Women Writers Who Give Me Hope

How does a woman learn to commit to safekeeping time and space to get her writing work done? Finding answers to that question is not easy. The kind of things a woman should change, commit to, and double down on to make her writerly life a success are hard to pinpoint. The theme of virtually every article I have read about how to write is straightforward: Just do it. Just find the time to write. Just write! You need a self-management goal plan, and you need to do it!

So why don’t we? How can so many women be so morally bankrupt that they can’t take this simple advice?

Here’s what I think: we try to pretend that the advice we are given is really good and the failure lies with all the women writers who can’t make it work for them. The failure lies at our feet.

It doesn’t make any sense. Is it not more logically that the advice we are given is just really bad advice?

Toni Morrison admits that she has no routine. She says, “I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.”

Likewise, Margaret Atwood, despite her enormous output, does not write every day. She said: “You always think, ‘Oh, if only I had a little chalet in the mountains! How great that would be and I’d do all this writing . . . Except, no, I wouldn’t. I’d do the same amount of writing I do now and the rest of the time I’d go stir crazy. If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive. I have no routine. I have no foolproof anything. There’s nothing foolproof.”

These woman give me hope.

I know that I often feel totally overextended, as I suppose most women who want to create do, and like bell hooks, I think “often and deeply about women and work, about what it means to have the luxury of time – time spent collecting one’s thoughts, time to work undisturbed” (p. 125).

Writing requires time, and it is difficult to try and sneak in shreds of a creative life. We can pretend it is not so, but sneaking a life because the real one is not given room enough to thrive is hard on a woman’s vitality. I know, deep inside, that it is not a scheduling issue. And I suspected for many it is not a resistance issue, even though Rosanne Bane (2012) said, “Every writer experiences some kind of resistance from time to time” (p. 5). Writing is about art and craft, but it is also about discipline. Women who know their current methods are not working need simple practices that bring them to their writing space regularly. It is too easy to be subsumed, and for people to assume that this is natural and how it should be. It is a matter of staking our ground to get and maintain a sustainable and satisfying writing habit.

We can do it. There is hope, especially if we are willing to listen to women writers who have done it, who have made it work, like Morrison and Atwood and hooks. Let’s not listen to the people who demand that we just do it! They don’t get it.

How I get Things Done: Managing my Actions

“Your mind is for getting ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen

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Creative people struggle to get things done. They just do. I’ve always felt a little bit embarrassed about the fact that I write down every freaking last thing I need to do during the day in a cheap notebook and give myself a check mark or a tiny colorful sticker when I complete the task.

But, I’m currently reading The Art of Getting Things Done, and I’m feeling a whole lot more confident about my way of reminding and encouraging myself to get things done. The book is a national best-selling book by productivity consultant David Allen. It was published in 2001 and updated in 2015, and it’s a staple of productivity enthusiasts everywhere. He believes the key to managing all your stuff (for writers, think, writing projects) is managing your actions. His Getting Things Done system, often call GTD, is based on a simple fact: The more information bouncing around inside your head, the harder it is to decide what needs attention. As a result, you spend more time thinking about your tasks than actually doing them.

Allen said, “What you do with your time, what you do with information and what you do with your body and your focus relative to your priorities—these are the real options to which you must allocate your limited resources. The real issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time. The real issue is how we manage actions.”

The key to managing our writing ‘stuff’ is managing our actions

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For us writers, this is key: our success depends on how we manage actions. So, fellow writers, “How are you managing your actions?”

Allen said, “In training and coaching thousands of professionals, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they themselves may think it is): the real problem is a clack of clarity and a definition about what the project really is, and what the associated next-action steps required are” (p. 19).

Do you know what your next-action steps are?

For something to be an action step, we have to be able to do something.
Writing is not just the writing, it’s all the associated tasks that go along with it: finding markets for our work, doing the research, maybe calling or emailing someone for an interview or for information, drafting, editing. So for writers, some examples of next actions steps might be:

1. Find three magazines that print the kind of article I want to write.
2. Call Deborah for quote for article
2. Outline article

Be clear about the things you have to do

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I’m currently writing a magazine article. I could write down in my bullet journal, “Work on article,” but, when you think about that seriously, it’s not actionable. “Write introduction,” is actionable. As noted above, email Deborah for a quote is actionable. For me, today’s note is: 15 minutes on article. That is actionable; then, the next question is “what is the next action?” If I don’t finish the draft today, tomorrow the action will remain: 15 minutes on article. Eventually the next action will be: proofreading and mail article.

When you define what the next action (it doesn’t need to be a BIG action) that you can take on a writing project, you have something to do. Jeff Goins, over at goinswriter.com calls it a “bias towards action” and says we need to develop it.

Find an Organization System that works for you

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You’ll be better equipped to undertake focused thinking about your writing when your tools for the actions you need to take are part of your daily organizational style.

There are lots of productivity systems and methods out there, and while some people worship one method or another, the best way to use a system that works best for your needs, not to strictly adhere to “rules.” If you want to get things done without compromising your creativity or productivity, you need a productivity system. And it needs to work. Just pick a system and use it. If it doesn’t work well for you, try another one.

The *Best* Time to Write

If you’re like me, you’ve read way too many articles on how to find time to write. And none of the advice seems to work.

This is one of my favorite passages from my Ph.D. dissertation:

Much of the advice on how to finding the time to write still mirrors a patriarchal mindset. Advice offered by men has a different tone from that given by women. Atchity (2018) said, “We all have the exact same amount at our disposal: 60 minutes each hour, 24 hours each day, 168 hours each week, 8,736 hours each year. If you put one hour into a project each day for a year, you’d have worked on it for 365 hours—more than enough time to write a book, and a screenplay, and a treatment or two” (para. 6).

Aside from claiming out that this is plenty of time “to write a book, and a screenplay, and a treatment or two,” his approach is similar to many other male writers who recommend a take-no-prisoners time-management approach.

Conversely, women writers are more apt to offer advice that recognizes that women writers live in a world of jobs and children and cooking, and offer suggestions like write on your lunch break at work, after you drop the kids off at school, or while dinner’s in the oven.

McGriff (2017) is typical of many women when she says, “I have three good hours to write Monday through Thursday. That includes my lunch hour at work and two hours in the evening after my daughter goes to bed” (Tip section, para. 3).

Also, in contrast to Atchity, is female television producer and author Storey (2016) who tells women, “Think about your story while you chop vegetables, then while waiting for pots to simmer, write down those thoughts” (Tip section, para. 5).

This difference in advice on how to find time to write further illustrates the social-cultural divide between men and women. This clearly shows that the writing advice offered by men may be bad advice for women writers to follow, because it may set a standard that many women are unable to reach.

***

It doesn’t matter what men writers tell you, there is no best practice for women writers.

Your writing life has to work with you: your life circumstances, who you are, where you are in life, even what kind of writing you do. (Are you writing novels or poems? The time commitment from idea to finished product is vastly different in those genres.)

A woman’s life is messy/multi-faceted/busy/overwhelming and you have to go with the flow.

Need a boost? Go back to basics.

Block out time. Schedule it as if it were a job you had to show up for every week. Tell yourself, for X amount of time, I’m going to sit at this spot, doing this work.

If you’re not currently blocking out writing time, look at your day and where you can write instead of doing something else.

Then, let the world fade, focus on your writing in that moment, and get the words on the page.

Finding Secret Undiscovered-for-Writing Pockets of Time to Write

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For a woman, every day is about making choices. Some of those choices we have no control over. We have to be at work at a certain time, pick up the kids from daycare, or take the cat to the vet. But there are other things that we do have control over: like whether or not we write.

When we own up to the fact that we really do choose whether or not to spend a piece of our day or week writing, then it’s coming from a place of empowerment. We’re in charge. We’re saying yes or no to writing at that time. That replaces victimhood.

So, let’s acknowledge there are things we must do. These things are not choices.

If your days are busy and chaotic, like mine. Then, look for those quieter moments where you can settle in and write for a little while. Do you commute to work? Can you write to and from your job? Or can you bring a sack lunch, stay at your desk and write a few days a week? How about if you treat yourself to a coffee and sandwich at a nearby coffee shop and spend that hour alone writing?

Here’s my point: If you’re truly invested in your writing, you may need to look for those secret, hidden, undiscovered-for-writing pockets of the day that don’t take away from family and home responsibilities, and do your writing at those times.

Find Your Work-Life Balance

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This tightrope walk is how I feel most days. I’m trying to keep my career, my home life, my family life, my writing life in balance.

Are you envious of that sort of fluid life-writing experience that selling writers talk about? Do you wonder how you can weave writing or more writing into the moments of your day?

But for the most part, the thing of it is, you just have to do it. And that’s way easier to say than do.

First, figure out which days and for how long you can write. If it’s going to be one hour a day, if it’s going to be only two hours a week you can write.

Then, whatever time you can take to write, you do it religiously.

It doesn’t matter what time of day you write, as long as you mean it, and you stick to it. Make your routine rigorous – not hard – just rigorous. What I mean by this is that you train yourself to lock in and do it. If you miss your writing session, get right back on the horse at the next writing session time.

Here’s why: You must sit down and write. You can fix a page that has words on it. You can’t edit ideas.

Everyone’s life is busy. So, because of how life is, there will times when you just have to do things and you don’t have time to write. One on hand, it’s incredibly important than you be loyal to yourself and make your writing time happen. But on the other hand, don’t beat yourself if something interferes. Things are going to happen that you can’t foresee. As soon as you can, just get back to your writing.

Do. Not. Beat. Yourself. Up.

Be disciplined about your writing, because writing is what you want to do; but when life gets in the way be forgiving to because that’s what you need to do.

We’re being lied to

We’ve been told we all have the same 24 hours, no excuses.

Except that we don’t. No, really, we don’t. We’re too busy cooking and cleaning.

A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey showed that women still spend 1 hour and 18 minutes more every day on household activities* than men do.

*Household activities: things like housework, cooking, taking care of the kids, and other household management.

On an average day, 19% of men do housework, compared to 49% of women; 46% of men do food prep or clean up, compared to 69% of women.

If you’ve wondering why you can’t find time to write, that’s one reason. So don’t feel guilty when you run out of time. And, for goodness sake, don’t listen to anyone that tells you you’re not trying hard enough.

Are You a Talented Derelict?

The creative life has to be kept in order on a regular basis. It’s not good enough to go to it for one day, or a few, a couple times a year. Creativity requires the luxury of time, which we must carve out for ourselves—even if it’s only fifteen minutes. Creative people need that luxury of time: time with friends, time with family, time to themselves with no agenda, even time to do their creative work.

We know in our bones what is right and what to do about it. Even if we say this is not so. Even if we will not admit it out loud. Even if the rigors of life distance us from our deeply intuitive lives. Even if, for reasons that seemed like good ones at the time, we have accepted permanent exile from our creativity impulses.

The truth is that creative people who don’t take time to take care of their creative life become very, very cranky. I have heard all the excuses that any creative person might knit up: I can’t right now. I’m not talented. I’m bored. I’m not important. I’m not educated enough. I have no ideas. I don’t know how. I don’t know what. I don’t know when. I don’t know why. I’m too busy. I don’t have time. I don’t have money. I don’t…I don’t…I don’t…

The promise of a creative life is very scary.

But, perhaps you didn’t know that being scared is most often very, very good for a creative person: it shows us what will happen if we allow ourselves to become talented derelicts. And often that’s scary enough to scare us back into creating again.

Don’t spend time wondering how you lost your way. It can be difficult to know exactly where we lost our way, for it is an insidious process, one that doesn’t occur in one day, but rather over a long period of time. We learn early to act on what others say, value and expect. Thus, we walk a long way down the wrong path before realize we did not actually choose this road.

Turn around, find your path. Walk your path.

Writing Practice: the dreaded 15 minute write

Almost every writing teacher argues that the basic unit of writing is writing practice, usually a timed exercise, with the admonition that through practice you actually do get better.

However, I have never enjoyed exercises like: Look at a plant. Write the life of the plant – what it’s done, what it’s seen, where it’s heading, its thoughts. I have never found advice like, try writing in your notebook upside down, or turn the book sideways, or write outside the margins to be helpful. I just do not believe that these small tasks will force me to think in creative ways, that forcing my brain to think outside the lines will make me a better writer.

I used to despise writing practice.

I felt like I had little enough precious time and I did not want to fritter it away on writing that was just practice. After rereading Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Campbell’s The Artist’s Way, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, I revised my aversion to writing practice. I mixed up their ideas and came up with a system that works for me, and it is one that I now encourage my writing students to use as well.

I advocate writing for either fifteen minutes or three pages, whichever comes first. However, from there my approach differs. I warm up with the first page of writing. I am primping the pump, so the rules are simple: Write without stopping. Do not be concerned with being good. It is warming up the writing muscle, just like stretches warm up our physical muscles.

But after the first page is done, I switch to deliberate writing, and this different type of writing. This is where I deviate from Brande, Goldberg and Campbell. In the next two pages I generate new writing. It’s deliberate. It’s specific. This advice does not originate with me—I got it from Priscilla Long who said, “The writing done in writing practice can be about anything . . .It can be an observation exercise. It can be work on an essay, story, article, or scene. It can be used to conceptualize new work” (p. 15,16).

Since I read that advice a year ago, I have done writing practice almost every day. I have written poetry. I have done character sketches. I have drafted new essays. I have done observation exercises. I’ve moaned and complained (I do it once in a while). Usually, I plan, conceptualize and draft new work.

I agree with Long when she says, “In a busy life, a week and then two weeks can go by in no time at all, with little or no writing done. The practice of writing for fifteen minutes per day simply deletes this problem” (p. 15). More importantly, writing for fifteen minutes a day helps commit to safekeeping a woman’s writing life.

#MondayGoals

Monday is a good day to start a new writing project. Research, bonafied peer-reviewed research, suggests that we may be more likely to actually follow through with our writing goals, if we start on a Monday rather than another day of the week. Monday signals a new beginning; and a new beginning provides a motivating and meaningful fresh start. Researchers found that this fresh start effect may have a serious impact on our real world behaviors. Essentially we are more empowered and motivated to pursue our goals when we start on a Monday.