Writer’s Discipline and Distinguishing between Important and Urgent.
Last month my wife began her maternity leave. Normally she works long hours in a posh consultancy firm being highly impressive and executive and stuff. I can do eight hours in the library and still be home in time to get some FIFA played before she gets back. It’s a good pattern and I’ve found a nice routine. Now that pattern has been disturbed and things have got a little bit more complicated. I have to learn some discipline.
It’s important to note that my wife has always been incredibly supportive of my writing. The problem isn’t that she is getting in my way per se, and it certainly isn’t that she is telling me stop writing and put together baby furniture.
The problem is that having her on maternity leave is fantastic.
Sure, there’s a lot of pre-baby preparation to be done, and plenty of “I really need a packet of those crisps that they only sell in that one shop in Paris”, but these are nice things, and it’s a special time for both of us. I want to spend all my time with her. And I can (apart from when she wants to play Last of Us). I don’t have a contract dragging me in to work. I have deadlines, to be sure, but they are spaced out and pretty flexible in themselves. If I blow off my writing for a day so that we can go to the cinema, well, getting the boss to agree is really, really easy.
Hard as it may be to believe, when you are writing it can be difficult to be sure whether you are working hard or not. There is a weird mysticism about writing. A bit like fake TV art (let me just wack up this photo-realistic sketch in 2 minutes), it is hard to explain what it is that takes all the time. I have a 3000 word story to turn in shortly, and if I really wanted to, I could turf that out in a day. It would probably be crap. But then, I’ve had stories I’ve slaved on for weeks that have turned out rubbish. And sometimes the 500 words you dash out on the metro will be the best thing you have written in ages. It is very difficult to know how much time you will need to make something good.
Obviously, figuring this out isn’t just a problem that has arisen due to maternity leave. Not really knowing how much time jobs will take is a standard project-management issue, and project managing writing is like herding cats: pretentious, up themselves, arty cats, when the manager in charge of herding is also a cat, and possibly one with ADD.
I have total flexibility about how and when I work. So if someone calls me up asking for help with some DIY, or to watch over one of their bairns, or whatever, it feels difficult for me to say no – or, you know, if something interesting is on TV, or I really fancy drawing the way the light is hitting the tower block over the road. After all, I can just play less FIFA later and catch up, right?
What this reminds me of is something the urgency/importance matrix they taught is in the first few weeks of the PhD programme at the University of Nottingham.
As best I can tell it comes from the book First Things First by Covey S, Merril R and Merril RR (1994). Their thesis was that those things that are important to us (getting regular exercise, spending time with your kids) get crowded out by all those things that seem to demand our immediate attention (emails, somebody knocking on the door). If we want to achieve important, long term goals, then we need to learn to identify those things that are unimportant to us and prioritise our long term goals ahead of them. A PhD thesis is a good example of this, as you can always keep on putting it back behind lesson planning and conference prep; a novel is an even better example.
One way to get around the problem is to make the important urgent. This is what I am doing by entering short story competitions; forcing myself to finish and submit by the competition deadline. I’ve talked about some other ways to deal with productivity issues here. But they don’t really solve the fundamental issues in the long term.
Covey et al (and the University of Nottingham) recommend putting together worksheets identifying those things that are most important to you and specifically scheduling time for them each week. This is what I did with my research and it worked really well. It has been harder with creative writing.
There’s a weird way that flexibility can turn into unimportance. All the things that have to be done now, or not at all, end up being put ahead in the list of things that may be very important but can be left until later. Creative writing is highly flexible, and also suffers from the unhealthy influence of writer’s insecurity: that ever-present feeling that your writing is not important because it probably isn’t very good. It can very quickly slip down or even off the list of things you have to do.
So what should I be doing differently? To a certain extent, I’m not sure I’m doing anything wrong. I imagine myself looking back at this time of my life from my future. I think I would feel crushing regret if I looked back to see I spent it in the library. I’m a sentimental bugger and I want to feel as many of those baby kicks as possible.
Meanwhile, I am being productive (hopefully some more news on that shortly.) The website update schedule is suffering a little, but it’s ok. I’m still writing. I’ll try to do better with the site.
The fact that I’m doing ok, however, is mostly down to my brilliant wife and her reminding me that I can actually be writing while she is playing Last of Us, and that I should go to the library while she has dinner with her sister. There are some brilliant writers out there who manage to keep on producing with much less free time than I have, writers who push out books writing evenings after they get back from work, or who craft brilliant theses while raising their kids.
So the discipline I’m talking about comes in three parts. The first is recognising when you have a moment to write, and getting straight down to it. Sometimes an hour of writing when you only have an hour to write can be more productive than a whole day sat staring at the wall in the library.
The second is to learn when it is and it isn’t ok for something to interrupt your writing. That means you really can tell someone you can’t make it for lunch because you have to work, without feeling like you’re some sort of fraud.
The third and most important is genuinely recognising how important writing is to you. Write a list of the things you do and place your writing somewhere in the list. If you are consistently putting the writing aside for things lower in the list, then you need to have a conversation with yourself. But this also means that some things are more important than getting your two/four/eight hours in. It means knowing when to say yes, when to put aside your writing and take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. If you aren’t living your life then you’ll have nothing to write about.
photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/qousqous/4893265688/”>qousqous</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>
 More, finish your writing and also put up baby furniture.
 I’ve been working on it for weeks, the latest draft is 5000 words, and it is giving me nightmares. But that is another topic!
 Yeah, we’ll see how this all goes when the baby arrives. I’ll keep you posted ^^.
 Yes, I know I’m ending the sentence with a preposition. But “nothing about which to write” sounds far too bloody stuffy for a blog.