I laugh to keep from crying when people ask me about my writing schedule after they find out I have a full-time job. Do I write in the mornings, at night, on the weekends? Do I go on residencies? Do I take the summer off?
No, no, no, no and no. I work a full-time job and usually a second job as well. I hardly ever get enough sleep as it is, so staying up late or waking up early are not options. With all this year-round work and my other responsibilities, I can’t afford the time off to go to any residencies or retreats. I can manage 1 or 2 short conferences a year if they’re not too far away and have flexible schedules, but that’s about it.
Somedays, I really don’t know how I managed to write two books or what makes me think I can finish two more in the next eight months. But what keeps me going is an idea I happened on a while back: the necessity for guerrilla writing tactics….
From wikipedia: Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and less-mobile traditional army, or strike a vulnerable target, and withdraw almost immediately.
This is how I get my writing done: I ambush myself—I work in short, concentrated bursts, some as short as 5 minutes at a time. I do my writing on the dinner table, on the bus or at the bus stop, at work during lunch, when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, or any other chunk of time that opens up…
What follows are some suggestions for developing your own guerrilla writing tactics:
1. Banish any ideas you have of what a ‘writer’s life’ should look like
Yes, I’d love to write full-time, spend months at writer’s colonies and residencies, make enough money from my books and speaking engagements to live, travel to far0off places and ‘experience the world,’ etc., etc. but that’s not what my life looks like….
2. Forget about a ‘writing routine’
Getting locked into a I-can-only-write-at-this-time-of-day routine means that the writing is always disrupted when work or someone else’s needs take precedence…
3. Demolish your need for a ‘writer’s space’
I’ve read all those books too that talked about creating a ‘sacred writing space’ where you’ll feel inspired and safe and comforted…but what that ends up meaning is that you can’t write unless you’re in your writing space…although, one suggestion: if you must have one….imagine one that you can access all the time from anywhere…one that you can go to in your mind….a long time ago, I’d imagine I was walking on a beach, headed toward a house on stilts that had a huge deck where I’d sit to do my writing…
4. Be flexible about deadlines
I generally support the idea of self- or externally-imposed deadlines, but it may be necessary to let those go too…otherwise you may run the risk of undermining your determination if your project isn’t coming along according to schedule…my old tai chi instructor said that in China there was a saying about mastery of a skill and time: “If not in one year, then five. If not in five years, then ten. If not in ten years, then twenty.” Our work is going to take the time it needs to reach its fullness.
5. “Think about the 5 min you do have, not the 55 you don’t…”
This one I heard recently from the amazing and energetic poet, Naomi Ayala. If we expend time/energy thinking about the 55 minutes we don’t have, we’ll become bitter/angry/frustrated/upset and that will prevent us from seizing those precious 5 minutes.
6. Writing & daydreaming & contemplating
As far as I’m concerned, they’re all writing. I’ve never tried to measure it, but I’m quite sure I spend twice as much time staring into space as I do actually writing/typing. Happily, unless I’m driving, I can stare off into space pretty much anywhere.
I don’t like to lay out in advance everything I’m writing. I would probably lose my mind if I was trying to follow an outline—but it helps to keep notes, rough outlines, lines, bits of dialogue that come to me on a few loose sheets of paper…I carry these everywhere I go—usually in my bag/purse…sometimes in a folder, sometimes just clipped together and folded. That way I have them to help me contemplate or I can scribble on them if something comes to me. When I have a moment, I’ll type up those scribbles and re-print my pages.
8. Composition notebooks/laptops/cell phones
Use whatever you have and use it wisely. I, for one, can’t write on pretty journals. I also don’t like legal pads. I’m pretty sure I’d love a leather journal with paper refills, but I’ve never spent the money on one (plus they’re a bit heavy and I’d hate to spill something on it). I write on my loose note pages, in a composition notebook (those $1 ones), or on my laptop. The note pages and the composition notebook go everywhere with me. The laptop I only carry if I think I have a chance at an hour-long interval somewhere. (No car, so I have to think about how much things weigh.)
Another idea: a friend of mine, Tammy Melody Gomez, once told me that she’d call her own voicemail and leave lines of poetry or dialogue or ideas for a new work. Doesn’t work for me, but I offer it in case it works for you.
Whether or not you have a supportive writing community, an inspiring mentor, an understanding family, publication credits, receptive audiences, or a chance in hell of getting a Pulitzer, you’ve got to believe you can keep on writing…believe you can finish that book…believe in that shelf full of books with your name on the spine…believe in whatever your dream is…
10. Don’t give up
That’s the most important thing we need to tell ourselves and each other: Don’t Give Up.