Photo credit: Kevin Irby
Let’s address the elephant in the room right from the jump: I’m not your mom.
If you make a kitty cat out of yellow Play-Doh, I do not have to showcase it on my desk at work for my colleagues to “enjoy.” If you trace your hand and make it into a Thanksgiving turkey, draw eyeballs on the thumb, turn the fingers into feathers, I don’t have to fasten it to my fridge and stare at it with awestruck pride. I’m under no obligation to cherish every little thing you make.
But while I’m not your mom, I may be your reader. I may gobble up your novel, your essay, your short story. I may, in fact, become your biggest fan, so long as you choose to honor your writing, so long as you carve out the time to be creative.
That’s the thing about making art in the 21st century: Where is the time?
I get it. You’re busy. It’s hard to make time. You have a family and friends and a job and, oh yeah, someone has to pick little Johnny up from soccer later or Child Protective Services might knock on your door and have some questions.
Here’s a little secret: It’s no one else’s job to help you prioritize your writing. There are bad reasons for not writing (sitting in your room doing bong hits and listening to the blues, or whatever — I might be projecting). But there are really GOOD REASONS not to write, as well. See: Johnny, sitting on the curb, his cleats clacking on the pavement, wondering why you’ve stranded him.
There is no bastion of free time coming in your life. You’re not suddenly going to see it sprout up, like a garden growing, feeding you with the leafy greens of Free Time! Life is hectic and it’s always going to be that way. So the onus falls squarely on our shoulders as aspiring storytellers: Are you going to talk about writing, or are you going to sit down and actually put words on the page?
Since 2009, I’ve published six books, five novels, and a memoir that just came out called Sirens
. With a wife and a toddler at home, I know how hard it can seem to dole time to our craft. That’s why I’m such a firm believer in timed writing.
The ticking clock — who knew it could be a liberating presence? But that’s what it is in my process. If I have a full day of commitments — a day in which I’d be hard-pressed to find an hour to write — I don’t punish myself for that “missing” hour. Instead, I set a timer for 10 minutes. And I write as fast as I can.
My working theory is this: No one is so important that they can’t find 10 minutes to write. And what I’ve found over the years is that the ticking clock, typically considered something punitive, well, that ticking clock is actually the Great Liberator.
There’s simply no time to be self-conscious in 10 minutes. There’s no time to contemplatively stare out the window and wonder on the great existential dilemmas that have plagued humankind since we wiggled out of the water. You can’t muse on the quality of the work you’ve already written, try to troubleshoot future narrative maladies, etc. No, this ticking clock alleviates all of these niggling things, and I just scribble. I don’t correct spelling or grammar. I don’t worry about anything except generating content.
Because content, in my process, is like gasoline. I string enough 10-minute writing days together, and suddenly I look up and I’m 50 pages, 100 pages into my next book.
So set your timer for 10 minutes and write. JUST WRITE! Don’t make any corrections. Don’t police what you’re putting down.
These are minutes dedicated to exploring your story. There’s plenty of time to come back and clean things up later in the revision process.
The other cool thing about writing with a time limit is that Mean Inner Editor who lives in your head and likes to shout things like “Hey, hack, don’t you think this corny story might be best kept between the two of us?” can’t bully you when you’re on the clock.
The ticking clock — who knew it could be a liberating presence?
I’ve found that when I’m chugging along so quickly in these 10-minute bursts that my Mean Inner Editor gets laryngitis. He might still be yammering, but his voice is soft, hoarse, harmless. I just keep scribbling, free from the jurisdiction of his crass and malicious observations.
So not only does the ticking clock help me consistently find the time to write — anyone can find 10 minutes — but it muffles the meanie. The result is that my imagination feels unencumbered. It is free to do its worst (or hopefully best) on the page.
That’s ultimately what we’re trying to accomplish: as writers, we need our imaginations to feel free. We can’t work if we’re too self-conscious. We want that Inner Editor gagged; that way, we are liberated from anything that might hold us back.
I know it sounds counterintuitive — a ticking clock actually freeing
you??!! — but give it a shot. In my process, this really helps. And it also acknowledges the fact that you’re busy — you have a job and a family and you want to do right by them. You want to be responsible and kind. You want to act with grace and aplomb. But you also want to write.
So, please, find that 10 minutes. It’s there. It’s currently being used to watch a YouTube video. Or silently judge the pictures your old high school pals post on Facebook. I hope you convert those minutes into writing instead.
Because I’m here to remind you that your art matters. That bears repeating: YOUR ART MATTERS!
No one else on earth has an imagination quite like yours. How cool is that? Nobody! You are the only person who has your imagination. It’s the ultimate strength on the page, and if you play to it — if you write the stories that only you can write — then you never have to worry if your reader is your mom.
She’s much more than that.
If you play to the great fingerprint of your imagination, your reader will soon become your fan.
I, for one, can’t wait to see what you cook up on the page.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Some Things That Meant the World to Me
, one of Oprah
magazine’s Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle
bestseller; Termite Parade
, an Editors’ Choice on The New York Times
Best Seller List; Damascus
, called "Beat-poet cool" by the New York Times;
and Fight Song
and All This Life
, which received a boxed review at Publishers Weekly
. His newest book is the memoir Sirens
. He recently moved with his family to Seattle, Washington.