Friday, September 4, 2009

Squeezing into the Gaps

We've all seen the lists of writing tips - things to do to develop as a writer - e.g. read widely, experience life, research etc. . .

Chief on the list is often to write every day. This has always been a tall order for me, balancing work and family and running two businesses on the side. In the periods where I have managed it there has certainly been a beautiful flow in my expression and effortless connection to the work, but this has (for me) unfortunately come at the cost of connection to the people in my life.

On the other side of the coin, there are periods in life when it is legitimately impossible to write anything. For sanity and the sake of not taking the skin off my back via self-flagellation, this was an import thing for me to acknowledge. It might be work, family bereavement, illness. . . a host of things. I guess I believe that if you were stamped at birth with the hidden sigil that marks you as a writer, after the dust settles you will always gravitate back to the written word when you are capable of doing so.

But for that middle zone, when you are trying to live a life and squeeze writing into the cracks and gaps, how do you manage it?

One of the best pieces of advice that I had was 'do it first'. I guess that generally works well for me as more of a morning person, but the general gist is to try and get some runs on the board with the writing (sorry Cricket term there) before the other 'urgent' things in life take over - like paying the bills and eating.

One of the useful things I have discovered is that my laptop works fine on the bus. This gives me up to an hour a day during the week, and it all goes surprisingly well (when the battery does not run out). I remember one story about a British Thriller writer who managed to have a whole career and publish a dozen novels while doing his writing commuting on the train (1 hour each way) to his office job as an accountant in London. I guess a predisposition for travel sickness might knock that one on the head.

Carry a notepad: I used to do this religiously, and ended up with about twenty of these stuffed full of ideas for stories. Many were penned in the middle of industrial plants while wearing full PPE -- ear muffs, steel-capped boots, hardhats etc. A writer friend of mine also filled up notepads with ideas - that and writing in the emergency stairwell during his half-an-hour lunch with pen and paper were all he could manage between work and a sick wife for well over a year. He went on to win awards and break through into mainstream publishing as a novelist.

Unplug the TV set: Well, here is where I don't take my own advice. I am a bit of a movie and video addict - although I limit myself pretty well - and I don't watch live-to-air. I record and watch the programs at night before bed as a wind down when I would not be physically capable of even sitting at a computer terminal.

Use Auto-pilot: Use the mundane tasks of the day as brainstorming time - doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, ironing, painting, handyman stuff etc

By the Pets a Toy: OK. I don't have pets, but all this talk about cats disrupting things has got me thinking. I guess you could include spouses in the general idea - get them a hobby? I went to a workshop with Zoran Zivcovik here in Brisbane a few years ago (this is where the anthologies Devil in Brisbane and Fantastical Journeys to Brisbane emerged from), and he told a story about his cat, who every morning sat on his keyboard and would not move without a dedicated 10 minutes of petting. After that he had to learn how to type one-handed, as the cat required him to continue stroking with one hand while he worked.

How do you squeeze your writing into the gaps?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I'm good if I'm doing a re-write, I can squeeze this in any time. 20 minute grabs are OK.

But if I'm working on a first draft, I prefer to have a longer run at it so I can settle into the world and characters.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. First drafting and re-drafting are very different aren't they?

I heard Louise Cousak describe editing as 'Creative Accounting'.

I can certainly work a lot longer on redrafting than first drafting.

C Kelsey said...

I bought a macbook that only has MS Office on it for writing. I then discovered that I'm hugely productive if I take the computer to a restaraunt and have a nice dinner while writing.

I also don't try to force myself to write every day. I relax and let the characters tell me what is happening. The only problem with this is that when life interferes and I can't write at all (like right now) they tend to get annoyed with me. :)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. Its amazing what a change of scenery can do.

I take my laptop down to the cafe at lunchtimes. The absence of an internet connection there certainly helps. I've managed to do surprisingly well in all that hubbub.

So do your characters start to pound away on the side of your head?

Anonymous said...

Very good tips -- basically ways to circumvent a mercurial muse, who usually decides to strike when you're furthest away from your computer.

I kind of liken it to the Looney Tunes frog -- you know the one: When the guy who found the frog is alone it's "Hello my baby/Hello my honey/Hello my ragtime gal," but when there's an audience it's just "Cro-o-o-ak." Same with the muse -- you can be in the middle of the wilderness, hundreds of miles from civilization without a laptop, or even a pen and napkin to your name and it's "Hello my baby/Hello my honey/Hello my ragtime gal." Then you rush on home, sit down at the computer and "Cro-o-o-ak."

And if by some slim chance you've been under a rock for the past half-century and this reference is lost on you...


Anonymous said...

I started writing when my kids were small. So I learned to deal with frequent interruptions, to hold an idea in my mind while doing whatever. I think my reputation for absent mindedness started about then, but surely that's just a coincidence . . .

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, RJ. I know the frog you are talking about. I had an immediate image of it.

I guess that's why a change of scenery can work so well to get the creative juices flowing. I removes the 'environment' block.

There is something about being out in the middle of nowhere, and also about walking, the rhythm of it.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I'm surprised you managed to hold any thoughts in your head at all with small children. My wife and I shared care for a couple of years when our three kids were all under four, and I don't think I managed to hold a single coherant thought in my brain while I was looking after them:)

Dave Freer said...

The one piece of advice (if you like your marriage and think it the best way raise your kids), is rather than getting the partner a hobby to try to involve them in yours. The darby-and-joan couples of sf/fantasy (and there are writing husbands and writing wives and writing significant others, and writing boths) are both involved in the community of writing and the books themselves. This can of course come adrift when you have a huge ego and can't bear the idea that your partner might be doing WAY better than you, but for those in a real mutula relationship, it's good.

Kate said...

Supportive spouse - whether a reader or a fellow writer - is essential.

I started doing whatever I could whenever I could while I was in high school. I wrote on any blank paper that came to hand, in whatever gaps I could squeeze out of the day. (looking shamefaced) Er... including during class.

I can still do that - slide in a fair amount of writing into relatively small chunks of time. A little here, a little there, and it adds up. For me the difficult part is the editing side. For that I need a printout and a goodly chunk of dedicated time or I'll miss things.