When time is on your side
“My output should be Olympian –Proustian, but…”
Edward Hamlin is author of Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. A full-time writer now, he used to be a business executive with a demanding career that kept him from a serious commitment to his creative work. While he did somehow manage to learn the craft and find his voice, he didn’t “really get disciplined about finishing things, submitting things, and publishing things until middle age.”
Today that busy corporate work life is in his rearview mirror.
Early each morning, he’s got an appointment with his computer. Mornings are slotted for first drafts, afternoons for revision. Around dinnertime, he calls it quits.
In a way, he feels he’s making up for lost time, but even so, he sets no page goals. “On a good day I can do around 12-15; on an extraordinary day as many as 20-25. But I have plenty of days when three good pages seems like a fine achievement.” As with Ohlin, the number of pages Hamlin tends to generate depends on the kind of writing he’s doing. “Dialogue goes faster for me, to the point where it almost feels like cheating. Once the characters start talking, I just transcribe.”
Writing prose is an entirely different matter: “My prose style is pretty saturated, by contrast, and it takes a long time to get it right because I do a lot of micro-revision as I go. I find I need to do that in order to hear the voice and understand the story. So, 10 pages of narrative is a lot heavier lift than 10 pages of dialogue. I’m guessing that’s true for most writers.”
Hamlin sees his full-time writing life as “mostly good.” Mostly, but not completely, because, for one thing, he feels he should be getting more work done with all the time he now has. “I’m never quite happy with my productivity given that I have so much unstructured time. My output should be Olympian – Proustian – but, well, it’s usually not.”
For one thing, he experiences the typical distractions. “House-husbandry and other distractions expand to fill the time available. Life intrudes. Sloth intrudes. Sometimes everything intrudes.”
For him, a break from the actual writing slows down his production, yet he does have to admit that there is something serendipitous about it: “Physical movement can help unblock the imagination. I really believe that taking a good walk or hike, cooking dinner, taking a shower can get one unstuck in short order. Of course, I prefer my own desk and woodsy view, but sometimes throwing myself into a different setting helps.”
Writing is in Hamlin’s blood, and if it’s in yours, he recommends writing every single day. “The butt must be in the chair. I wouldn’t presume to quantify it, though; one good hour is probably more useful than six hours staring out the window.”
“My recent retirement might seem to be an enormous change.”
Gary Fincke, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and author of numerous story and poetry collections, published 33 books during his 37-year tenure at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, the bulk of those years teaching creative writing and directing the undergraduate creative writing program.
Now retired and free to write as much as he wants, he’s nonetheless kept basically the same writing schedule as before, making no “enormous change,” as one might imagine he would, says Fincke. “I always did my writing very early in the morning, usually from about 5:30 to around 9.” With his early hours and his great productivity, Fincke might remind one of the prolific Anthony Trollope, who indefatigably wrote each morning from 5 to 8 before setting off for his job as postal inspector. “Old habits die hard,” says Fincke. “I still begin writing at 5:30, but now I’m usually done with it around 8. It’s age (73) more than time constraint that’s affected me.”
He has little interest in doubling his efforts and “suddenly finishing two books a year.” But it’s not just aging that accounts for this feeling. Instead, he’s experiencing a new creative horizon: For the first time, he’s able to really relish the act of writing itself: “Without deadlines and the sorts of rewards publishing brings to a professor, there is only the motivation of the joy I’ve always found in trying to create something that surprises me and gives me pleasure, what brought me to writing in the first place.”
A few final thoughts
If you’re a writer struggling for precious time to write, you’re not alone. Many writers are. But don’t give up. Get creative. Get innovative. Find clever ways to fit some writing in where and when you can. On the other hand, if you’ve got several hours a day freed up to write, you’re very fortunate. Make a schedule and stick to it – within reason, of course. But what if you have unlimited time to write? You could imitate the enormously productive Balzac, who sometimes worked away as many as 18 hours a day, standing up and caffeinated, to keep himself awake before his next writing bout. Still, you might be better off with a more moderate, much less onerous, sane schedule, one that allows you to “get your living by loving,” as Thoreau put it, and, at the same time, make steady headway – and that’s all any writer, regardless of circumstances, can really hope for, isn’t it?
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews. His collection of articles on fiction writing, Inventing the World, was recently published by Serving House Books.