Thursday, July 10, 2008

Making Time

I’m curious—does anyone out there have the time they need to write?

Before I go much further, let me say that I consider myself fortunate: I have enough to eat, I generally get enough sleep, my bank account has just enough in it that I’m not chewing my nails to the quick, I work hard enough to please my boss, most doctors (okay, a few doctors) would say I get enough exercise, I do enough housework to make my wife happy, I keep up with the news enough to be on top of important issues…yet I never seem to have the time I need to write.

With the demands we’re constantly faced with, how are we to carve out the time and space we need to create? Half an hour here and there doesn’t cut it, for we need mental space—to dream a little before we write, to enter that fecund and numinous inner place where words and sentences are born, and then (at some point, anyway) to reflect on what we’ve written. For some—haikuists?—a mere hour a day may suffice. But how are we to get more? And how to maintain that free time and consistently use it well?

Following three years in Vietnam, where I had all the time I could have hoped for to read, research, and write, I moved to Hawaii. The reasons I came here are complicated and not worth going into, but what most marked this move was the dramatic shift in my writing habits. I went from writing a few hours every day to writing a few hours every week. If you’re a novelist—or trying hard to become one—how on earth can you complete your brilliant opus on such a feeble regimen?

If there were a way to petition for more hours in a day, demanding 25, 26, or even 27 hours wouldn’t do it. I think we’d need 30 hours a day—after all, we also need time to read.

I heard on NPR this week that U.S. workers, on average, are given 14 vacation days a year. Most of us don’t even use all 14 days. Shame on us—or are we all insane? In much of Western Europe, workers get over 35 vacation days and they generally take them all.

People talk about how the publishing industry is in desperate need of change, but what seems of greater consequence is our desperate need to change how we live. Anything less than that is a failure to make writing an important part of who we are as intelligent, sensitive, and creative beings. I feel a hollowness within myself when I don’t write, and as the long workdays pile up—and spill over into the weekends—I feel that hollowness painfully expand.

When I stop to think about it, I know I’ve got it pretty good. And one thing I’ve learned since last August is that people who live in Hawaii can’t expect others to listen to them when they complain. But again, that’s not really what I’m doing here. The point of this is to draw attention to the fact that writing—the beautiful, necessary challenge that it is—is hard enough already without time constraints. And I know that others have it much harder—they have children to rear, multiple jobs to attend to each day of the week (with no vacation time, and probably no health insurance either), a war they’re trying to survive, or terrible health problems to recover from.

So…is it just me? Do I simply lack discipline? Am I just getting old and becoming inefficient? “Stop complaining and just make time,” I’ve been told, often in a surprisingly unsympathetic tone. “If you have to, lock yourself in your bathroom and don’t come out until you’ve written one thousand words. I don’t care if this causes friction in your family—or worse. Just do it.”

To be told that I just have to do it really doesn’t help me. To be told that I should sacrifice more sleep than I’m already doing isn’t a solution, either.

But what pleases me—and lets me know that I may be guilty of blowing hot air, despite any earlier suggestion I might have made to the contrary—is the fact that, even if I can’t manage to find time for myself, there are many people out there who can. The stories that appear on our doorstep at Our Stories testify to the fact that good stories can be written, supportive writing communities can be forged, success can be had. And if these things are true, then it’s also true that anyone can find the time they need to realize their goals as writers. While the phrase “just do it” doesn’t do “it” for me, seeing other people succeed does. I find real inspiration in that.

And if others can do it, I know it’s also possible for me to. Sometimes hard decisions need to be made. But as long as a choice exists, one can always choose to write.


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