After classes end, people often contact me saying they are having trouble finding time to write.  Do I have any suggestions how they can do better?   As a rule, I am against the how-to approach to writing because what makes the work sacred is how personal it is. 

Experience may bring a few tricks of the trade, but I’m not an expert on how to use time.  After all, managing it has spawned an industry of tracking apps, self-help books, and consultants.  Generally, people do not turn to fiction writers for tips on productivity.   

Still, I might answer a struggling student with some obvious ideas.   

1. Can you get up ten minutes earlier and write before the day gets away from you. 

2. Can you skip TV at night and write after the dinner, kids, and pets are squared away?   

3.  Can you miss a lunch hour work-out and write instead?  

Even if the answer is yes to all three, it won’t change that time is a writer’s most necessary ingredient and that there’s no magic trick to finding it.  

It always involves a trade.  It won’t be an easy one, it just has to be the right one.  

Early in my career, I tracked my spending until I saw how to cut my expenses by a fifth.  After talking to my boss, we agreed that for a pay cut, I could work four days a week.  I purchased writing time – a string of Tuesdays that I still look back on as some of my quietest and happiest days – for the price of never eating out, not turning on the heat before sunset, and any chance of getting promoted.   

For me, it was a good trade, but for you it might not have been.  

Just as there is no one way to write (and please run very far and fast from anyone who tells you there is), there is no one way to find the time; only the way that works for you.  Even though I was getting up at 5 am to write before work, I still needed the extra day for the convoluted story in my head to sort itself out on the page.  The time we need is measured by the gap between our ideas and what we can write.  

What I aim to do at Write to Read is provide a space where you have a home in the struggle to narrow that gap.  I don’t teach so as to tell you what to do.  Instead, just as I meet my work exactly where it is, I teach by gauging where you are in your work and try to point you in a useful direction.  

That includes editing, yes, but also encouragement to get to your desk.  You can remind yourself that the story that waits for you is fun.  But what works best is how much you value working to close your gap between the idea you have and what you’ve written.     

I will never tell you it is easy, but I will swear at sword’s point that it’s worth it.  

Trading for time to write is not akin to cleaning out your closet or going on a three-day detox.  Both of those tasks have a built-in end date, while the beauty of writing is that it transforms more than it finishes.  I will complete a draft, but guess what?  

It. Always. Needs. Work.  And the work can be elusive to measure (even if you have a daily word count quota).  

I can’t explain to myself, let alone to anyone else, why on some mornings I get five hundred words in with my coffee and on others I wind up deleting more than I keep.  But I do have one last suggestion that is more useful than how you spend your lunch hour:  Listen to what time has to say.  

If I took a dollar from every person who has said to me, upon hearing what I do, If I could find the time, I’d write a book, my bank balance would be much improved.  But there’s nothing you could pay me for the expression on their faces when I reply: If you listen to your time, you might find it.  

When I make everything but my writing a priority, I’ve learned that it means what I’m doing isn’t working.  Maybe I’m trying to finish chapter fifteen when it’s the prologue that needs revising.  Whatever it is, I need to listen.  And then act.  So, perhaps, in the time you’ve cleared at lunch or in the morning, don’t sit at your desk:  Go for a walk, knit, or fold laundry.  

Listen to what time has to say about how you’re closing the gap between the story in your head and the one getting on the page.  Listen to what it has to say about possible trades.   

And then get back to work.     

{Top photo by Patrick Fore, Koch poem originally published in the May 18, 1998 issue of The New Yorker}