Today's Ask a Not-Yet-Successful Writer (with a heart of gold, folks, really) is inspired by a post on Adventures in Children's Publishing. Martina's post was aimed at fiction writers with busy lives and offered some ideas for seven "mental" tasks/exercises that could be done when you just can't get to the typewriter/pad of paper/laptop/fancy phone to actually write. The suggestions were focused on stuff like characters and subplots and world-building--all very important things to the fiction writer. I originally wondered if I could come up with a list of seven things for the essayist.
Now, since I am feeling feisty and only around seven people read this blog (I love you all), I'm going to just go ahead and say that there is time. This list (with the exception of number one) is about what to do when you don't want to/can't write. So, number one...
1. Get to the computer/pad of paper/typewriter/fancy phone. If writing is important to you, then the time is there. If it isn't important, or if you are too scared to do what you love, that time will get eaten up by other tasks. You find time to do a million little things a day that don't matter, so trade "reading yahoo news" or "youtube videos of cats" or just laying in bed hitting snooze overandover for something more important to you.
Hemingway said, "Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail." Start with ten minutes, then twenty. If the next day is too busy--back to ten. If you don't even have ten minutes, congratulations! You are living a life worth writing about rather than the life of a writer--find a biographer.
2. Get uncomfortable. You should try to write what you want to write everyday. If this is fiction, write fiction, if it is essays, write those. But know that this isn't always possible every single day. Mix it up by trying out some online prompts or an online contest outside of your regular genre. I did this with NYC Midnight's competitions, and it was a good way to keep my pen moving. Plus, mental exercises keep you young and out of literary ruts and tic-like tropes. By using the external constraint of a contest, I give myself a hard deadline and limit for the departure (slash distraction).
3. Take an office day. If you really can't focus your mind or settle into a groove during your writing time, take an "office day". Things you can do: submit stuff. Unless you are so lucky (and hateful) that everything you have written sucked up into the ether of publication, you have some pieces that are in need of a home. Look them over, tweak or not, then write a brief cover letter and submit them to an appropriate journal/site/mag. If you don't know what publications are appropriate, then your first office day is to list all of your potential markets. NOTE: this is not so helpful to the novelist, sorry, but then the original post is, so go read it.
4. Exercise your brain. I can't recommend that you do any of these things during your writing time, but when you are otherwise disengaged but still online, check out vocabulary builders (like http://savethewords.org) or grammar quizzes; play Twitter games like #cnftweet and #micropoetry. Read about writing on sites like Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Brevity, HTMLgiant (that's just a random list of some that I like, not exhaustive, ranked or otherwise endorsable) and then compose a response to what you just read--you don't have to post it, just write it.
5. Write some shorter things. Sharpen the saw, so to speak on a book review, or a love letter to your favorite singer (or both, if you're a lucky fangirl like me). Every now and then I will stumble upon a "category" or "feature" in a print or online magazine that has guidelines something along the lines of "Hey have you ever....? Tell us about it, if we like it, we'll print it!"
The "Last Book I Loved" column on The Rumpus is like that. Have you ever loved a book? Then all you have to do is write about it and email it to them. The same with McSweeney's Internet Tendency. That whole site is a free for all: write a list, review a food, whatever and email it. They took my 7 grad school rejections piece and have turned down several others. This print magazine that I like has a feature that I would call "extended letter to the editor." Anyone can submit. Guess what? I'm anyone. You're anyone. Send things out. Rejections only hurt the first hundred or so times, supposedly. So get on it.
6. Sparingly: make a list of things you WILL write. Don't be a perpetual list maker, but if you're really really stuck, and you have some kind of hangup about "write whatever comes to mind, even if that's 'I can't think of anything to write'," then write a list. Include some of the shorter or uncomfortzone type stuff mentioned in 5 and 2. I kind of like physical reminders, like tacked up index cards (for each idea), this way the list can't get crazy and I can add things like outlines to the list items.
7. Rewrite. When I really have a good week of morning writing, I might get something drafted over the first three days and through an initial edit during the last two. Sometimes, I wake up with an idea of a section or phrase that needs tweaking, and I will pull that piece up and begin the pushing and pulling of words. I have passages that "need work" that I highlight in working drafts, so some mornings I may feel up to that, if I don't feel up to something else. Just like there is always admin, there is always revision.
I am a procrastinator, and I know that I tend to avoid the most painful things for a million papercuts. The list above is what I do when I "don't have time" or "can't write."
I also have the dubious luxury of having school application tasks to fall back on as well when I am feeling stubborn or petulant. [Speaking of, I think I have all seven Statements of Purpose done. I need to sit on the last three for a couple of days to be sure. Next week, I will shore up my longer manuscripts and begin the bundles.] And of course, research. [I finished mining the last book (and using up an entire lil packet of sticky flags--it is a good book). The final notes will be written tomorrow, then drafting. For reals, yo.]
These are other tasks of the writer, and can--and must--sometimes take the place of writing. Just like a composer has to practice an instrument, we have to practice words: learning them, saying them, stringing then knotting them together. Someday those knot-tying skills may mean all the difference.