Lori won Good Housekeeping’s first short story contest and the 2008 Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction from The Madison Review. Her stories have been published in Crab Orchard Review, TimeOut Chicago, After Hours, Big Muddy, Southern Indiana Review, Freight Stories and other publications.
Currently, in addition to writing and her full-time job, Lori teaches at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing.
Find her on Twitter: @LoriRaderDay or at her writing blog
When I returned to full-time work after a break to pursue an MFA in creative writing, I was worried.
How-to finagle a hiatus from corporate America is a different post, but I’ll say this: that MFA time was glorious. I worked hard, producing two full-length manuscripts, publishing eleven short stories, and winning a handful of awards.
A good haul for three years, but I was right to worry. I’d always had trouble making time to write—until I had all the time in the world. During the five years I’d had my previous job, I didn’t write a single word for myself. Returning to the working world, wouldn’t I be thrown back into old patterns? Could I keep my momentum, given that most of my waking hours now belonged to someone else?
The good news from the trenches: It’s possible.
In July I finished a draft of a new novel, a book written entirely while working full time. How did I do it?
Any way I could.
I gave myself time.
The job I took after finishing my degree demanded my full attention. I had a lot to learn, and a new group of people and new environment to get to know. Instead of feeling frustrated that I had no energy—and no brain cells—to get any writing done, I penciled in a grace period. I gave myself six weeks before even bothering to try to write. Instead, I read cheerful books—discovering the delightful The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books—and watched whatever bad television I wanted.
I determined my best time.
When I was finally ready to write again, I had to figure out when it would happen. While in school, I could often write whenever the mood struck. Mornings were often best. Without the luxury of “whenever I want,” I had to decide what time I’d get the writing done or it wouldn’t. I had to make a plan—
—And then I had to let the plan slide when it didn’t work. My best time to write might be in the morning, but I had other responsibilities then that couldn’t be put off. (You try telling my dog that she doesn’t get a walk.)
While I sometimes still get up early to spend an hour writing before work, I had to compromise my best time to get time at all. Most of my writing—including the work for this post—occurs during my lunch hour. I still have to compromise: Maybe I have a working lunch one day, or a friend’s in town and wants to introduce me to Ethiopian food. But that’s life, and what life is made of. Ethiopian food, as it turns out, is really good.
I probably wouldn’t go get Ethiopian on my own. It’s communal food. But I do go out to lunch often, alone. Totally and unabashedly asking for a table for one, yes, I said one.
Lunches out don’t ensure that I write, but they ensure that I leave my office. When I leave my office, my time reverts to my own stewardship. Sometimes I need to run an errand, but most days I take my computer to one of the many fine establishments in the town where I work. Eating out for lunch so often is expensive and calorific, but it’s an investment I make that helps separate (and put to use) the hour in the middle of the day that still belongs to me.
Part of the lunches-out plan means investing in more than the cost of a sandwich. I have to keep a stock of quarters for the parking meters—which means going to the bank when I start to run out, see “be prepared” advice below—and I tip well. Really well. I don’t want to walk into a favorite restaurant with my telltale computer and see the servers roll their eyes.
I can commit the time, have my roll of quarters ready, and then be foiled by so many things. A change in plans at work. A sudden deadline. A call from home that the refrigerator blew up. And then if I survive all that and my computer isn’t charged, the day could still be a net-gain of zero words.
Be ready to write. Carry your notebook or your computer all the time. Or both. Make sure your computer is fully charged when you leave the office to write, because it’s a dog-eat-outlet world out there. I’m bothered by certain kinds of noises, so I always carry a set of headphones. (I built an iTunes playlist of melancholy music I use to cancel out chopsticks clicking or strident voices.)
I also keep a separate file of all the ideas I have for the piece I’m writing, cutting down the number of minutes I have to look at the blinking cursor. The blinking cursor, cousin to the blank page, is the enemy. Some writers leave a scene half-written—or even stop in the middle of a sentence—in order to give themselves a running start the next day. I don’t subscribe to this as a religion, but I do often start a writing session by reading the work I did the day before. That’s the way I slip inside the character once again, and then, if it’s a good day, I’m typing.
I try again.
Not every day is a good day.
I write any way I can.
My methods might not work for you. Sometimes, they don’t work for me. But if you keep trying, keep finessing how you get the writing done, you’ll get the writing done.
Write in the morning. Or write during your lunch break. Or write after work, huddled in a café while traffic dies down. Or write in the evening, after you put your children to bed. Write on weekends, on vacations. Write. We’re the ones who have to protect our own need to do the work.
Several bad, zero-word days have passed since I first started this article, but here we are, at the end. I wrote my novel draft in pretty much the same way, me and my laptop at cafes, at sushi bars, on my backporch. A few hours on a Saturday, forty minutes during lunch, a half hour before meeting girlfriends for pizza. A few words at a time, as long as it took. (It took over a year.) And in that same way, I’ll peck away at draft two.
Maybe it would be great to have all the time in the world, but I’m no longer worried. My day job provides security for my family in these tough times, after all. And beyond that, I have all the time there is. So do you.