Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Making the most of pockets of time



I’m finding myself pressed for time these days—and “pressed” is a perfect word for it. When you press down hard on something, something has to give. Something goops out the side. When the hours of my day are packed full, what goops out for me is my writing.

Why writing? I think it may be because it’s something I’m not rewarded for, and no one is depending on it. There’s no paycheck linked to my completion of a sonnet. My short stories don’t need homework help. I’m not married to my essays.

And there’s another, bigger reason, too: Writing is hard. It has its technical challenges, obviously, but I’m talking about something a little different here. Good writing, even if it’s the wildest, most impersonal fiction, gets down into our messy inner places. If it’s good, it digs into us, and that’s uncomfortable—even painful at times.

It becomes easy to avoid our writing when our time is limited. We may continue to make time for social media or TV shows, but isn’t it true that writing well requires more time than that? We can passively poke around the digital world while doing other things, but writing requires our whole selves, and it’s not something we can easily hop in and out of.

In most days, I find that I have brief windows of time that no one has a claim on. I’m talking about the ten minutes in the school pickup line or the five minutes on hold with the cable company. As an instructor, maybe it’s the fifteen minutes of in-class writing time I assign my students, or five minutes in the parking lot after work.

These windows aren’t enough for me to write something. Even a small poem requires time for reflection; I’m not just putting down words. But they are useful for keeping the pump primed, the flow going. Lately, I’ve been trying to make the most of my pockets of time, so that when I do have an hour or more of writing time, I’m not empty. There’s something right there at the surface I can draw on to begin.

For those in the same position I am, here are a few five-minute jump-starts I’ve found useful:

Listing. Listing is such a powerful creative technique. A quickly generated list is weird and associative, and it’s practically self-propelling. One item flows into the next. When our inner censor is turned off, we can make surprising connections—the same kinds of connections I love to make in poetry. A journaling type of list is one possibility (“Ways to make more of my time”), but we can also go in a more creative direction (“Ten things I didn’t expect to find on Mars,” or “Reasons I choke on water”). The more fanciful, the more I like them.

Character sketches. This seems like a fiction exercise, but writers in any genre can stay limber by writing a character sketch, or even a description of a real person. I wrote a poem not long ago about my junior high government teacher, who sexually harassed me and treated me very cruelly (#MeToo). Before I wrote about him, I worked to remember him—the sheen of sweat on his upper lip, his nipple-high trousers. My character sketch didn’t end up in my poem, but the vivid memory of this man prepared me to tell my (tardy) truth.

Word associations. This is just what it sounds like. I start with a word, and then I write a new word that the first word calls to mind. I try to avoid forming any kind of narrative; writing in columns down the page instead of in paragraph form is a helpful strategy. I think it must be a characteristic of our minds that we try to make meaning and build associations. What looks like a list of words often tells a secret story, usually about ourselves.

Haiku. If we wanted to write a worthy haiku, we would need much more than a brief window of time in which to do it. This is far from a throwaway form, and I have a great deal of respect for it. But when we’ve pulled forward at the fast-food drive-thru to wait for our fries, we can bust out a quick three lines based on whatever is visible through our windshield. Not everything we write is for posterity, or even for publication, and a pocket-of-time haiku keeps our observational powers honed.

Create a prompt. This idea comes from fiction writer Michael Czyzniejewski, who says he often uses moments when he’s on the run, walking from here to there or standing in the grocery line, to think of a way he can be creative later. When writing time becomes available and we hit the page with a prompt in mind, we save some time that we might otherwise spend trying to decide what to write about.

Envision a revision. I suspect all writers have memories of good ideas that didn’t take off, or any number of failed drafts. Why not take five minutes to apply a new perspective to those pieces? I’ve always found time and distance useful to solving my composition problems.

Read. We can always benefit by sticking a book in our bag to provide inspiration. I also love reading short pieces online. A great place to read the best flash fiction around is SmokeLong Quarterly, and for nonfiction, I love the essays and brief craft pieces in Brevity. I also like to read a poem and noodle over it for a bit, just to see where it might transport me.

Give a lecture. This is embarrassing, OK, but I’m going to put it out there. Sometimes I like to give little lectures to imaginary classrooms about some aspect of writing. It’s just a thing I do when I’m by myself, maybe driving a long distance. The thing about lecturing is that the lecturer is forced to clarify her own thoughts before communicating them with others. The faux lecture, an apparent act of foolishness, can actually be very instructive.

Even the busiest person can eventually carve out an hour or two. These five-minute exercises can keep us limber enough to make the most of our time when our lives allow it.



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