Writing, for most of us, is a hobby. When someone asks what we do, we answer, “I work in the service industry,” “I’m an electrician,” or any number of positions that don’t involve a lot of creative writing – or creativity in general. Given the need to make money, there isn’t a lot of time to commit to our craft; thus, managing time becomes critical to our success as writers.
Success as a writer, however defined, requires time. No one is waiting for you to turn in that poem or short story or novel. You have to want it, but sometimes the more you want it, the harder it becomes, especially when you hit a creative block. As anyone who has ever untangled a basketball-sized knot of Christmas lights can attest to, the more frustrated you get, the more you try to twist and pull, the worse it becomes. It’s difficult to get yourself into the right mindset even when the time is available.
When writer’s block swoops in like the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, the best solution is counterintuitive, given that time is a precious commodity: Step away from the page. Engage in some kind of distraction. Anything to stop your mind from tying itself into an even more complex knot by hacking away at a keyboard when you know the quality just isn’t there.
That doesn’t mean you completely shut off your brain, however. The key lies in finding an activity or hobby that still feeds your creativity even when you aren’t actively writing. Give your mind something else to focus on, something that keeps you engaged creatively but without having to focus on that knot, and you may find that the unraveling is happening without you even thinking about it.
Managing time as a writer is a constant tug-of-war. You must be brutally honest with yourself about what’s important and what’s not. You have to be strict about what is worth your time. For each activity or distraction you pursue, ask yourself: Does this complement my writing or take away from it? If there are distractions out there that boost your creativity rather than draining it, wouldn’t that be a good investment of your spare time?
Let’s explore some useful distractions.
We have to read, right? As Stephen King said in his book On Writing, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” This serves two purposes: First, the more you read, the better you write. You can learn from the technique of those who have published before you.
Secondly, without reading, how would we know where to submit that novel about the soccer mom who finds a severed arm in her azaleas or that essay about the time you stubbed your toe on a buried treasure chest in Nassau? Whether you choose a long or short piece, you have to read other people’s work to know where yours fits – which website, which agent, which publisher.
So count reading as a de facto activity for writers, something you can’t ignore or put off. No matter if it’s audiobooks or the printed page, you need time set aside for reading within your realm. And this shouldn’t be an inconvenience, either: Reading is a constant source of fuel and inspiration that you should be happy to dive into on a regular basis.
There are plenty of hobbies that writers can pick up to accomplish this task of distracting themselves – recreational sports, video games, cooking, pottery, lion taming – if it interests you, and you enjoy doing it, why not indulge yourself from time to time? This is your life, after all; how you spend it is completely up to you. If you want to allow yourself to break from the work that writing often becomes and relax, then by all means, take a load off.
But remember – while you’re not writing, no one else is going to be writing it for you. There’s no denying it: If you get too engaged in pottery, or pyromancy, or scuba diving, you will spend time away from the page. And no matter how you define success as a writer, losing your time to write is never a good thing.
Ian S. Port, author of The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, And The Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘N’ Roll, answered pretty succinctly when asked in an interview what he did outside of writing. “Writers have to be careful with how many hobbies they pick up outside of writing,” he says. (His hobby is playing guitar, in case you couldn’t guess from the subject matter of his book.)
So occasionally these hobbies, these distractions that allow you to step away from your writing, suddenly take on a negative tilt, simply because they’re stealing away time that could be spent on your writing. It’s like consuming empty calories, and I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to lose some weight around the midsection. These distractions occupy your mind, which may be a good thing if you’re stressed and need to step away, but again – that writing is going nowhere if you aren’t showing it where to go.
But what if that distraction could also complement your creativity?
Take it from me. I’ve spent the last few years trying to learn the banjo, the piano, French, Polish, Welsh, karate, mountain climbing, and all manner of things, but they all fizzled, snuffed out by the drive to write and the inescapable truth that, unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in the day. Surprisingly, the only hobby that survived – and continues to survive – is video games.
And there’s a reason why. Video games, while distracting and (as mom used to say) unproductive, are story-driven. I find they complement my creativity, giving me ideas, inspiration, and fuel for writing without me actively seeking it out. Before I know it, after just a couple of hours, the creative juices are flowing again.
Think about the hobbies that you hold onto and really examine them, because inspiration strikes different writers in different ways. Maybe you always seem to get inspired when you’re wakeboarding or when you’re kneading dough. Those are hobbies to cherish. They serve the dual purpose of providing a break from writing while still keeping you in a creative mindset where you generate ideas and inspiration.
In that sense, no time is lost. Any hours you spend engaging in a hobby that opens up your creativity is time well spent because when you come back to your writing, your mind has rejuvenated and maybe, just maybe, you’ll already have a plan in place; a plan deduced while the second batch of bagels were rising.
Let’s be honest: Not every hobby works like that. Some are blatant time suckers. Plenty of writers out there spend time on mind-numbing apps or online poker and don’t get anything out of it. And that’s fine if you’re okay giving away that much time to something that isn’t furthering your creative endeavors, but if you want to make inroads into a very competitive creative writing world, you can’t spend five hours a day winning the Super Bowl in the latest rendition of Madden NFL.
Be wary of hobbies that act like pushing the pause button on your life. The problem is that the only one paused is you. All you’re doing is putting a bookmark in the story that you’re working on, only to come back to it when you don’t have anything new to bring to the project.
Not every activity that you engage in outside of writing has to be a grand endeavor. You don’t have to circumnavigate the world in a one-person sailboat or genetically modify an ear of corn that replenishes itself all in the name of creativity. There are plenty of activities that can serve the same dual purpose of giving you that necessary distance from your writing while also engaging with your creativity.
Going for a walk or a run is the simplest thing you can do to get in a better mindset. Sitting at a desk all day isn’t always the best thing for a human being, and taking a walk around the block, the neighborhood, the whole town, lets you stretch your legs and your mind. It also provides another intangible: perspective, letting in the world around you. Observations provide fuel for creativity as you eavesdrop on a conversation or run your hand along the coarse brick of a neighboring brownstone.
Cleaning the house gives perspective, too. It’s therapeutic to accomplish a good cleansing and provides peace of mind that settles the metaphorical dust kicked up by your latest foray into writing. Plus, it will feel good to walk barefoot across the room without all that loose cat litter sticking to your feet.
Another way to look at this topic is from a research standpoint. Maybe you’re writing about a main character who’s a surfer, and you’ve always wanted to surf yourself. What better time to take up a creative distraction that you’ve never had the time for than in the name of knowing more about it for your writing?
No matter what you’re writing, chances are there is going to be some research involved. That means giving up even more time. But if your research doubles as a detour for your mind, it’s like the old cliché says – you’re killing two birds with one stone.
And it doesn’t even have to be a major aspect of what you’re writing. The characters you’re creating within your writing should be like real people themselves. That’s the goal of character building, to make them so lifelike that they come off the page. Well, real people have hobbies, meaning that your characters probably have hobbies too, right? So why not make their hobbies your hobbies, even if they’re temporary? If your protagonist loves gardening, why not see if that activity puts you in the head of that character even more? And if you can drop in specific references, like why taro plants prefer the shade to the sun, then your credibility as an author just went up and your protagonist just started stretching her legs for when she stands up and walks right off the page.
No matter how much you love to write, none of us can spend every waking second of free time in front of the keyboard. The key to maintaining a successful writing life is guarding the hours, ensuring that time spent away from the page is time that will eventually help your story prosper.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Contests and Conferences at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches various blogging classes. His work has appeared in the Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, Cobalt Review, and more. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.