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MFA Sunday School (Four: Budgeting Writing Time)

Welcome to MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work.

Let me guess what happened last week.  On the first day, you created a character.  On the second day, you couldn’t find time to do it.  On the third day, you made two characters and started on a third one just in case you missed another writing day this week.  And that’s what you have now because you did end up skipping the rest of the days — three and a half characters.  It is hard to find time to write.

I dated a guy back in graduate school who was inflexible about his meditation time.  He meditated twice a day for about a half hour each time.  He meditated some time between 7 – 8 am and again between 3 – 4 pm.  And guess what, he always got to meditate.  Most of the time, it didn’t affect me — I just read a book or I’d meditate with him.  But sometimes, I’d want to go to an afternoon movie or I’d be antsy and not want to sit inside.  And those were the times when I’d point out things we were missing because of his meditation schedule.  And he’d shrug and say, “I’m still meditating.”  Not because he was an asshole who didn’t care about my feelings, but because it was that important to him.

And that’s how writers (yes, YOU) have to approach writing.  You need to set a time to do it and hold it sacred regardless of what other people need you to do too.  This is how you’re going to do it:

You’re going to start with fifteen minutes, and fifteen minutes only.  You get no extra points for writing for a half hour or an hour.  Fifteen minutes and then stop.  Before you start doing this, you will need to pick a time of day that works best for you, that is consistently good with few exceptions.  Then you need to go explain to everyone who may need you during those fifteen minutes that you no longer exist for a quarter of an hour — you know, the amount of time it would take to shower and get dressed.  Not a lot of time.  But they need to understand that you are (1) writing and cannot be disturbed and (2) need them to support you so you can write uninterrupted.  I’m going to assume that most people are going to write at home rather than use their lunch break.  Therefore, carve out your time in the morning, mid-day, or evening, but explain to all the people who live in your house (yes, even the two-year-old that you need to plop down in front of the television for fifteen minutes) that this is your sacred time and you cannot be disturbed.  If you need to, hand them this post and say, “this is what I’m doing and this is how I need you to help.”

And before you start saying how you can’t possibly find fifteen minutes every day, I’m going to tell you to stop talking.  Eat your three meals five minutes faster, go to bed ten minutes later and wake up five minutes earlier, cut out a television show, ask your partner to take the baby for fifteen minutes.  If you want to find fifteen minutes (and it’s only fifteen minutes because you don’t even need to use time to commute somewhere), you can find fifteen minutes.  And I promise you, it’s the only amount of time you’re going to need.  I am not going to ask you to go beyond fifteen minutes.

After you have found your time, take away other possible distractions beyond humans.  Disconnect from the Internet.  No, you can’t check your email first for a second.  No, you can’t check a fact online for the story you’re writing.  Turn off your smartphone, don’t answer the home phone, and literally cloister yourself.  By the way, I often will leave a string of gibberish letters in the middle of a manuscript in order to come back and plug in the fact later.  BUT I never just go online for a second because — I’m sorry — that’s the fastest way to become derailed.

So fifteen minutes — that’s it.  And when fifteen minutes is done, you walk away.  Guess what — it will seem as if you’re accomplishing nothing.  Maybe you spent the whole time staring at the screen.  Maybe you only wrote three sentences, and you don’t feel very good about them.  It wasn’t a waste, I promise you.  Come back again tomorrow and the same thing will happen, and perhaps the next day too.  Some people — like me — sometimes need four or more Channel Days before they actually get into the heart of a writing project — a place that we’ll call finding the pulse.

To understand the concept of Channel Days, we need to take a page from yoga.  Yoga isn’t an end-point: it’s merely a way to train the body so the mind the meditate.  According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is a pathway to somewhere else, and some yogis stop the physical practice of yoga once they can train the mind to meditate for long periods of time and the body is strong enough to sit still.  Channel Days within writing are also a pathway to somewhere else — the rhythm or pulse to a project — which means that they aren’t a waste of time.  They are a very important exercise you need to go through in order to get to that pulse.

Most people can’t jump in and out of writing with ease.  If you step away from a project for a bit, you need to spin the dial on your internal, mental radio and tune into the words again.  If you think you’re not getting anywhere and step away, you’ll forever be stuck in Channel Days.  If you work through them and sit with the project, realizing that these days are far from “wasted” time and necessary for getting where you want to be, you’ll come through them into the pulse of the project.

For the first few weeks, you’re going to stick to fifteen minutes a day.  After you’ve had about three weeks of this and you’ve established an expectation with others around you, you may increase to a half hour, though you don’t have to.  Consider the sustainability: It is better to write fifteen minutes every single day, than to write at varying lengths of time three times a week.  Better to stick forever at fifteen minutes a day than to miss days, and since you need to take other people into account and don’t want them cranky with you, it’s better to fulfill their expectation than to give them a sense that writing is a flexible thing for you.  Feel free to commit to fifteen minutes every day but grab a few longer days when you can.  But never skip.

If you are going to increase you time, do it in fifteen minute increments over the course of a few weeks.  So fifteen minutes a day for a few weeks, a half hour a day for a few weeks, forty-five minutes a day for a few weeks, to an hour a day.  Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon without training, don’t make your brain and body sit for an hour when it isn’t trained to do so.  That’s a recipe for frustration.  Fifteen minute increments to increase your writing time.  Though, again, don’t feel you need to stretch beyond fifteen minutes.  Better to drain every last drop of concentration for those fifteen minutes than to poorly plod through an hour.

At fifteen minutes a day, even once you find your groove, you may only write a paragraph or a page a day.  You’re certainly not going to churn out a chapter in that amount of time.  But think about it — if you write a page a day, you will have a 365-page book by the end of the year.  Not too shabby.  Also, this isn’t a race.  You are not competing against anyone else.  You’re not even competing against yourself.  You may have wanted the project or post to have been finished yesterday, you may be chomping at the bit to hit publish or start sending something out, but deep breathe.  This really isn’t a race, so panting as if you’re in one.  Slow and steady writing reaches the finish line, and if you look at the big picture, it doesn’t matter the date you cross that finish line.  It just matters that you’ve created something; that you have something in hand that wasn’t here on earth before you pulled it out of your brain.

I gave you the character development exercise last week and the time budgeting exercise this week because I needed you to see how hard it can be to devote uninterrupted time to something that you love.  Maybe you believe that only published writers have the right to demand writing time because then it’s not a hobby, it’s a job.  If you want to hold on to that belief, you can, but it will always limit you.  This is why you deserve time to write: it’s important to you.  It makes you feel good, it centers you, it is your mental exercise, which is just as important as physical exercise.  You take the time in your day to eat and you take the time in your day to sleep; this is important to you too: you should take time in your day to write.

So now go backwards to week three and try your hand at creating seven characters, working on them for fifteen minutes each day without distraction.  You may only get three and a half complete within that amount of time, and that is fine.  This is your Channel Week.  In yoga, you learn how to breathe in and out, slowly and calmly.  And in writing, your Channel Week is that time period where you learn to steadily work without distraction.  For just fifteen minutes each day.

Homework: Choose your time of day, talk to your family, and start writing fifteen minutes every day.  In the beginning, start making a checkmark on a calendar after you complete your fifteen minutes to serve as a visual reminder.  You better have seven checkmarks when I see you here again next Sunday for the next writing lesson.


1 Arwen Rose { 05.06.12 at 8:32 am }

This is by far the hardest thing, life gets in the way of writing. Without writing at all I can feel stifled creatively which makes it all the harder to write, yet as soon as I sit down and make myself write then it gets easier each time.

2 Bea { 05.06.12 at 9:21 am }

I’m going to use this for the study I’ve been trying to get a groove going with. Fifteen minutes a day is 1.75hrs a week is 91hrs a year. Which, I’m, actually isn’t enough so I will have to scale up but it’s a starting point we’re after, right?


3 Pale { 05.06.12 at 10:29 am }

This is such a great post. Thank you. I needed this.

4 gwinne { 05.06.12 at 10:58 am }

Ah, yes, that’s pretty much exactly what happened to my character exercise. Started a day late, did two to catch up, then yesterday happened.

BUT I will say that’s all I needed in terms of having an idea for a whole book. Not a book in the genre I usually work in, mind you, but a book nonetheless.

Yes, a schedule would help . And I’ll have one as soon as I have childcare 🙂 Or a kid who naps. Sigh.

5 Kathy { 05.06.12 at 1:46 pm }

I really appreciate this too. Thank you! I will try, I mean I will do, 15 minutes a day this week. I am not going to do the character exercise, since I would rather focus on writing related to my book proposal. I did sit down one time last week got more writing done for my proposal than I have in months. I was focused and it felt good. But I haven’t returned to it since. Granted I had some “good excuses” like our basement flooding, but this week I look forward to spending at least 15 mins. a day writing! Thanks for another great lesson! 🙂

6 Daryl { 05.06.12 at 2:31 pm }

Thank you, Mel. I so needed this. (And, by the way, how did you KNOW?) Fifteen minutes. I can do that. I will do that.

7 Lavender Luz { 05.06.12 at 3:40 pm }

I am actually proud of myself. I figured this out and have been doing it already.

This I love and may use it on myself and my kids in the future: “If you want to hold on to that belief, you can, but it will always limit you.”


8 marwil { 05.07.12 at 4:04 am }

Haha this made me laugh, you know your students well 🙂 Thanks for this, I will focus on my characters for 15min per day during this week.

9 Stinky Weaselteats { 05.07.12 at 7:00 am }

dammit, I got TWO characters on the first day, not one! I knew I would miss at least one day, so thought I’d get one in the bank.

Jeez this is hard, and not because it reflects a lack of commitment on my part (or does it?) – daily routine is not routine, and I usually write on my computer, which is permaconnected to t’internet. I might need to unplug the router for 15 mins (that’ll go down like a cup of cold sick I know).
I’m guessing last thing at night will work for me (and not creating this, but I am pretty sure Thursday’s will be a skipped day).

Writing on the hoof sounds like its going to be a no-no, between appointments/waiting for the bus/some other transitional zone.

10 Anjali { 05.07.12 at 7:54 am }

I started writing my novel very similarly– 2 pages a day. I wrote the entire 300 pages that way. I think “writing” in the abstract is hard to imagine. But breaking it up into small increments definitely makes it seem more manageable! One of the reasons I started my new blog series WHEN DO YOU WRITE? is to inspire writers to force their writing time into the day!

11 Justine { 05.07.12 at 9:29 am }

I love you, Mel.

(Three characters and a half, one very poorly developed. Well, shit. 😉

BUT: I did spend a lot of time thinking about one of the stories last week, playing with words in my head.

I actually started crying when I read this … why? because you know your students so well? because it was OK to be where I was? because I didn’t HAVE seven characters?

I struggle with finding time to blog post these days, too. I don’t know how to fit it all in. But this week I will get my A. Thank you.

12 Kathy { 05.07.12 at 10:07 am }

Because it helps me to be accountable… I am checking in this morning to let you and my classmates know that I have done my 15 minutes for today! 🙂

13 Kristen { 05.07.12 at 1:28 pm }

Typically, I am a “schedule” girl and crave structure and routine, but I really struggle with this when it comes to writing. There are so many times I sit down to write and the words just aren’t coming out right. I can spend 30 uninterrupted minutes working and end up deleting the whole thing or staring at the two or three sad, little sentences I managed to squeek out. On the flip side, there are many times when I am busy with other things and I write whole, wonderful paragraphs in my head only to forget them by the time I’m able to write them down.

That all being said, if I don’t schedule the time, I know there’s no hope of writing regularly, so I will forge ahead! By the end of the week, I will be back with my 7 well-developed characters instead of the 4 mediocre ones I rushed through last week!

14 Susan { 05.07.12 at 3:45 pm }

Great and Thank You! for the reminder of our human need for structure. Actually, my husband reminds me to work this way (I should listen to him more often). I sometimes do write this way (as well as other things ,i.e. 15 minutes on the clock to clean the bathroom). I took a writing class and this was one of the suggestions (30 minutes), especially if you are stuck. My motto: I can do anything for 15 minutes (well, almost anything).

Did complete the characters (who starting jumping off the page with this exercise), just didn’t get to everyday.

Til next week…

15 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.08.12 at 12:21 am }
16 Kathy { 05.08.12 at 3:35 pm }

Just finished my 15 minutes for today and thought I would check in to share that!

Love the shirt Lori found and am proud to say that both yesterday and today that my 15 minutes was completely uninterrupted, in spite of how shiny the other open tabs on my laptop can be! 🙂

17 Lollipopgoldstein { 05.08.12 at 8:23 pm }

You are so funny, Kathy. I actually think it’s a great idea to check in. Hold yourself accountable 🙂

18 Kathy { 05.09.12 at 11:41 am }

Thanks Mel! 🙂 I appreciate your validation! I wasn’t sure if I should return and post here again today after doing my 15 minutes, but then I saw your reply and that was all I needed. So leaving my virtual check mark here and proud to share that I am 3 for 3 this week! 🙂 I am loving this exercise too! It really is amazing what you can accomplish in *just* 15 minutes each day. 🙂

19 Kathy { 05.10.12 at 2:37 pm }

I’m four for four and craving more! Continuing to really appreciate this writing exercise and it totally proves that no matter how busy we are, we DO have time to write and work our projects. Before you started this I had convinced myself that now was not the time to be focusing on this. That I was just too busy. But seriously, 15 mins. a day is totally doable and I really feel like I accomplishing something! Thank you! 🙂

20 Kathy { 05.11.12 at 3:04 pm }

I’m five for five and not losing my drive! Thanks again for you encouragement and the inspiration to do this. Two more days and it will be a habit, right?! 🙂

21 Kathy { 05.12.12 at 10:20 pm }

Okay, six for six almost didn’t happen, but I got it done and am grateful to you for nudging me to keep my streak going this week! Thank Mel! I definitely intend to stay the course with 15 mins. a day in the week to come. 🙂

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