How do you make time to write?

light-painting-Karsten Knöfler

I don’t like using the word “busy” to describe my life, because it implies that it’s happening to me, and out of my control. And that whole busy-as-a-status-symbol thing is so old. I don’t buy it.

I know that everything that’s in my calendar is there because I put it there.

So I make an effort to say “life is full” or just own it and say, “I over-scheduled myself this year.”

I could say that I’ve been really busy, and use that as an excuse for not writing. But I know that’s not really true.

Writing time doesn’t happen when life is calm and “not busy.”

You either put something in your calendar and do it, or you don’t.

I know that time is something I make. If I wait for time to appear, I’ll never experience it.

I’ve written about this before — here and here.

I thought about the time dilemma again recently, while reading an interview with Charles Baxter.

This is his advice to writers who are working on their first short story collection:


“Read everything. Find books that you love and try to learn how an author managed to create a miraculous moment. Don’t quit. Cultivate a fuck-you attitude toward the doubting bourgeoisie and the philistines, who can live without art. Be a good noticer, one of those on whom nothing is lost. Don’t worry too much about money unless you’re about to be thrown out into the street. These suggestions go back almost as far as Ovid. They’re not original with me.”
— Charles Baxter


Solid advice, all of it. But my heart hooked on this line:

Be a good noticer, one of those on whom nothing is lost.

Sometimes my friend’s two-year-old comes to visit us at the barn. Whenever I am with her, I am captivated by her ability to notice things.

She’s an excellent noticer. She notices the piece of rainbow electrical tape I have wrapped around my old computer power cord; the glitter stuck to her fingers after she touches a homemade bookmark; the sound of a baby blue jay out the window; the small sand-filled strawberry attached to my red pincushion.

She notices these things. Like, she notices them with her whole body.

In this over-scheduled summer of mine, she is my inspiration. On her, nothing is lost. I aspire to this, and so I cancelled some events and appointments this week.

I have made time for noticing.

This feels lazy and unproductive. I am not even writing during this time I make. I am simply DOING NOTHING.

It’s agonizing.

I just have to go through a few days of agonizing nothingness before that anxious feeling turns into something different: tasting, seeing, feeling, sensing, hearing, smelling.

Doing nothing always turns into deep noticing, eventually. The key to this is simply to keep doing nothing for long enough!

To be a good noticer, to be someone on whom nothing is lost, one must quiet oneself enough to be present to what’s actually happening.

The initial discomfort that comes from putting distractions away is worth it, because it turns into the joy of paying attention.

After a few days of nothingness, once I have adjusted to the pace of real life (not the one happening in my mind), I realize that there is so much to write about!

This is where ideas come from: white space.

When you’re paying attention, everything is worth noticing. But you have to make the first move, because it’s hard to notice anything when you’re too full.

Cancel something today.

Skip the meeting, the coffee date, the baby shower, whatever it is you have planned. I know, you feel flaky, or unreliable, or rude. That’s okay! Because you’re none of those things. Your friends will forgive you.

You’re a writer, and your ability to prioritize writing over people-pleasing is your superpower.

Once you cancel something, you’ll have a piece of white space.

Now keep your white space white.

Something might happen that threatens to fill it up immediately. Be diligent! Do absolutely nothing with that piece of time. Do not even write.

Ugh. I know. You cancelled something in order to do nothing?

Do this once a day.

After doing nothing for about ten minutes a day, three days in a row, I usually start to feel more like myself.

Then I start noticing things again.

Then, the writing comes.

And it doesn’t feel like a fight anymore, because I’ve made the time for it!

Here’s to doing nothing and noticing everything.

Love,

Sarah Selecky


Photo credit: Karsten Knöfler


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18 comments

Susan Wright

"The initial discomfort that comes from putting distractions away is worth it, because it turns into the joy of paying attention." -Thank you, Sarah...This line in particular struck me. I actually did have "down time" this weekend and I did do "nothing" and I kept thinking that I should be writing. But, I couldn't get myself over the initial discomfort. I looked for excuses. ...first, the house was too busy, then I was by myself and the house was too quiet. This is typical for me. The only way to get myself past it, is to just pick up the notebook and pen and doodle or write down random words until my distracted brain settles down. Thanks for "catching" me and reminding me this will probably always be a habit that I need to be aware of!
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Lindsay Edmunds

Wise words. I've found the down time to yield tremendous increases in productivity. My writing plan is one hour (at least) first thing, six days a week. Habit is wonderful because the excuse "I don't feel like it" becomes irrelevant. I need that.
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Wonderful! But how do I keep aside all the distraction? I feel so fidgety.
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I love this! Particularly today when I can feel agitation just below the surface, and that "back to school" energy, which I love, but which can also be full of distractions ! Thanks Sarah. Pico Iyer has a good TED talk on this - The Art of Stillness.
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I have to have all the chores done - washing, ironing, brushing the foor shopping and have absolutely nothing on my mind to do before I can start to write. All the little phrases and bits and pieces that have been floating around in my head while doing these chores are instantly forgotten when I try to put pen to paper. Moral of this story ...a notebook is essential for keeping the little titbits to use later on and then write the masterpiece ....dream dream
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Stephen Winbaum

Thanks for the reminder Sarah. We're like a river that already knows how to flow. I'm taking more time to be open to the moments; to keep noticing and writing.
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Stephen D. Forman

Over the last few months I've rekindled a daily meditation practice-- something I've done more or less regularly throughout my life. Happily, that still and mindful place is becoming more instantly accessible to me. The universality of our desire to live in the present is matched only by the guilt we feel on falling short of the goal.
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I've written it down: "Blank Some Space. Ten Minutes". I'm about to do it right now, right after I write this. There're some great ideas up there ... much to do with the importance of choice(s). I just read this today, "The Great Outdoors", and it struck a similar chord -- looking on the rewards of quiet and stillness. An on-line posting by Terence Dick: www.akimbo.ca/akimblog/?id=1172
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Thanks, Susan. I know those excuses! The too busy/too quiet spectrum is familiar one for me, too. Here's to finding our do nothing space.
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Agreed! Routine saves me. When I am without it, I am lost! I'm travelling right now, which is wonderful, but I've had to work hard to create a new daily routine. It's worth it.
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A great method for the fidgeting time: pretend you are soothing a nervous (but sweet) dog that lives in your head. Say there's a noise at the window, and the dog starts whining and barking and freaking out. What would you say to the dog? Tell yourself the same things. Literally! Like, "Shh, shh. It's okay. It's just a noise, and you feel uncomfortable." Or, in your case, "Shh, shh. It's okay. You're just doing nothing right now, and it feels uncomfortable." Eventually, you will relax and stop fidgeting.
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Thanks, Pam! I will check it out!
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Hello, Jackie! A notebook is definitely essential. I fight to write first thing in the day, before chores, before checking email, even before having any conversations. Chores (and the general fullness of life) are infinite! I fear I would never write a thing, if I didn't make time to write first.
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Hello Stephen! Love it. Me too.
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Hi Stephen! It's reassuring to remember that the stillness is always there. And that even if/when we move away from it for a while, we can always access it again. (Oh, practice!)
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Thank you for this, Anouchka. I enjoyed the article. It is all about choice - making a decision to do something, a promise to yourself, and then keeping your promises. Over time, when you keep your promises, you begin to trust yourself more and more. I think creativity lives in this place - where there is trust.
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Marie Atwood (writer name is Marie Hunter Atwood)

I enjoyed the article, and the content of the comments. My problems are somewhat different in that I am sort of incapacitated by having to wear oxygen 24/7. I only complain when the tubing catches on the foot of a chair, etc., then I become cranky. I remember the days when I had to work around all of the problems you have discussed but I was blessed to have a husband who was always encouraging with a reminder that James Michiner didn't begin his career until he was past 40. I confess that I seldom missed writing every day (in spite of five children) but it wasn't going anywhere. Now I have two published books, one ready to market and another in the writing stage. Now my problems are usually 'computer' problems. I had my 84th birthday two days ago and (most of the time) I am thrilled to be a writer.
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