Delilah Dawson on Finding the Time to Write

I’ve been loving the “Ten Things” bursts of writing advice Delilah S. Dawson posts on Twitter. This one, on Finding the Time to Write, grabbed me by the lapels and shook, so let’s talk about it. All quotations below are her words, from the linked thread1.

  1. My best tip first: DON’T LET YOUR WRITING PROCESS GET PRECIOUS. By which I mean that you don’t want to get too caught up in a ritual– at this time, drinking this coffee, in this chair. Make it so that you can write anywhere, laptop or pad. Keep your process nimble, not rigid.

Like all writing advice, the ritual thing is mutually exclusive: some folks say, have a ritual, always write in the same place or at the same time or using the same device… but doesn’t the above directly contradict that?

So which one is RIGHT?

Well, there is no right. All that matters is you get the words in, I’m pretty sure that’s Delilah’s point. Note she doesn’t say “don’t have a ritual, throw out your lucky t-shirt”, she says don’t get too caught up in your ritual.

It’s one thing to have a lucky t-shirt, but if you can’t work on your novel because it’s in the wash, you’re screwed.

I suspect that when authors talk about their rituals they’re not to be taken too literally: yes, when all the pieces are in place, Stephen Pressfield does all the stuff he describes in the The War of Art, but I would guess he probably types a couple hundred words into his phone now and again.

And whether he does or not, look: I want to embrace both worldviews. I am happy to have a ritual, it works well for me2. But after reading this thread, you know what? I was sitting in a pub waiting for my friends to show up, and instead of scrolling Twitter I opened Ulysses and just started writing.

Fast and messy. And there’s an extra 150 words by the time my mate showed up. That felt great.

Which brings us to,

  1. Stop thinking you need 4 hours to get anything done. Start thinking in doable chunks. Let’s say you aim for 1000 words a day, about an hour of writing. Do a page in the morning, a page at lunch, two pages at night. BOOM. Totally doable. Those little bits add up!

I’m not good at acting like writing books is my job. I don’t sit at my desk for hours at a time; I get up early, write for 20-40 minutes, and then go have breakfast.

After that, most of the day runs away with itself. I’ve had a hard time putting the writing at the forefront: that is, fitting the rest of the day in around writing as opposed to slipping a little writing into my day.

It’s frustrating. But this tip reminds me I am still getting somewhere: I’m 12,000 words into the draft in about two weeks; I wish it was even more, but that’s still much, much, much better than I’ve ever done except that one time I did NaNoWriMo: and the output of that frenzied month never went anywhere.

This time it feels more sustainable: if I have to go get a job again in a few months, so be it, as long as I’m up at 6 and writing before breakfast, this book will get done.

  1. Make writing A PRIORITY. When you’re just starting out, it can be hard to treat writing like a job– like it’s important. I was insecure about it, too. Telling family you need time and they need to respect it for what feels like a hobby is hard. THIS IS ART. ART IS IMPORTANT.

This. Fundamentally, this is what I grapple with the most.

It’s one of those cases of “I know I want to do this… so why aren’t I?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve hit a lot of such roadblocks over the years. Here’s a thing I want to do… but somehow I spent the whole day doing other stuff instead.

What’s going on here? One part is, just wanting to do stuff doesn’t seem sufficient if

  1. Doing something else is easier, or
  2. You have the habit of doing something else (a special case of 1.), and
  3. It’s not totally clear what to do next, or
  4. Something about the thing you want to do threatens your identity

That last one, which Delilah touches on in the quoted tweet above, is at the heart of it. It’s subtle, cryptic, it’s this thing we know is there but it disappears when we turn to look, it slips thorugh our fingers when we grasp for it.

It’s that thing Stephen Pressfield called The Resistance: The part of you that doesn’t want to change.

Is this just me? It’s hard to give myself over to my obsession with writing, with storytelling—it’s hard to take it as seriously as I want to take it. I want to be like a monk at this stuff: I really do want writing to be the axis the rest of my life orbits around. But it’s like this: I had a job, and tried to fit pleasant things around the job. Writing was one of them. Right now, I don’t have a job, bless me, so I just do pleasant things and try to fit writing around them.

But writing must become the job. It isn’t easy to flip that switch just because those words are capitalized in a tweet, even if I know they’re true, which I do. Maybe the secret is in that word priority. Delilah says “treat writing as a priority”, and the correct way to think about “priority”3 is that you can’t have A priority, you can only have THE priority: the priority is the one thing that can’t be allowed to die.

The core of it is focus. You focus on your priority. Once you’ve done that, you focus on whatever thing is the next priority. If you want to write but you have pick your kid up from school, picking your kid up is the priority. But once you’ve done so, then writing is your priority, and you shut the office door. Or put your headphones in, or whatever it takes.

So far the most effective way to make writing the prioriity for me is to do it first. But I want to go beyond that: I don’t want the production I can do in a day to be constrained to how long I can wait before breakfast, I don’t want to lose a day of writing just because I slept in until 8.

I want to reach the point where I spend a nice 3-hour block of time in a day working on the book; I’m sure I won’t be typing the whole time, god forbid, but I’ll be focused on the work like it’s a job.

When I was a software developer I was rarely focused on writing code for more than maybe 20-40 minutes at a time. Your mind wanders, you need to pee, you want a coffee, you want to chat. That’s fine as long as you come back and find some more time to be focused.

Bless the writer: frankly it’s a bit harder to get back into the headspace of a complex piece of software and working on it requires more complicated tools: I never got any coding done on the train or in the bar. We have it a little easier in that regard, that’s something to rejoice about.

I’ll keep working towards the point where I treat bookwritin’ like a full-time job so that it can be my full-time job. I’m not sure how to get there, yet, but Delilah’s tips took me a step further along the path.

  1. I haven’t used the cute little twitter-embed widget, because frankly I don’t trust Twitter not to fuck it up; either to not exist anymore in five years, or to, I don’t know, decide they need to start injecting ads into other people’s websites via that mechanism. For that matter, I assume it already carries tracking functionality… forget it. So I’ve just quoted and attributed the words themselves, which are the important bit.
  2. I hope it does eventually, anyway, it’s a work in progress.
  3. Chris fox just did a video about this topic

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D.J. Jacobson

Becoming a novelist, and documenting the journey.