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The 20 Minute Win

The late great Ray Bradbury, one of my writing heroes, often said that a writer should begin writing before he lets the world in.  Before television, before [1]conversations, before anything else happens.

In my world—maybe yours, too– this has not often been a realistic possibility.  Although I have written about one practice I use, getting up before the world to write for a couple of hours, it’s hard to sustain that schedule, and on an ordinary day it’s not realistic to jump out of bed and run to the computer or the notebook.  After breakfast, I like to tidy things up and the dog then wants a walk, by which time my head is filled with a lot of non-writing things, like bills and juggling my ever-shrinking hours, which do seem to have gone from 60 minutes to about 40, and when I might be able to get out to get some new jeans, because winter is coming.

All those busy, monkey-mind thoughts are not helpful for creating the ease that is best for writing.  All that chatter makes it hard to sort through the billion sentences in my head, the news from the television this morning, the email from a friend….

However, I do believe in Ray Bradbury’s injunction, and I’ve created a practice of the 20-minute window, a time of focusing on the work as early as I can possibly get to it. I do not clean up the kitchen. I do not fold the afghans left out on the couch from the night before, or collect the books I’ve flung hither and yon (I seem to always be in the midst of three or four).  I ignore the pleading eyes of The Saddest Dog in the world and take my freshly topped coffee cup upstairs.   I set the timer for twenty minutes, and write whatever comes up. Sometimes, it’s a blog.  Sometimes it’s a scene that comes later in the book, and I write fast, without a lot of correction, to get the flavor of the thing down on the page.

I sometimes even just write a journal, akin to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, only not quite that negative.  Sometimes, a juicy way to get things moving is to write what the Law of Attraction folks call a Rampage of Appreciation, which is to write down all the things you are grateful for in your life, like your child’s amazing eyes and warm socks and the little goddess statue on the desk.

It almost doesn’t matter what it is.  Twenty minutes of writing, whatever I want.

There are two major things this exercise accomplishes. First, I warm up the writing muscles.  It shuts the door to the monkey mind and all the noisy voices wanting attention and walks me down the corridor to the Writing Work Room, which is where all my writing stuff is.  Once the door is open for the day, I find it much easier to move in and out, take breaks, head back down the corridor to go back to work, as often as I like.   Once I’m actually in the Writing Work Room, with its lovely views and rows and rows of books and articles and novellas and hundreds of other things I’ve written, I remember that this really is one of my favorite places.  All my favorite things are here, all the most authentic things about my life and work.

The second thing it does is remind me how little time it actually takes to put words on the page if I am actually showing up to do it.  I’ve been writing this blog for 14 minutes and I have 626 words on the page.  In an hour, that’s 2500 words, which is a great writing day by most anyone’s standards.

Now, I know that I won’t produce 2500 words in an hour, hour after hour.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Over the course of an hour, I pause, and backtrack to rewrite and fiddle with things, and scowl over word choices, all the things we all do.  I try an action paired with a line of dialogue, realize it isn’t right, and try something else.

But I do know, because I show up to do it so often, I can write 600 words pretty reliably in twenty minutes.   How many twenty minute segments are there in a day? How many times have you sat in a waiting room for twenty minutes? In the carpool line? After lunch in the work cafeteria?

Even that single twenty minute segment, as early in the day as it can be managed, can be a big win for a busy person seeking time to write.  Yes, it’s lovely to have oceans of time and submerge in them and the book, but what if you don’t have them?  Try 20 minutes.

The final delight of the 20-minute win is the fact that it often ends up being much more than 20.  If I just open that door, sometimes I don’t come out again for hours. That’s a really big win.

I’m off to walk my dog. Afterwards, I’ll tidy up the kitchen and fold the afghans and see how much is left alive in my garden after the freeze last night.  Then I’ll come back to the computer with a big glass of ice water and lemons, and some mint if any of it survived, and write.  Because the door to the Work Room is open, and I like it here.

Have you ever tried the 20 minute win? Can you spy a window early in your day when you might be able to try this?  Are there other windows in your day that you might never have noticed? 

(There: 22 minutes, 968 words.  Win!)



About Barbara O'Neal [2]

Barbara O'Neal [3] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [4], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [5].