, “It’s due today!” my heart started pounding and the anxiety began to work its way. “I thought it was due next Friday!” Suddenly my father (where’d he come from?) began grilling me on whether I’d read the books he’d recommended for it and I became more and more confused and anxious.
I woke up with the adrenaline still running through my system and had to remind myself, as I swam up out of the depths of a deep sleep, that I am not in college, this was merely a dream. Relieved, I checked the time, rolled over and closed my eyes again. But the dream still had me in its grasp and I had to remind myself again and again: not in college, no paper due, not in college, no paper due…. When I woke up an hour or so later, the Jimmy Buffet song, “Margaritaville” was dancing through my synapses. Ah, much better – but still, time to get up and face the empty computer screen.
Deadlines are funny. As writers, the only deadlines we face are self-imposed and herein lies the problem. It’s so easy to flip into the Margaritaville mind set. But even Jimmy knows while some people say that there’s a ______ [fill in the blank] to blame, but I know, It’s my own damn fault. Everyone knows that the only way to get the work done involves the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair. But we all also have many excuses why we simply do not have enough time to write. We know all the stories though – how J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter on cocktail napkins in her spare time as a single mother, how T.S. Elliott has a day job working as a bank clerk. But they are genius’s right? How can I expect to find time with my busy life? Lots of writers have suggestions on how to do this. Stephen King sits at his computer until he writes something like 1500 words a day. Yes, but he’s Stephen King and has that luxury, right?
In Ann Patchett’s essay, The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life, she has many fascinating things to say about writing and her writing life. I highly recommend it. Find it in her latest book: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s my most recent favorite essay on the topic – I especially like what she has to say about MFA programs. Check it out. Her advice on procrastination, finding a way to get the writing done is simple and brilliant in its simplicity. She says:
If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try picking an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day. During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. Sit still quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your e-mail. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing. Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting. Either way, you’ll have your answer.
So — writing is easy, really. Well, really, it’s the hardest thing. But unless you commit to some regular amount of time to put the seat of your pants into the seat of your chair, you cannot expect your stories to get finished, or even started. I’m committing to two hours of writing every day because, although I can make up excuses with the best of them: I have housework to do; I have to walk the dog; I have to get some exercise; I have to go to work; I have to meet my friend for lunch; I have to go shopping, I have to make dinner; I have to blah blah blah. Really, what I have to do in order to get this novel written is to commit to doing it. It’s simple, if not easy.