At almost every reading I’ve ever been to, the first question asked of the author is, “What is your writing process?” Often, the author will describe a disciplined, solitary, almost Spartan life that begins at 4:30 a.m. each day at a small desk, rain or shine, in sickness and in health. This is the point in the Q & A when I sink into despair. Then I decide that half of these writers are embellishing; that the blissful early morning desk is fiction itself.
Perhaps the perpetuation of this ideal comes from a desire to emulate Ernest Hemingway, who wrote in A Moveable Feast, “When I am working on a book or story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Simple, right? Well, not so much if you have a job, a family, or even a dog who begs to be taken out in that early light.
Very few writers are able to support themselves solely through their writing, and, unfortunately, life as an employee/writer does not lend itself to such perfect solitude. Early morning is often frenzied, but staying up all night writing, as Hemingway is also said to have done, presents other challenges. Few of us get to sleep in and spend the afternoon musing in cafés during the work week. So what is a modern writer to do?
Each writer I meet in person tells a different tale of his or her real process. Some stick to a daily routine, but not always in the early morning. Some write in week-long binges, then not again for months. Some set word or page or time limits for each day. Some simply write a few sentences whenever they can. Starting small is fine. Sentences, after all, make paragraph, paragraphs make pages, and pages eventually make books!
Virginia Woolf’s ideal of a writer having money and room of her own is wonderful, but there are excellent books written with neither of these comforts. One novelist I know writes while waiting in the car rider line at her children’s school every afternoon (it’s a very slow line). A writing space, for those of us unable to block out the ambient sound in a cafeteria at lunchtime or full house any time, can come in the form of the public library, a side table tucked away in a bedroom, a kitchen counter after dinner, an empty meeting room during a lunch break, or even the dashboard of a parked car.
When could you squeeze 15 minutes out of your day? Could you find 30 minutes? How much of your own time are you able to protect for your writing? Mark it down in your calendar as a meeting with your creative self.
The important thing is to keep writing, whenever you can, wherever you can. Sure, find yourself a space, make it quiet, commit to a routine you can manage, tell a friend to check in on your progress, but accept that your writing life has to fit into a larger life. Claim a space for it, however small. You may begin by staring at a blank screen, pushing the cat off your keyboard, or re-reading previous work, but you’ll eventually get moving. You may even lose track of time.
As E.B. White famously said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” What are you waiting for?