A Little Is Enough

August 24, 2017 § 19 Comments


He’ll work on his book after this shot

At the Postgraduate Writing Conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts earlier this month, Andre Dubus III talked about his writing practice after his three children were born, when he was writing House of Sand and Fog. He and his wife both worked full time, and the hours outside work focused on parenting. He taught as an adjunct at several schools and picked up construction work on the side. How did he write?

Seventeen minutes at a time.

Each morning, he started his morning commute twenty minutes early. Each night, he came home twenty minutes late. At first he pulled into an apartment complex parking lot and wrote in the car, but after ten days someone called the police to check on him. Fortunately, he knew the officer. Dubus relocated to a nearby cemetery. It was quiet. Usually empty of people, especially at 5AM and 6PM. Every morning, and every night, seventeen minutes at a time, writing in pencil in a notebook. In summer, sweating with the car windows down; in winter, with the heat on until he got a carbon monoxide headache and had to stop. All the way to the end of the book.

True, some writers work best with large swaths of time. Writing residencies, the privileges of a spouse able to support the entire family, household help, co-working spaces–all grant us the luxury of time. But most of us have more things in our day than our artistic time, particularly if we’re not making a living (yet) at our art. And it’s hard to carve out substantial time in a busy family and/or professional life.

It’s hard to wrap our heads around this method–“Oh yes, I wrote four words a day for twelve years and then I had a book” is kind of what it sounds like, and it sounds a little ridiculous. For most of us, it’s re-thinking the writing process. There’s no settling-in time, no getting sucked down a research rabbithole that somehow led to Facebook.

But there’s value in touching the manuscript more often, even for shorter periods of time. Just like the atmosphere of a retreat, when our brain knows “I’ll be back at the page in a few hours,” we can find ourselves working through a plot line or suddenly realizing why a character did that awful thing while we’re moving through the world. Commuting with a song associated with our story on repeat, or with silent earbuds playing nothing while we think on the bus.

The first week of short writing bursts usually sucks, because it really is establishing a new habit, which takes time. But after ten days or so, the flow will be triggered by sitting down. You won’t have to work your way in any more.

Maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe it won’t. But there’s only one way to find out. This is a shorter-than-usual Brevity blog: why not take the extra minutes and write?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference Sept. 8-10 in Lancaster, PA. Want a registration discount code to sign up for a pre-conference workshop? Tweet her!

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§ 19 Responses to A Little Is Enough

  • Looking at all the weeds in my garden one summer, and complaining to a friend, she said to me,” You know, you can get an awful lot done in an hour.” I have held tight to those words ever since and applied them to every seemingly overwhelming task in front of me, including sitting down to work on my book.

  • That was my plan but each time I got up early someone else always has a call on my time. That is since I retired. Before I retired if I got to work early I just had to go in. No sitting in the car for me. Now I see what a fool I was and am.

  • Thank you for this. Sometimes I feel—egotist that I am—that these essays are written just for my benefit! Perfect.

  • Joanne says:

    So true. Thank you.

  • chrissy says:

    About a month ago I started doing this on my last ten minute break at work. I look forward to that time. I thought I would have a hard time writing but I don’t. The words keep flowing.

  • Wow–glad I read this. I’m working on a new writing plan today because my schedule is so unpredictable (and may become even more so if this new job opportunity comes). I need to log when I get a chance to write and for how long this week and weekend, and get real on my expectations.

  • I love this (if not the writing in the cemetery part … talk about a setting for the ‘setting’… yikes!) and it holds good wisdom not just for writing. It works for organizing closets (one half-shelf at a time, one box of knick-knacks at a time) and filing papers (one folder at a time or tittering pile at a time, however one stashes one’s “I’ll take care of it later things.”). Even for fitness (a few stretches while the coffee brews? one set of an exercise before the children’s bus comes in?). But, yes, maybe especially for writing, which so often can be relegated to the “when I have time realms.”
    With a full time job as a clinician and volunteer commitments for organizations, editing, book reviews and such, blogging and that endless wander-land of social media … writing often gets pushed back. I tend to do better with freeing up chunks of time for writing, but know that in the not so long ago past–when I’d taken the time to make the time (yeah I know, the irony)–I managed to squeeze out some decent writing in between sessions, if I had a cancelation, in the morning before work, in the evening after returning client calls. …
    Then I get slack or life interferes and it takes time to rebuild the habit. Yet, rebuild one can! Thank you for the reminder! As the summer wraps up I find myself hungry for more time and protective of the few days of schedule flexibility I still have left. I have a book to get out, adjustments to a jacket on a reprint of another … and so much more to write … Now I can remind myself that writing time–though parsed differently–doesn’t really end when my schedule populates with all the other things that make everyday busy life.
    Yay! (Not the cemetery part … I am not spooked by them per se, but I MUCH prefer other atmospheres. Then again, who knows what I’m missing in the muse department … who knows, eh?)

  • This was inspiring. I don’t know how many times I’ve given my students advice along similar lines…yet it takes a post like this to make it palpable for myself. The big sticking point right now is making sure I don’t go anywhere near the phone or the computer till I’ve done the writing. Great post!

  • Teri says:

    Exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you, Allison.

  • seingraham says:

    Love this! Am already a cemetery whore (forgive the expression, but it’s what we call ourselves, those of us who treasure the places and the silence)but never thought of using one just to carve out small slices of time. DuBus is brilliant. Reminds me a little of the advice in Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”, you know? Thanks.

  • ateafan says:

    This is so encouraging. Thank you.

  • charlesjr265 says:

    My plan was to write this morning, but as my mind is racing with the activity of the day, I decided instead to read and comment on some blogs I follow. I enjoy reading your blogs because I can relate to them so well. Writing has always been my number one and/or two passion (tied with psychology). With a ten month old who is determined to stand and walk every two seconds, it is almost impossible to sit down and think, let alone write.

  • […] In which Allison K. Williams, in recounting a moment from a faculty talk at the recent Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writing Conference, magically transports me back to Montpelier. (And also discusses the craft and practice of writing in short bursts—which is, in fact, her purpose!) […]

  • Inspiring. Thank you. I will try this.

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