We are often told that, as writers, we are supposed to sit down in a chair to write every single day. This advice is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to feel like a “real writer” if you skip a day of writing or if your day job allows for writing time only on weekends.
I’m not one of those writers who sits down to write every day—far from it. Yet, having juggled my writing with the rest of life for so long, I’ve learned that I can still be an everyday writer even when I don’t actually write every single day. Being a writer is not just about writing every day (anyone can sit down and type, after all), but it’s about thinking like a writer; it’s about how you see the world, not in how many words you type on any given day.
I’ll never be one of those writers who has the luxury of several hours every day to write (and I’m guessing that, with the exception of a lucky few, most writers out there don’t have this luxury either). So I focus instead on how to make the most of the time I do have—to stay inspired, to gather material, and to get the words on the page whenever I can.
Below are a few seemingly simple (and very effective) tips for how to write when you’re not really writing. For me, following these tips has led to new stories, excellent revisions, and a brand-new project I’m working on right now.
1. Become a better observer. I always thought I was a keen observer of details, until one day when I was in the park with my husband and saw a trio of young men pass by. As they walked away, my husband commented on the fact that one of them was carrying a gun, which I hadn’t even noticed; another man nearby had seen it too, so it was apparently very obvious. At that moment, I realized that there’s a great deal of life that I’m probably missing out on by not opening my eyes and ears enough—and ever since that moment, I’ve been paying closer attention. The more you see, the more material you’ll find, whether it provides a detail for a character description or a storyline for a new project or a spark for a poem or essay. So pay attention, especially during the moments in which you’re usually bored (in line at the post office, for example, or waiting for your turn at the DMV)—and you’ll see that there’s a lot out there for your writer self to enjoy.
2. Listen up. While you once may have been told it’s not polite to eavesdrop, if you’re a writer, all bets are off: Listen to everything. The nice thing about listening is that you can do it anywhere: in line at the grocery store, in the crowd of students while you’re waiting to pick up your own kid, and so on. You may also find that once you begin to listen more closely, your own conversations become deeper, more layered, and more interesting. The point, of course, is not to steal from others’ conversations but to let these overheard snippets spark your own creativity, whether they inspire a new scene of dialogue or give you a glimpse into your own past that you can work into an essay or memoir.
3. Develop habits. Figure out where you do have a little extra time in your schedule. Can you skimp on a few household duties and still keep the place running? Probably. Can you give up an episode of Downton Abbey for some writing time instead? Maybe (well, maybe not). Can you trade an hour on Facebook for an hour of writing? Definitely. It’s amazing how much time we waste without even realizing it; figure out where your “lost time” is going and reclaim it for creative work.
4. Get in—and stay in—a writerly frame of mind. Multitasking seems to have become a necessary evil, yet there are definitely times when it works to the advantage of the busy writer. When you’re at the gym or out for a run, instead of listening to music, think about your characters; write the next scene in your head. If you’re stuck in traffic, turn off the radio and plot out the next chapter of your novel, or start a poem. These small moments of downtime and idle time can really add up—and if you fill them with thoughts about your writing projects, you’ll see your projects moving forward more briskly than you’d expect.
5. Always (always!) carry a notebook. This goes hand-in-hand with paying attention; even now that I notice more of what’s going on in my world, not much sticks in my brain unless I write it down. I carry little notebooks everywhere I go—and if I’m ever without one, I’ll send an email to myself from my cell phone. Then, eventually, I’ll drag my notebook from the bottom of my handbag and find notes I’d completely forgotten about—and I’m so grateful to have them. Get in the habit of doing this so you won’t lose all the little treasures you pick up in your regularly scheduled life.
Midge Raymond is the author of Everyday Writing: Tips and Prompts To Fit Your Regularly Scheduled Life and the short story collection Forgetting English, which received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and many other publications. Her work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and received an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship.