As another November ends in which I have utterly failed at NaNoWriMo, I find myself looking at others’ word counts piling up and can’t help but ask, “Where do they find the time?”
I worked full-time through college, then worked full-time and taught, then worked full-time and taught and had small children, so for me writing has always had to come in the small pockets of time between everything else.
My writer’s day starts with me on the sofa at 6:30 am, sucking down coffee. If nothing’s gone wrong in the ol’ work email, this might be the first pocket where I find some writing time. Sometimes I’ll remember the hazy thoughts that came to me right before falling asleep and capture them. Other times, I’ll pick up somewhere promising from yesterday’s writing session where I’ve been itching to get back.
If none of that works, and I spend the first hour of my day staring into my coffee cup, then soon the kids are up and it’s a mad dash to get them ready for school. A silver lining during the pandemic is that at least we don’t have to get them out the door, only online.
Once school is underway at 8:30, that’s another transition to work that might offer me some dead spots, but more usually, that’s when I start being on and don’t stop until 2:30. I run an adult education program whose hours overlap with my kids’ school hours, so that’s a lot of Zoom during business hours.
But once the school day is over, another pocket of time might open up. The 3-5 pm range tends to be when the house is in a lull between school and dinner, so I can burn through a lot of words during this time. (I’m writing this right now in that pocket.) Even in the Before Times, that mid-afternoon pocket at work was often a quiet time when I could churn out a few words.
Then it’s dinner and family time, which is a big distraction from writing OOPS I mean a delightful time that I cherish. Usually my kids want to watch some kind of dreadful but informative show on PBS kids, so while they’re learning about wildlife from the Wild Kratts or geography from Carmen Sandiego, I might plug in the noise-canceling headphones and squeeze in a few paragraphs.
If not, then it’s bedtime! An hour given over to reading from some of the hottest new releases for kids or listening to one of my son’s endlessly inventive Pokémon stories (getting into fan-fiction young these days).
After the kids are asleep (or at least pretending to be), then there’s another pocket of potential. On the days when I’m not too exhausted and my husband and I are caught up on the couple of shows we watch, then I might write from 9-10 pm.
The afternoon slot and the post-bedtime slot have both proven themselves to be capable of putting down a fully-formed draft of a flash story, article, or op-ed, while the smaller slots might only be a paragraph or two, or notes on something bigger. Oftentimes, I find inspiration by revisiting a news article or science fact that I bookmarked during my morning new reading (or Twitter scrolling).
None of this matters if it’s the weekend! I take the day off for Shabbat, even though I’m not particularly observant, because sometimes a girl just needs a break. I find that a ritualistically designated day, with hard stops around it, means that you’ll actually unwind and get the rest you need without feeling like you’re “procrastinating” or should be doing something else.
Sundays are almost fully writing or writing-related. I might start the day during the coffee hours read the submission queue for Fractured Lit. Like all time spent reading, I love the way that others’ stories always make me a better writer. Thinking about what pushes a story over the threshold from “that was pretty good” to accepted will have you looking at your own writing with new eyes.
Sunday afternoons are usually given over to writing. Sometimes I’ll swing by a writers’ group like the Barrelhouse Write-In, or take an afternoon workshop. Often, I’ve contemplated telling myself that I’ve signed up for an imaginary workshop and spending those 3-5 pm hours pulling prompts out of a hat.
Then it’s onto another week, and doing it all again! Those minutes pulled between meetings when I email myself a couple of lines, or that half-hour watching my kids ride scooters around the courtyard while I dictate some dialogue into my phone, are tiny Lego blocks that build up my stories, brick by brick.
Stephanie King is a past winner of the Quarterly West Novella Prize and the Lilith Short Fiction Prize, with stories also appearing in CutBank, Entropy, and Every Day Fiction. She received her MFA from Bennington and serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. You can find her online at stephanieking.net or Twitter @stephstephking.