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When We’re Forced to Work Outside Our Own Writing Boxes

keep-calm-and-keep-writing-with-logo [1]I write best in big chunks of time. I need four or five hours together to become fully immersed in the world where my characters live. I don’t know why I work this way, but I do. It’s the kind of fiction writer I am.

It’s unfortunate, then, that my life right now won’t permit me to write this way. I have a couple of part-time jobs. I have a couple of kids, ages twelve and nine (otherwise known as the “drive me” years). One parent recently passed away and left me with probably a year’s worth of responsibilities, and my other parent requires time and attention. I also have pets, doctors’ appointments, things that break and need fixing, meals that need to be cooked, shopping that needs to get done, a house that needs to be cleaned (okay, so I don’t do a lot of that)–you know, the stuff we all have.

All of this means that my schedule is packed from the moment I awake until the moment I go to sleep. And it frequently changes with little notice. In other words, the four-to-five-hour block of writing time just does not happen.

After struggling for a long while–and failing–to find big blocks of writing time, I finally admitted that something had to change. When I whined about discussed this dilemma with writer friends and mentors, I received some excellent advice to help me restructure my writing:

Make appointments with my characters. Writer Catherine Elcik [2] suggested blocking out appointments with my characters on my calendar just as I would with real people. I use iCal on my laptop and iPhone, and now anyone who looks can see I’ve frequently got time marked off for “meetings” with people who just happen to share my primary characters’ names. I also print the calendar out each week and tape it to my desk. I can’t say I always make every appointment, but having my characters visibly waiting for me, tapping their toes right where I can see them, has kept me more on target than in the past. When life events forced me to stop writing for a while (see below), I found I really missed this structure and it was the first thing I brought back when I returned to the keyboard.

Treat each scene like a short story. It’s funny: I don’t need huge blocks of time to work on essays or stories. But the novel is a different creature. “OH MY GOD THIS BOOK IS KILLING ME,” seems to be the novelist’s mantra. Why do we writers psych ourselves out so much? Our own blog mama, Therese Walsh [3], suggested that if I found myself freaking out over the amount of work I had to do, I should try taking it one scene at a time and telling myself that scene is a story. This approach made sense: I could define specific goals for that dinner-party scene in chapter six, and revise away with those goals in mind. When finished, I could reward myself by going for a walk, having a drink or eating a giant bar of chocolate. Repeat. Would there still be work to do when I got through all the scenes/stories? Of course. But I’d have the next draft of the book done, and I was planning to write another draft after this one anyway, wasn’t I?

Write what I can where I can. I envy writers who can write novels in minivans or coffee shops. Novelist Erika Robuck [4] often writes during her sons’ hockey practices. Despite the fact that in my former policy career, I could draft talking points while C-Span blah-blahed in the background, I can’t write my characters’ lives in ambient noise now. But…I can edit while my son is at soccer practice, I can draft a blog post while my daughter is in dance class, I can jot down a few thoughts practically anywhere. (I keep notebooks everywhere.) By working on other writing obligations when I can, I try to keep my quiet time at home for the novel. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on my week.

Take a Break. Sometimes life wins. Other than journal entries, this post is the first thing I’ve written outside of paid employment for two months. My mother’s death was preceded and followed by a series of events too long to detail here that was overwhelming physically, mentally and emotionally. Not only did I stop writing, I felt no desire to write. I’d never lost that hunger before, and I worried I might never regain it. Incomparable writer and teacher Jenna Blum [5] reassured me that my condition was temporary. Sometimes life demands that you put all of your resources in a place that is not of your choosing, and there is nothing left for anything else. She assured me the desire to write would come back.

I took Jenna’s advice and decided to stop worrying. Relieved of that stress, my mind opened a little and let stray thoughts slip in…for my novel, essays, my blog. After a while, I sat down at the keyboard and started typing. Writing again now after two months off is like regaining a sense I had lost.

Let It Go. This may be the most important and counterintuitive piece of advice in this post. By far the biggest tug-of-war with respect to my time has emerged as the one between my writing and my kids. At twelve and nine, my kids are now people whose company I truly enjoy. They’re interesting, they’re funny, they sparkle. And damn, they are growing up fast. I’m more aware every day how little time is left before they leave to pursue the rest of their lives on their own. So yes, there are many times my kids hear, “Not now; I need to write.” But wise book reviewer, writer and grandfather Harvey Freedenberg [6] once told me something I make a point of recalling at least once a week: “The kids will grow up, but the writing will always be there.”

The writing will always be there, and we can always find our way to it. Sometimes we just need to carve out a new path.

What steps or advice have you found useful in finding ways to work outside your writing box?

About Tracy Hahn-Burkett [7]

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com [8].