Wednesday, March 9, 2016

On the importance of safeguarding time

The other day I asked a friend to blurb one of my two forthcoming books—one due out in June and one due out in April 2017. The friend said no.

And now I’m going to explain why that’s a good thing.

I confess, I hate getting blurbs, and I waited long enough to ask some folks that I’m starting to sweat a little. I’m having flashbacks of that jerky poster on my least favorite high school teacher’s wall.

A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

But it wasn’t that. This is a friend I could count on in a pinch if I really needed her, and I’ll have a few blurbs for that first collection—maybe not as many as most, but a solid trio, at least, from people who know me well. (“Karen was a pretty good kid up until about age twelve. And she’s pretty good again now, too. I don’t exactly know what happened there in the middle.”—My mom.)

My friend did not need more lead time; instead, this person—a very popular young poet with a large following of readers—was guarding her time. She explained that she limited herself to seven blurbs per year, and she had already committed to eight—one extra—in 2016 and seven in 2017.

This is a good enough friend that I could have begged her for a blurb, maybe shed some tears, and she likely would have relented. But I respect the fact that she took the harder route. Let’s be clear; it would be way easier to read a manuscript and write a few sentences about it than to explain to me her decision not to. It would not, though, be less time-consuming, because manuscripts take long minutes to plow through, and blurbs take some effort to craft. (As soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m returning to the job of writing a blurb for a friend with a new chapbook, in fact, and I have a draft that I’ve been toying with for a few days.)

My friend has set a standard for how she wishes to use her time, and it wouldn’t really have the strength of a policy if she bent it every time someone offered up a sweet-voiced “please.” And writers have to guard their time very jealously if they are to get writing done. There is limited time for everything we have to do, and we need to be very choosy about the time we give away.

Although I believe in safeguarding our writing time, do not mistake this for an excuse not to contribute to the community. My friend does this in myriad ways—blurbing quite a few books, mentoring young writers, volunteering in her community, and more. Ethical people must find a way to return the favors that were bestowed upon them by the people who introduced them to poetry or writing, and who guided their early efforts, and who helped them make good decisions with publishing and promotion. We writers typically get lots of support, and we are good about passing it along. Writers who teach are hit particularly hard with requests for letters and feedback, and all of the writers I know spend quite a bit of time meeting these needs.

I recently read a book by Kevin Ashton called How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery (New York: Random House, 2015). I’ve since seen it quoted in lots of those forwarded articles that my friends traffic in—the ones that talk about how to maximize writing time and live a creative life.

Ashton notes that a trait many productive creative people have in common is their willingness to say “no.” We’re programmed to believe that saying “no” is a rude act, but in fact it’s a strategy that deserves some consideration, especially among working writers.

Writes Ashton,

Time is the raw material of creation. Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation. The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time. No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.

Ashton adds, “Saying ‘no’ has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined.”

So yes, writers need to turn people down—even the very nicest people, like me. But additionally, the culture needs to change. We don’t need all of these blurbs, do we? Is it truly possible that every third poetry book is luminous? And how effective are our grad school rec letters? I’ve never had a single student who wasn’t in my top 1 percent. (I picked poetry as a field because I was told there would be no math.) Are letters really a necessity for residencies and grants? Trust me; we’re all superb. I’ve written that phrase—“X is a superb ___”—dozens of time. And X does do ___ rather well. I just don’t think my writing this is especially helpful.

I’d also like to see us educate people entering the field about the value of time. When a student writer hands us a novel and asks for feedback, we ought to get into the habit of handing it right back, unless the writer has taken workshops, maximized other learning opportunities (attendance at a reading series, for instance), and visited us with a smaller request before dropping three hundred pages in our arms. A beginning writer learns a valuable lesson when we model “no”—when we are choosy about how we offer up our time.

I have no hard feelings toward my friend, who is a true friend for life. In fact, I’d like to be more like her. And starting today, I plan to set up some parameters so that I can give more effectively to my community and write more effectively in the time that I am given.


  1. This is an important lesson in general! I'm beginning a research project of my own that I need to set aside time for each day. Plus all my disability/cripple stuff and friends and marriage and and and... Time is a valuable thing. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Yes! Maybe the only thing we have of real value, besides love.