- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Writing, the Gift of Time and O’Henry

image by sakaki0214

One of the best gifts you can give yourself as a writer is time.

Time is a scarce commodity for many of us. Anyone with obligations to meet beyond writing — school, work, family, a near-countless litany of other responsibilities — knows that every minute spent writing is a trade-off. Time spent writing is time not spent doing one of these other things.

As we enter the holiday season, time to write may be even harder to come by than it already is. Nothing eats up a day like a cross-country flight to Grandma’s house, and if you’ve ever managed to make meaningful progress on a novel on an airplane while in the company of young children, you are my new personal hero.

So as I considered a potential list of gifts that writers might want to give themselves for the holidays, everything on the list came down to a single item: time.

Except here’s the trick of it: sometimes, the gift you need is time spent writing; sometimes, the gift is time spent not writing.

In a way, it’s like the O’Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.” In the story, each of the spouses parts with what they value most in order to get a gift for the other spouse that complements what the other person values most. In the writer/time version, the irony is that you’re giving yourself a gift which is explicitly not the other gift–time writing is time spent not doing something else, remember–but that what you need might be one or the other, depending on the day. You’re giving up Tuesday what you most want on Wednesday; and both days, you’re happy. (You’re also a little sad because you’re not getting the other thing.)

Especially for those of us who are primary caregivers to young kids, time spent out of the kids’ company can be a direct gift, provided by a family member or friend or paid for by one of those people and provided by a third party. Or it can be a gift to ourselves–giving ourselves permission to step away and do something ultimately selfish. (Even for those of us who make part of our living writing, writing can feel like a selfish act. For those whose writing is the primary source of income for their family, I assume this trade-off is easier to make, but I’m not in that situation personally.)

It’s equally important to give ourselves permission, some days, not to write. For every List of Writer’s Rules that insists you’re not a “real” writer if you don’t write every single day, there’s a chorus of more practical people who will tell you that writing is an ebb and flow. Especially coming off NaNoWriMo, where many of us were charging hard to produce pages no matter what, the act of not writing, too, can feel selfish. But if this week’s Sunday afternoon writing block needs to be spent picking out a Christmas tree with your kids instead, that’s okay. There are things you may need right now more than an hour of writing. An hour of sleep, for one thing. An hour spent wrapping gifts. An hour spent in a bubble bath with a glass of sauvignon blanc. Any of these things is fine. Better than fine. On any given day, for any given writer, they might be utterly necessary.

How do you know when the writing time is a gift and when the not-writing time is a gift? There are no hard and fast rules. My only rule personally is to be generous with myself the way I would be with someone else. Would I urge my spouse to do another hour of work before bed? (I might; it depends on the day and the deadline.) Would I tell my best friend it’s irresponsible to spend an hour of babysitter time on Saturday getting a pedicure? (I would not; also I would probably suggest she make the appointment at a time I could join her.)

Q: Do you give yourself writing time as a gift? Do you also give yourself guilt-free time away from writing?

About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.