The Season of Finding Time (to Write): Writing During the Holidays and Other Busy Times

Journeypen Logo - v1“Busy” doesn’t seem like the right word to describe my December. “Crammed” might work better, and “hectic” could work best of all.

For example, I started writing my previous blog post on 12/5, and I didn’t finish until now—sitting down to my first cup of coffee on Christmas Eve.

A full schedule in December is a common problem for writers (and pretty much everyone). If you’re in school, you have finals. If you work, the end of the year brings a slew of last-minute tasks. For many people, the holidays brings a fair amount of gift shopping, wrapping, and giving, and sometimes, there’s some travel and family drama tucked in there somewhere, stealing your writing time in both anticipated and unanticipated ways.

It is absolutely true: Life gets in the way of writing.

Sometimes, it’s just the holiday season—and thus temporary and less worrisome. Sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, you or your family is just going through a hard time, and sometimes, you’re handling a big transition, like moving or applying to college. Sometimes, you have a health matter—life-threatening/altering or not—and it takes all your energy to heal. Sometimes, you’ve received news that is a jolt to your system, and you must deal with the fallout, both physically and emotionally.

These situations can make it difficult for you to write steadily, and THAT IS OKAY.

There’s a writer philosophy that you need to write every day to be successful. Stephen King has said that he writes four hours every single day, followed by four hours of reading, with a little revision tacked onto his evening, if needed. That does work for some writers, but for others, like me, our natural writing pace is not clockwork. It’s a more organic cycle: sometimes, I’m highly productive, churning out thousands of words a day; sometimes, reaching one hundred words is a struggle and a true triumph.

Jimson Weed (1932), by Georgia O'Keefe

Jimson Weed (1932), by Georgia O’Keefe

A life of creative cycles—high productivity, followed by a fallow period, followed by productivity again—has just as much history as the write-every-day philosophy. Georgia O’Keefe, for instance, the lady in New Mexico who painted the flowers and the deserts and the skulls, is one of my mother’s painting heroes. She would go through months or years of just living her life, going for walks in the desert and chasing away strangers from her ranch. Then a switch would flip, and all of a sudden, she would complete a painting a day for a month straight.

So, let’s call Stephen King and Georgia O’Keefe the two extremes of this spectrum.

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It would be nice to be an absolute. It would nice to be all clockwork or all cycle; that would give me a formula to follow for a happy writing life, but alas, it is not to be.

NaNoWriMo has proved that just sitting in a chair with my WIP for four hours a day will not automatically make me productive. Experience has taught me that dropping writing completely for more than thirty-six hours turns me into a cranky lady beast, who has significant road rage and might snarl at her father if he asks for help redirecting a FedEx package at 6:22pm on the eve of Christmas Eve, less than forty minutes before she promised to meet her oldest friends for dinner. (Not to give an extremely specific example or refer to myself in the third person or anything.)

I am like not Stephen King or Georgia O’Keefe. I fall somewhere in the middle, and I think most people do too.

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And after the last few years (and last few weeks), I have a few suggestions to help you some writing in, no matter how busy things get:

Be kind to yourself.

If you have a certain idea of what your productivity should look like, and life is keeping you from meeting it, then frustration is likely. Most of the time, I turn this frustration inward, and I’ve been known to rage against myself for getting sidetracked.

Just so you know, being mean to yourself is never helpful. Then you have to stop and take the time to recover from the internal beating you just took, and you get around to your writing even later than you wanted.

If you’re not where you want to be, just tell yourself: I’m not where I want to be, but I’ll get there. Let me think of something I can do to get closer, even it’s only a small step in the right direction.

Be kind to your loved ones.

Your frustration might lead you to blame your loved ones, which might also inspire you to lash out at them. Try to resist this. Repairing damaged relationships or soothing hurt feelings takes time too, and ultimately, your feelings are your responsibility. You’re the person in charge of your writing schedule, and they can’t be blamed for everything.

But sometimes, they can be blamed for asking you to do something when you have (finally) carved out time for writing.

For instance, as I was writing this post (this very section!), my dad came in the room and asked me to seal the envelopes on the Christmas cards Mom had finished addressing—a stack of maybe twenty. I paused, thought about how he was running late to the post office on Christmas Eve, and decided out loud, in a wry but not quite sarcastic tone, “Yes, I will interrupt my blog post to handle this.”

The whole family is behind on Christmas prep this year. For example, as of 3:30pm on Christmas Eve, we have not yet gotten a Christmas tree, so my brother set up a Christmas orchid. (Not sure what is under the blanket behind it, but my guess is unwrapped presents.)

To be fair, the whole family is behind on Christmas prep this year. For example, as of 3:30pm on Christmas Eve, we have not yet gotten a Christmas tree, so my brother set up a Christmas orchid. (Not sure what is under the blanket behind it, but my guess is unwrapped presents.)

He hadn’t realized what I was doing. He apologized, and both he and Mom offered to seal them. But I knew it would take me, like two minutes, and it would take them more. So, I took care of it—with Dad standing at my shoulder with his bag, ready to rush out.

He thanked me on his way out the door. “You’re welcome. I love you,” I said, and then I sat back down at my computer and typed out this example.

Boundary set, but love maintained.

Determine the minimum you need to do to feel human, and make that a priority.

Like I mentioned, your frustration is your responsibility. You need to figure out what you need to do to feel settled and connected to your writing life, and then you need to commit to making that happen.

The good news: that’s totally doable.

The bad news: the only way you can determine your writing sweet spot is through trial and error, and sometimes, it’s a moving target. In other words, what works one week might not be enough the week after that.

Here’s what works for me:

I journal. I started maintaining a journal seriously at age sixteen, and by nineteen, it had become a near daily habit. No matter what was going on in my life—from mysterious but debilitating vertigo to a study-abroad adventure to life in NYC to a broken heart—I managed to keep up with my journal.

Even if I’m not writing fiction, it comforts me to know I’m writing SOMETHING. It also helps me keep track of what I’m feeling and thinking at any given time in my adolescence, and it helps me work through my own experiences and turn them into material for my writing. As my friend Kaitlyn says, Win WIN. (More info in this post.)

Note: this is a very similar concept to Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” and sometimes, I call my journaling that—even when it doesn’t happen in the morning.

I fit in fifteen minutes of writing. Sometimes, writing in my journal doesn’t cut it. Sometimes, I need fiction—a minimum of fifteen minutes. So, I set a timer, and I write for that period of time—not worrying too much about how good it is, because it’s the act of writing that I need, not the quality of the words.

During the busiest times, I can’t fit this in until after everyone else in the house has gone to bed, RIGHT before I go to sleep, and that’s okay. A midnight writing session is better than no writing session, and I wake up the next day feeling more like myself.

I read. I’ve noticed recently that just writing is not enough. I need to read sometimes, and whether I need fiction or non-fiction depends on my mood.

I heard once that reading fiction is a stress relief, because it brings you completely out of yourself. (Or maybe I read that in a blog post. It was a really good thought, and sometimes, you forget when and where that good thought entered your life.) I think that’s true. It also feeds this deeply rooted desire for narrative.

Otherwise, you might lay sleepless in bed and make up stories about your own life and where it’s headed, stories that may or may not be accurate, stories that may be more like disaster stories about how your writing life is over and/or you’ll never write another book ever again, or at least, it’ll take many many many years. (Not to give another very detailed personal example again. :-P)

To avoid that, read. Thirty minutes a day is good; an hour is better.

Make time for yourself and your writing.

It’s not enough to know what you need to do. You have to find the time to actually do it.

Cutting stuff out can work. The first thing to go, for me, is sleep. I can maintain friendliness if I trade seven hours of sleep for six hours of sleep and one hour of reading. (Eventually, however, the lack of sleep will catch up with you. I had to sleep late today.)

Set boundaries, if needed, like I did with my dad and the Christmas cards. Let it also be known: I sealed the envelopes, but normally, I would also offer to help my mom address the envelopes as well. As I write this, she’s sitting across the table with me, working diligently, but instead, I’ve put in headphones and committed to writing this blog post. Instead of halving her workload and ignoring my own workload, I am just trying to keep her company.

Or just grow really good at disappearing. My brother is the master of the stealth disappearance. He doesn’t announce that he needs to get away and do something fun. He just quietly grabs the car keys and heads out before we notice he’s gone. Personally, I’ll pretend I’m going to sleep or going to take a shower, but really, I’m sitting cross-legged in bed reading or writing.

Write something else.

Sometimes, the project stalls or stops working. You love it, but you’re having trouble concentrating on it. This is when starting with the Shiny New Idea is actually better than getting stuck and frustrated with the longer project.

My NaNoWriMo project is a pretty intense family drama/fantasy, inspired by some tough times in my life, and it was hard to draw on old family-related experiences that require me to dig deep and act out of love when I’m currently acquiring new family-related experiences that require me to dig deep and act out of love.

So, I took a novella idea that came to me late this summer, and I turned it into a fun, fluffy Christmas story. I have maybe twenty pages so far.

Absorb life’s delights and life’s blows, and turn them both into material.

Writing is a lifestyle, and you choose how you live it.

As you can tell from this post, my writing life often feels like a balancing act between passion and kindness. I can usually find the strength and calm I need to handle something difficult and/or time-consuming by reminding myself of two facts:

  • I’m doing this task as an act of love for someone in my life.
  • No matter what I’m experiencing, I can use it as material.

Sometimes, we need the material to overwhelm us before we can transform it into a story. The sensation of being overwhelmed and the slow process of regaining our footing: this needs to be felt before you can find the words and string together the sentences that can describe the process.

In fact, that is exactly what it took to write this post. 🙂

Learn to appreciate the hiccups; commit to the path you’re walking; take a step in the right direction, even if it’s tiny; and you’ll get where you need to go. The journey may take a little more patience and faith than you expected—that’s all.

Happy Holidays, everyone!!!

Mom's Christmas Orchid skills are on point, though.

Mom’s Christmas Orchid skills are on point, though.

3 Comments

  1. Katie December 24, 2015
  2. Willow January 1, 2016
  3. Ponydem January 3, 2016