In every class I teach, my students most commonly discuss the issue of prioritizing their writing.
"I just don't have the time," they say.
As we all know, the same excuse could be made for exercise, cleaning, and all of the other task that we dread. These things make us feel good, but only after the hard work is put in.
Maybe it's easier to be held accountable when there is an editor or agent bugging you, but for most writers, this is a non-reality. So how do we continue writing when no one is chasing us to produce?
Making your writing a priority, having others hold you accountable, and finding time for your writing are the three things that braid together into successfully producing your work.
In grad school, I had weekly assignments, and if I didn’t hand those in, I’d be mortified, not only to receive an F, but also to not have something to present to my professor and peers. Even more than that, I wanted my story or essay to be impressive because I’d be sharing it with the group, so I always found time throughout the week to create and tweak my work. I was insanely busy during that time. I worked all day and when to classes at night. I left the house at 8 and got home at 10:30 most week-days. And, yet, I found the time. I wrote ideas in my journal while riding the L or the bus. I snuck in writing sessions when work wasn’t as crazy. Every Saturday, while my friends were busy enjoying Chicago, I was at Argo Tea for eight hours, writing. I was incredible productive.
And then I graduated.
I got engaged, moved to the east coast. Without weekly deadlines keeping me accountable, I felt lost. I spent a good year not writing. No one was forcing me to revise my novel. While I tried to enjoy the extra hours that used to be consumed by grad school and scene development, a nagging anxiety plagued me. So, one day I emailed three friends, and I said, “I am going to email you 15 pages of writing every two weeks. You don’t have to read them, but if I don’t get them to you, you have the right to harass me."
Every Tuesday and Thursday night, I wrote at Starbucks, and I didn’t miss my deadlines because I had given my word. During this time, I also took classes at Grub street so that I was given a new prompt each week and my writing could be fresh.
Here's the other thing I did: I lied.
Sometimes, I felt guilty to say that I was taking time away from other things to write, so I’d say I was working. If I was working, I wouldn’t be available for a doctor’s appointment or grocery shopping. I didn’t think people would understand if I said I was writing. I was afraid that others would think it was a silly hobby or a luxury. After a while, I finally felt confident enough to say I was unavailable because I was writing. I became productive again.
And then we had our son.
Here's my new reality: There’s less time, so every ounce of time spent away from Geo has to be productive. If I have an hour of writing time, there's no "crusiing the internet to become inspired" or "sipping a latte while I wait for my muse." There is just writing. I wrote the first draft of my memoir during his first year of life. The first couple of months were slow, because I waited for extra time to just appear or for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "I'll watch Geo. You go write." But that didn't happen. So, I coordinated Geo babysitting time with my husband and my mom and my sister so that writing could be my priority. Those 400 pages were written and revised in the mornings and afternoons and Saturdays when I made a rule that nothing was more important than my writing--not an email, or text, or work task.
So, now, I tell my students to find someone in the class to email your work to every week--whether it be five pages or one. The "accountability partner" doesn't have to read your work, but they can bug you if you don't keep your promise. Then, designate writing time that you hold as important as the hours you are at your job--you're unavailble and you can't browse Facebook. Schedule this ahead of time and put it on the calendar.
Then get your butt in the chair and write.
P.S. I love this inspirational video By Elizabeth Gilbert. It teaches me that even if the muse doesn't come to me during a writing session, at least I showed up and I did my job.
Nadine Kenney Johnstone is the author of the memoir, Of This Much I'm Sure, which was named Book of the Year by the Chicago Writers Association. Her infertility story has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Today’s Parent, MindBodyGreen, Metro, and Chicago Health Magazine, among others. She teaches at Loyola University and received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago. Her other work has been featured in various magazines and anthologies, including Chicago Magazine, PANK, and The Magic of Memoir. Nadine is a writing coach who presents at conferences internationally. She lives near Chicago with her family.See other articles by Nadine Johnstone