Sunday, May 2, 2010

Writing Schedules

I just got back from a conference in Columbus: the Seventh Annual Writing Works Conference, sponsored by Columbus State Community College (which, by the way, has an extremely impressive creative writing program for a community college). The keynote speaker at this truly magnificent conference was David Rakoff (who I was fairly ambivalent to prior to this weekend but who I am definitely a fan of now. He read us some really excellent stuff from his new book forthcoming in a few months). In addition to Rakoff’s keynote address and humor writing workshop, there were a range of extremely interesting lectures and workshops run by a variety of writers. I feel genuinely surprised by how useful this conference was (which is not to say that these sorts of things are rarely useful, but I’ve been to so many panel discussions, lectures, and workshops that I supposed there wasn’t much that I hadn’t heard before), and in the next few weeks I will definitely be addressing a few of the key topics the conference brought up in my mind.

One point in particular that kept coming up in the various lectures and workshops as well as during Rakoff’s Q&A was the idea that many successful writers don’t adhere to any kind of strict writing schedule. Many of the writers at the conference talked about how they don’t worry about scheduling time in their lives to write or habitually writing for X amount of hours at X o’clock every day. Some of them even pointed out that you absolutely cannot expect yourself to write every day; sometimes there are simply other things that you need to do.

One writer said that if she tries to set aside time to write, then she never feels like writing during that time, but she often feels like writing at other times, when she should be doing something else. So she writes at those times. Screw it, right? Another writer said she writes whenever she feels like writing, and she doesn’t when she doesn’t. Sometimes she’ll wake up in the middle of the night and write and then go back to sleep. Rakoff said that he doubts he’s ever spent more than ten straight minutes writing (surely an exaggeration but you get the point).

Almost all the writers who I saw speak seemed to agree that, while the idea of writing at seven o’clock every morning sounds lovely, that just isn’t the way it works for any of them (and they seem to be doing just fine regardless, thank you very much). It was an intriguing variation from the advice successful writers so often give amateurs: you should create a schedule, develop a habit, set aside an hour or two that will be your time to write every day. It seems successful writers often give that advice – perhaps to help the otherwise helpless because perhaps, they figure, if you have to ask you aren’t going to be able to work it out organically – but many of them don’t need to follow it themselves.

Now in fairness, this might partially be due to the fact that most of them make a living off of their writing and so have an unlimited amount of time in which to write every day. If you have no other pressing needs, it might be easier to write when you feel like it and not when you don’t, while it can be a bit more difficult for those of us who have to work full time and must write in the few spare hours that are left.

Even so, it’s useful to keep in mind that many of the writers who do make a living off of writing do not force their brains into submission according to a set writing schedule. Take that for what you will: an interesting tidbit, or perhaps encouragement that it’s okay to keep on doing whatever works for you. Write by a schedule or write when you want. Write every day or in frenzied bursts when you have a few days in a row off. Don’t, though, get down on yourself because you think the “real” writers are clocking in for eight hour shifts, are writing until their fingers bleed. Because they aren’t, and you don’t have to, either.

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