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The Time It Costs to Write

[1]The most common question I’m asked about my books is, “How long did it take you to write them?”

The second most common question: “What is your writing routine like?”

I usually hesitate to answer either of these questions because I suspect they’re another way for a writer to compare him or herself to others, which is never helpful. Sure, there are probably tips and insights to be gleaned from learning that it took me nearly seven years and countless revisions and rewrites to finish my first book, or that I often go months without writing at all, and then spend months writing daily…

But that’s just me.

And I know that really, at the heart of this question is an unspoken plea for the answer we all seek: how do you find the time? On the flip side of that plea is a guilt and almost-shame of not having (or making) the same amount of time as other (perceived) successful writers.

Sometimes people gasp in surprise. Sometimes they seem to sigh in relief that the second novel took less time than the first. Some just stare wide-eyed and say wow. A few times, I’ve had people suggest that surely this means the next one will take less time. Perhaps they imagine our craft is like that of a swimmer’s, in pursuit of a faster time.

It happens with enough frequency that I’ve begun to wonder, why this question? Not, what is your book about? Or, what is it called? But, how much time did it take?

Which, if you think about it, is actually how much time did it cost?

This is not so much about time being money as it is about time being all we have. Writers are always seeking it out, longing for more of it, waiting for a window of its uninterrupted bliss to present itself, or chasing it in tiny bits, catching whatever we can of it, in hopes of making what we can with it.

We get the same advice drilled into us from countless writers: make time to write every day.

We seek out accountability partners to keep us on track.

We apply for residencies to get away from the pressures of daily life, stealing time from our jobs and families in order to spend it with our stories.

When we can’t do that, we wake early or go to bed late. We are not miracle workers. We cannot make more time. We simply have to use it for one thing instead of another.

We (wrongfully) equate long stretches of time with quality while things that came to be quickly are assumed to be lacking in thoughtfulness and thoroughness.

Time to write, then, is not only currency but a luxury and a privilege. It is more easily attainable to some than others. Consider the mom who only has time if she books a hotel for a week to finish a draft, having both the financial means and child care support to do so. The adjunct professor who struggles to pay the bills but has the flexibility in his schedule to accept a fully-funded fellowship for a summer writing residency. The writer whose multiple jobs provide health insurance and a roof, but barely an hour of rest between shifts. The MFA student who is carving out two years dedicated entirely to their craft, and accumulating student loans in the meantime. The writer on food stamps whose main access to books and the internet is the library.

We make it work somehow. We have something different to say because of it. We forget that time is not just a ticking clock but a life constantly filling with experience that we bring, like gifts and offerings, to the page.

So this month, whether you’re dashing towards the NaNoWriMo finish line or taking weeks to craft one paragraph just like so, relish it. Relish the words, the story, the process. Be kind to yourself and your fellow writers. It costs so much to write, and for each of us it costs something different, but we keep doing it because we are proven, time and again, that it is worth it.

Question for you all: what’s the longest amount of time it took you write something? The shortest? 

About Natalia Sylvester [2]

Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester [3] came to the U.S. at age four. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. She is the author of Chasing the Sun, named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad and chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.