Editor’s Note: Due to a hardware failure on our host server, this article is being republished. It may not look exactly as it originally appeared. Thank you for your understanding.
I have a few of friends who have recently completed or are currently in graduate programs (not necessarily a creative writing MFA). All of them have told me (in the brief conversations we have because, well, life is busy for those in a graduate program – especially given that all of them also hold down jobs while in their studies – that one of the first classes they had to take or first lessons in an individual class’ syllabus is Time Management.
Most graduate programs (especially my friend going for her doctorate) expect students to treat their studies as if it’s a full-time job. And honestly, it can be. With class time and homework eating up on average of 25 to 30 hours a week – that’s if you don’t have to struggle with any of the material, or in the case of a creative writing MFA, you’re a fast writer and never hesitate about what to write, because you know, we all can type 750 words in 10 minutes and….you get the picture. In addition to the school work, many raise families and hold down at least part-time jobs. (I’m aware there are graduate programs out there that do not allow students to work…those are rare cases and no one I know has attended any of those programs).
Therefore, time management becomes critical. You still have to sleep, eat, wash dishes, do laundry on top of all the classes, let alone any job you may have to do (we won’t even throw in child care in there, but that’s a reality for most of us). So, if you’re doing the Poor Man’s MFA, you’re going to need to also practice time-management and employ some creative strategies to get your writing time in.
Strategy No. 1: You will make time. The biggest excuse I hear from people about why they are not writing is time. It’s like Salvador Dali is painting their personal clocks. It just melts away. “I don’t have time,” or, “I’m so busy with the kids,” or my favorite: “My muse doesn’t come along at the right time.” (This is me rolling my eyes.) I remember sitting on the heels of an Abrams tank trying to stay warm scribbling scenes down in a small moleskin I carried in my cargo pocket. It was about 40 degrees out, spitting rain, and there was a gunnery range going on. Was it the best place to write? It certainly wasn’t the warmest or easiest. The point is, I wrote. If you want to write, you will. You’ll find a way, a path, or like Stephen King, a make-shift desk in the laundry room. As they say, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This is true for writing. You want to write? You’ll find the time. You’ll push those clock hands backwards if you have to. Regardless, you’ll make it happen. You’ll find the way.
Strategy No. 2: Make space to make time. Virginia Woolf said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Money is always helpful to meet goals, but we’re talking about space right now. I do agree that having a dedicated space in which to write is helpful. Shut the world away and just write. If you have that luxury, do it. It’s one less hurdle to keep you from writing. It helps keep you organized and its trains your mind and body that its time to write when you’re in that space. However, I refer back to Stephen King’s first writing space, and my ‘heels of the Abrams tank” memory. A Room of One’s Own ala Woolf is not a necessity, but it helps.
Strategy No. 3: Schedule your writing time. Writing, just like any other activity outside of day jobs, sleeping, eating, etc. needs to be schedule. You make time to go to church, go to school, work out…heck, some of us have to schedule time to make love. Refer again to Strategy No. 1. Where there’s a will. For many years I got up early and wrote before work. For other times, I wrote at lunch every day during my *soul-sucking day job*. Today, I write a little bit in the morning, a little bit at lunch, and a little bit in the evening. In between, I work for clients, work my micro-farm, and create art. But it took me until I was nearly 50 years old to get to that point. Your mileage may vary.
Strategy No. 4: Make Writing a Habit. On the heels of Strategy No. 3, writing every day (or like what Carolyn See in “Making a Literary Life” suggests, five days a week) should become a habit. When I miss a day, I know it. It’s like not drinking water for me. I have to write, even just journal every day or it doesn’t feel right. My habit includes a bit of ceremony to it, too. I stretch (lately I can’t get in the writing zone unless I’ve done my warrior pose several times), a mug of caffeine (either java or tea), my favorite writing music, and away I go. Every writer has a different custom to their writing time. Whatever you need to do to, as Haruki Murakami says, “mesmerize” yourself into your writing zone, do it. Vonnegut did push ups and sit ups every day. Hemingway wrote in the morning, and drank in the afternoon (although, you can write inebriated, I heartily encourage you to edit sober). Nathan Englander turns off his cell phone (I, too, have been unplugging as of late, as well). Heck, unplugging and keeping distractions out of your space is a great part of any writing schedule.
Strategy No. 5: Get a support network. Being alone all the time, mesmerized or in a loner zone of writing gets old and it can break even the strongest of wills. That’s why I encourage everyone to join a writing group. I had to make my own to make that happen (it was a good thing). Not sure where to start with all that? A great opportunity is coming up which pulls all the closeted writers out of the shadows: National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo, as it’s affectionately called, is 30 days of a great way to meet fellow writers in your area, be productive, and do this crazy thing called word-wars at write ins. Check it out. Just like a work-out buddy or an AA sponsor, having someone to lean on can be key to your success.
Strategy No. 6: Set a goal. For the Poor Man’s MFA, we want to feel as if we’ve finished a formal MFA. But, we might need some metrics. Write a short story and send it out. Write an article or an essay and pitch it to an appropriate magazine. Enter a contest. Get your writing out there so you begin to have some measurements on how you’re progressing. (There will be more on this later as we’ve no actual professors in the Poor Man’s MFA University.)
Strategy No. 7: It ain’t rocket science. Refer back to Strategy No. 1. Always. Just do it.
So which strategy do you need to work on? Where does your writing time management need help? What do you do to make it work? Tell us in the comments below. Let’s learn from one another.
P.S. If any of my visual artist friends out there would like to create some sort of logo for the Poor Man’s MFA Program (? University), I’d gladly love to include it and your credit here. Let me know.