These notes are from a writer’s workshop I presented at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop on June 7-8, 2017. It’s not the full workshop or prayer, of course, since much of that is improvised on the spot followed by conversational Q&A but this will at least give you a good idea of what I shared from my notes. I know not everyone can afford to get to writer’s conferences – been there! – and so I wanted to make this available to everyone.
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So Where’s My Cabin in the Woods: Finding Time, Energy, and Inspiration to Write When Your Life is Demanding”
When they approached me about developing a talk at a writer’s workshop weekend, I immediately thought of this topic because it is the number one thing other writers ask me about: how are you writing in your life right now?
I think people ask me that because from the outside my life looks pretty demanding and full. I have been doing almost all of my public writing as the mother of young children. I was pregnant and/or nursing – so basically sleep deprived – for ten years. I held a full-time job while writing for many years, only quitting my day-job when I had my first book contract advance in hand. And even then it was/is enough to pay for a babysitter two days a week, no more, so I am still a stay-at-home mum mostly which as we all know is a gigantic holiday. My husband works in a fast-paced demanding career of his own. We are committed to our local church and we ridiculously believe Jesus meant all of that stuff he said while he walked among us here on here so we’re committed to justice and peace-making in our everyday lives, too – making space for work we believe in. While I’ve been writing, my husband has gone to grad school, I have worked full-time and part-time outside of the home/writing life, there have been family health crisis, I have added in a robust travel/preaching schedule around the continent, we have moved a time or two.
When I wrote my first book, I was on maternity leave with a 4-year-old, a 2 year-old, and a newborn. I distinctly remember writing most of the first draft of Chapter 8 sitting on the bathroom floor while the baby napped every afternoon because I would put the two big kids into the tub to keep them busy for thirty minutes so I could write – I would have one eye on my laptop and one eye on the tub in case anyone slipped under. That isn’t glamorous – it makes a good story later but at the time, you’ve got two babies in the tub and one napping and you’re lactating and you are trying to wrestle down a lot of big thoughts about patriarchy!
I wrote my second book during a surprise later-in-life fourth baby pregnancy that was difficult, a traumatic birth experience, and a level of sleep deprivation that meant I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to operate heavy machinery like our minivan. We joke now that something has to be happening for me to finish a book: this latest book I just finished and turned in was completed while I was – and still am – in recovery from a major car accident haven’t been able to sit or stand without pain and I have daily headaches and other health challenges. And a family member’s health failed this year so we had a lot of time in hospitals and of course my children now range in age from toddlers to tweens.
However, I also recognize that there are people in this room who look at my life and think: must be nice. You are facing challenges I can’t even fathom and I want to acknowledge that and honour you for taking the time to be here today. I don’t want this session to turn into the Who Is Busier Olympics. We each have different demands on our lives and on our time and on our energy, we all have differing capacity and needs as writers. Even our demands are different – you may have a full-time exhausting job, you may be a caregiver to aging parents or to a special needs child, you may have money troubles and health crisis of your own etc.
There are a lot of factors that show up and I don’t know about you but if I had to read one more article that talks about how a writer had taken three months off in a cabin in the woods or how they required zero interruptions or had a solitary fellowship or months in a monastery, I was ready to cry. If being a writer meant having that cabin in the woods – which is the mythic metaphor for uninterrupted, solitary, sustained, romantic ideals of writing, well, I would never be a writer. And neither would you.
My goal for our short time together is three-fold:
- I want you to feel less alone – look around this room, these are your people – and
- I want you to go home and write in the midst of it all anyway.
- I want to give you 12 best practices I have learned that help me to write as much as I do. If we have time, I’ll open it up for us to share our best-practices for carving out time, energy, and inspiration to write with one another.
(…did a quick take here on myth that making time to write is selfish etc…)
Here they are:
All the tips on time-management don’t always apply so well when you have an unpredictable life based on other people’s routines and needs or demands. (Can be small children or care giving or working full time etc.)
So practically, I want to make a bit of space this morning to take on the things I actually do to make time, energy, and inspiration to write.
Choose your no now.
You will have to say no to something in order to say yes to writing. You will be surprised how much you have to say no. This is a reality. As my mum used to say, You can have everything, sweetheart, just not all at once. For me, I say no to a lot of things – good things, commendable things, honourable things. Not just things like “guilty-pleasure tv” either. I mean: I don’t lead a home group or a bible study at our church anymore. I couldn’t do it and still write. We have had to find other ways to contribute to our church’s life and community – I’m on the Sunday morning teaching team, for instance – but that one had to be released. It’s a huge temptation – I have a sitter two days a week now and so I could use that time to run errands or mentor young people or get groceries or to help with art projects at school – which are all valuable and good things! But I choose to write in that time instead. So far no one’s life has fallen apart because I said no. Drop the work that you feel obligated to do. Don’t say yes just because of “exposure” every time.
When you do have time to write, you have to write.
Writers are like toddlers – boundaries will give us room to thrive. To be honest, I don’t think I started writing in good earnest until I had no time to write – the loss of all the time in the world means you make the most of the time you do have. When I had all the time in the world to write, I didn’t write. When my time was compressed, I began to make the most of it. If you know you only have two hours of time to write after the kids go to bed or while your dad is at his physio appointment or thirty minutes on your lunch break (been there for all of those), you can’t use that time to do all the other stuff like finally completing a will like you’ve always meant to do or you can spend it doing quizzes on Buzzfeed. There is some little imp that lives in my mind when I want to write – an imp who says things like “now would be a great time to clean the baseboards!” – and it is super hard to write against the imp – that voice doesn’t go away until you begin. Recognize that your writing time is condensed or reduced but decide to make the most of it. It is more potent writing. (One quick way I get back into the swing is to edit what I did the day before – just a quick read through and tune up and then carry on.)
Draw the boundaries but acknowledge that you’re drawing them with pencil.
There will be interruptions, there will be changed plans, there will be emergencies like a sick kid. You can’t lose it over these normal life happenings. We have to be willing to bend a bit – it can’t be “our way or no way” or else it will always be “no way.” Deal with it and return, again and again. Roll with the hiccups. Some days won’t work out. There will be tomorrow. But!!! if every single day is an exercise in “oops, didn’t write today!” then something about your day has to adjust – look for a “no” you can begin to deploy, go back to #1 and choose some “no” now.
You’re the hero – no one can do this for you.
I remember when my children were born having this sense of overwhelming responsibility: I was the parent. Me. I mean, surely a grown-up would show up at some point to take over, right? When my eldest was just a baby, I remember turning to prayer in a way that I hadn’t ever experienced before her birth because it occurred to me that I was the one who would pray for her. Who else would contend for this baby through prayer but her mother? It was a revelation of both my position and my authority and capacity and my stewardship. I have felt the same way about writing: no one else is waiting for me to write but me. There are enough writers out there, of course there are. That’s not the point! If I don’t make a priority for this, no one else will do it. You choosing to write is a contending of your own: you need the revelation of your authority and your stewardship for your gift. No one can write for you and there will always be a long line of people or circumstances to stand between you and your work – your job is write anyway. If you’re waiting for someone to come along and magically make you a writer, you will be waiting a long time. There is no one coming to rescue you and make you a writer – you are your own hero here. No one is coming to make your dreams come true or to finish that book – you are the hero of that book’s birth.
Fill your well.
I believe we write out of the well of our soul so fill up your soul with what makes you alive. What brings you alive? What clears your mind? What fills your soul? Do those things instead of the other things. Take time to figure it out – your list will be different than mine. Write down a few things that you can turn towards to fill the well. You can’t write from an empty well and so whenever you can, fill your well. And here’s something VERY important: learn the difference between self-comfort and self-care. My friend Kelly taught me about this and it changed my life! Self-comfort has a place – the Netflix binges, the bad food, the laying on the couch for a day of reading, all good things. Self-comfort is about numbing. But self-care is about coming alive. Self-care is what fills the well of your soul. For me, I fill my well in a lot of ways: I love to read good books. I love to read poetry. I spend a lot of time in scripture and in prayer. It surprises people to know how much home-making fills my well – having a clean and relatively well-run household clears so much space in my mind, it’s ridiculous but there it is. I roll with it. Even as an introvert, I need vital and good friendships – I find it impossible to write with any real authenticity about community if I’m not ENGAGED in community. I need alone time. I need time out in the wilderness – that’s one nice thing of living in Canada, I’m never more than ten minutes from total wilderness. Figure out what fills your well and honour that need.
Reduce the noise in your life as much as you can.
This is the flip side of #5 – just as some things fill your well, some things drain the well. For me, I know what stresses me out and so that means I do actually structure my life around avoiding some of that energy-sucking stress. For instance, I have no notifications on my mobile or on my computer. None – I cannot focus or read or be present or write or even be a person if my phone is pinging with every comment or message all day. I avoid texting with anyone but my mother and my husband and my sister, that’s it. And if they text me more than three times in a row, I’m overwhelmed so they are patient with me. I never get a notification about an email or a Voxer or a Facebook comment unless I log into that thing. I can’t concentrate or even live my life with a constant pinging. I’ll lose my ability to focus and to be present which informs my work. That’s a small example but there are many others – think about what sucks your energy, big and small, and look for ways to manage that proactively. We’re not as powerless as we think.
I’m not a perfectionist, I’m a good-enough-ist. Is anything we write perfect? Never. But is it good-enough, yes. Would you like a cabin in the woods? Yes. Is the public library for an hour good enough? Absolutely. So get to work. We all know – it’s not just finding “the time” – it’s finding the mental real estate and energy for writing. Start. Write anyway even when you are tired and the words are dumb and you hate the whole chapter. As St. Anne says, write that terrible first draft. You dare to write that good-enough poem and you’ll get it where you want it eventually.
Find your “prime time.”
Get the most words in the least amount of time by moving heaven and earth to write during your most productive/best time. This was a game-changer for me. For me, I write best first thing in the morning.When I write in the morning first thing, i can church out 5,000 words in five hours. But if I have ten hours after noon, I might wrestle down 250 words. It’s not time well spent. So I work with my prime time to get the most words possible in the least amount of time. I use any afternoon time or evening time or plane layovers – a time when I’m not at my creative/writing best – to handle the other tasks of my vocation like email, admin, marketing, social media, etc. Learn how to embrace the not-ideal times of writing, too – I have often snatched out thirty minutes here and there and maybe I only got a paragraph of words on the page but guess what? That was a paragraph more than I used to have.
Learn to hold ideas well.
One of my biggest tips is to learn how to hold an idea until you can write it out. I “scaffold” ideas in notebooks because I have rarely been at a computer or in “prime writing time” with the stars aligned and no one needing anything when ideas strike me. Flashes of brilliance happen at the most inopportune time – I have had to learn how to hold the idea until I can write it out – sometimes that happens soon but other times it’s a day or two or a week or more. I jot down blog post ideas in my notebook, I leave voice messages for myself, I sketch an outline for a chapter long before I actually write the chapter. Sometimes this means an idea loses its magic, absolutely, but other times, it means that I ruminate on the idea for a while longer, explore it in my mind or in prayer more, before I hit the page in good earnest which is all good work, too. Learning how to hold onto an idea until you can write it out well is discipline but it also means you do the soul or mind work of the idea before you hit the page, too, so it’s not wasted anyway.
Build a strong home team.
You cannot do everything and it is okay to ask for help and even more okay to pay for help if you can. I do a lot of speaking and I meet a lot of the writers we all look up to and you know what I have learned? They almost all have a strong home team. By that, I mean that they have recruited or paid or prayed their way into having a babysitter or an admin assistant or a social media manager. You cannot compare your life to someone else’s online life – you don’t know what is happening behind the scenes to facilitate their full-time job. You aren’t failing because you can’t do everything. No one can. Your life is your life: we can’t all do this and we all don’t have this. You do what you can do with what you have and try not to ask yourself why this other writer seems to be able to do it all and have it all while publishing twice as much as you. That way madness lies. And then when it is crunch time – when the book is due, when the proposal needs to be sent it tomorrow – you can carve out the time by having a strong home team to pick up the slack. When I’m under deadline, everyone shows up. However, don’t forget: don’t be a taker. Home teams are cooperative by nature – we show up for each other. You can’t expect a home team if you aren’t on someone else’s home team.
Don’t underestimate faithfulness.
Learn to be a finisher. Starting something hard is way more fun than finishing it well. Be stubborn. Be persistent. Be more stubborn than you think you can possibly be. When people ask me how to write a book, I always say, never ever underestimate faithfulness. Stay faithful to the work, stay faithful to your calling, stay faithful to it. There is no magic to it – you stay faithful. Being a sticker is undervalued in our culture. Put your bum in the chair and keep going, day after unsexy day.
Don’t resent your life.
Your life is what makes you a great writer. We are all writing out of the well of our lives – you’re here in this session because your well is deep and full. For instance, if you’re a parent, don’t resent your kids for being kids. Show up for your kids and place the greater priority on being a good parent. I happen to believe the best writing comes out of people who live their lives, keeping one foot in the real world. The Kingdom of God is breathing in your life right now …
Prayer for Writers
And now I want to pray for you. (Now the way I pray may not be the way that you pray, but I hope there’s room for that.)
Thank you for giving us so much more than permission: thank you for giving us a calling. I pray for the courage to hope again, to push back against the darkness with hope and love together.
I pray for my friends here, for the artists in this room.
What a precious calling we have been given together. Thank you for gathering us here. Thank you for the ways that you have encouraged each one of us. Holy Spirit, I pray that each one of us would hear one thing – just one thing – over our time here that we can carry home, back to our lonely work, like a flame to sit in the window, guiding us into our next season of life as artists.
I pray that that you would fill my friends here with peace that passes all understanding. I pray for capacity to increase – their capacity for life, for writing, for joy, for faithfulness, for sorrow, for art would grow. I pray for a rich outer life to feed their rich inner life. I pray for healing in the broken places, for rest for weary souls – streams in the desert! Love, would you have the run of their house?
In the name of Jesus, I pray that we would have the guts to follow where you lead us. I pray for boldness. For truth-telling. I pray that we would be people of freedom, pouring out gobs of freedom. But first, Jesus, may we know what it is to be free. May we walk in holy, God-breathed freedom.
I pray for us to be a people of grace. I pray that our lives and our art would become outposts, holy signs along the path, giving a lost world a glimpse of the abundant life we have found in you. May we begin with our own life-giving lives.
I pray for ideas. For wisdom. For follow-through. I pray that doors would open, I pray that we would not become strategists who make art occasionally but that we would be prophetic artists of the holy imagination. Even when it doesn’t make sense to the strategists, that we would hear your voice in our ears saying “this is the way, walk in it.” I pray for doors to open that no man, no woman, no gatekeeper could shut. I pray for creativity to flow out of the deep river of life, flowing from your throne. I pray for provision, for bills to be paid, for our homes to be places of refuge for us and for our loved ones.
May we proclaim the Kingdom of God, your beautiful ways, with our hands and our feet and our voice and our pens to every soul in our care and influence. I pray that we would long for prayer and for the Scriptures. Father, may we keep secrets, may we be the ones who give away money, who share meals, who make room at whatever table we end up at, who are generous with the platforms we enjoy, and who are the ones who sit alone in silence outside under the sky and are satisfied.
May we be the ones who do not despise the days of small things, but instead find you in beautiful obscurity.
I pray that no matter our tool or method – fiction, theology, blogging, speaking, memoir, poetry, whatever – that we would walk in the knowledge of the sacredness and purpose of our callings. I pray for dreams and visions, for the active leading of the Holy Spirit, and I pray we would never forget that we are loved, that love is our identity, our calling card, our home.
I pray for perseverance and for discipline. I pray for speech seasoned with salt. I pray that when we are bored and tired and discouraged and frustrated, when we feel futile and hopeless, small and ridiculous that we will receive the gift of faith and somehow remember to sink into your love and to receive new life, new joy, new strength, new boldness, new courage, new faith, new vision.
We declare that we are the people of Love – by Love, for Love, through Love, in Love, called Love, prophesying Love! I pray we would keep our eyes open for signs of your presence – you are always up to something. Thank you for the joy of walking with you, for the joy of co-creating with you, for the joy of writing and being writers. It is a pleasure to know you like this!
Jesus, we love you. And we trust you.
In the name of Jesus,