Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“How much time is the ‘right’ amount of time to write? Do real writers write all day, even in their sleep? I feel like I have to squeeze writing in where I can, how can I make the most of the time I’ve got?”
This is a really great question for this time of year. Everyone’s looking for ways to improve themselves and make sure 2016 is better than 2015. I can’t count the number of Facebook posts I’ve seen along the lines of:
“I can feel it, 2016 is going to be the year I finally do everything I’ve ever dreamed of doing! I’m sooooo excited!!!”
Sadly I don’t know how to draw seventeen smiley face emojis on here to give you the full effect, but you’re a writer, use your imagination.
As if all the preceding years have just been spent killing time in the certain knowledge that this particular year would come along and we’d all flip a big switch and suddenly become super productive.
Of course, if I could be arsed to scroll all the way back through those same Facebook feeds to January 2015 I’m sure I’d discover that all of these people wrote exactly the same thing at the start of last year. And along the way I’d probably also get a good idea of why they didn’t accomplish all those dreams over the course of the last 365 days.
Yes, I’m implying that most people spend too much time on the social media.
Please don’t think I’m excluding myself from this criticism. We’re all guilty of procrastination. I barely spend a couple of minutes a week on Facebook, but I did watch the entire first season of Californication yesterday.
Despite having seen it before.
This possibly wasn’t the best use of my time.
Aptly, Californication is a show about a writer who doesn’t write anything. Maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me something.
But unfortunately, much like the show’s protagonist, Hank Moody, I’m lazy and easily distracted.
And half the time it really feels like the universe is against me.
I know, whip out the tiny violins.
I’m not saying this entirely out of self pity; judging from your question it’s something that might resonate with you. A good friend was telling me exactly the same thing as we sat in front of the football at the weekend. He’s a very talented musician, who also has a soul-destroying day job as an IT technician. He was basically saying that the moments when he’s feeling creative almost never coincide with his free time.
A great idea for a song will hit him as he’s under some moron’s desk trying to reconnect all the cables to their computer after they’ve spun around too enthusiastically on their office chair.
A catchy hook will spring to mind as he’s struggling to bring up the video feed on a conference call in the boardroom while the CEO of the company breathes down his neck.
A concept for a hilarious video will materialise while he’s giving his colleagues a lecture on why they shouldn’t open attachments from women called Natalya who email them from Russia claiming to be nymphomaniacs in desperate need of a balding, middle-aged office drone to combat their insatiable lust for hot, sweaty sex.
And then, when he finally has some free time at home to concentrate on making music, he finds the creative well has dried up and he can’t seem to get anything done.
The irony that we were having this conversation while wasting our precious free time watching a motley assortment of serial philanderers kick a spherical object at each other doesn’t escape me.
The point is that most people spend the majority of their day at work. Their limited amount of free time is then divided up between sleeping, eating, socialising, exercising and doing chores.
We can try to reduce the time we spend on all of the above but it’s not easy: cutting out any one of these will drastically reduce your life expectancy, except for the chores which will probably just lose you some friends once your clothes start to smell.
So how can we expand that tiny window of time that’s left for writing? And how can we make the most of the time when we do have it?
This is something I’m personally pretty bad at, so the following five suggestions are for me as well.
Make a New Year’s Resolution. Whether it be to write for half an hour every day, to set aside an afternoon each week, or to take a week off work and bash out a new play before March, make a promise to yourself. The steady decline in gym attendance after every January rush will tell you resolutions aren’t always successful, but in January 2014 I resolved to take up martial arts again and I’m still training every week now, so if it’s a good resolution hopefully you’ll stick to it.
Spend less time doing pointless shit. Eliminate unnecessary people from Facebook and Twitter, stop reading those “Top Ten Celebrities with a Third Nipple” articles, cut down on the crap TV, delete Angry Birds from your phone and spend less time staring at the ceiling wishing you were Dwayne Johnson.
Every time you think about doing something that adds no value to your life, just ask yourself this: in five years’ time will I give an aerial turd about the time Kim and Kanye named their kid after a compass point?
I’m willing to bet in five years’ time you’ll reminisce a lot more fondly about that time your first play was staged.
Think about writing while you’re doing other things. Keep your characters in mind on your journey to work; mull over your plot structure instead of doodling penises in that pointless meeting; brainstorm fresh ideas in that toilet cubicle instead of scribbling hateful graffiti about your colleague’s sense of hygiene on the back of the door. If you manage to do most of the thinking before you sit down at the keyboard you’ll be able to spend more of that rare free time getting the words down.
Start saying no to people. Since starting my full-time office job I’ve come to the inescapable and blindingly obvious conclusion that we should all say no more often. It seems counterintuitive but often no can be a lot more productive than yes.
Be selective with your time and don’t just do things because you feel you should. Is this something you really want to do? When you think back on it afterwards will you wish you spent the time writing instead? How important is your presence to whoever else is involved? Sometimes you have to be a bit selfish to get shit done.
Get a good night’s sleep. You asked if “real writers” write in their sleep, and I do think the two are indirectly connected. Science now tells us that our brains don’t shut down when we hit the sack; they actually engage in some pretty important tasks, like storing memories and skills away for the future. Without sleep you’ll struggle to concentrate, ideas will come a lot slower and your short term memory won’t be worth a damn. It’s a lot easier to be productive when you’re well rested and energetic.
In answer to the first part of your question; I don’t think there is a ‘right’ amount of time to write. As with most things it varies from person to person depending on the writer’s preferences and situation. With a full-time job you’re working eight hours a day plus travel time. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, then you need time to prepare and eat meals, chitchat with the spouse, use the facilities, go to the gym, blah blah blah etc.
I very much doubt there are many aspiring writers who spend more than three hours writing on a typical work day. At weekends most people obviously have more free time.
For professionals it’s different; you don’t have a mind-numbing day job to grind through for one third of every twenty-four hour period so you’ve got a lot more time to knuckle down. But don’t forget that once you’re successful there’s a whole host of other crap you have to deal with; press nights, rehearsals, auditions, calls from your agent, random sexual encounters with fans, book signings, meetings with TV and film people, celebrating good reviews, hunting down critics and mounting their severed heads on your trophy wall…
My final piece of advice for today is not to agonise over what anyone else is doing. Take an honest look at your own situation and assess whether you’re doing as much as you can for your writing career.
If your answer is no set yourself a target to do more.
If your answer is yes keep doing what you’re doing.
And don’t think of successful writers as “real writers.” The reality is they started right where you are and they’re still doing exactly what you’re doing; sitting in front of a keyboard with nothing but their imagination.
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