Monday, June 22, 2015

Time and the Writer

No one ever has enough time, it seems, especially writers. Yet having too much time in my literary experience is more of a problem than being forced to follow a set schedule. It's so easy to procrastinate if you have an entire summer free, with no deadlines. The result can be the dreaded writer's block.

Most writers, certainly most successful authors, follow a schedule and find that they can do the daily tasks of living, along with a day job, while being committed to their craft in the mornings or evenings or in half-hour segments whenever they become available.  Writing, after all, can occur anywhere, at any time.

Some beginning writers assume that, to write, they must stay at home or at their desk full time since successful authors are, presumably, full-time writers.  Yet many authors have worked only part-time at their craft, but they have done so regularly.

I think of Anthony Trollope, who produced 47 vast Victorian novels while working full time as a postal inspector in Dublin--a job that he came to enjoy because of the people he came to observe; their gossip and scheming gave him material to build on. Setting a goal of 2,500 words a day, Trollope worked faithfully each morning from 5:30 to 8:30, then went to work.

The type of writing produced may not always have been inspired, but it was a draft that could be revised.  Writing doesn't have to be great the first time around; it isn't like brain surgery.

I was reminded the many writers who have other full-time commitments while reading an excellent article online (via the Literary Hub) by a novelist who's also an oncologist, Ray Barfield, M.D. He is one of many  people who manage to write as part of an active professional life--because they see that the two worlds are related. It's not a matter of  multi-tasking.

Barfield makes some valuable comments about the importance of observation, something he finds that writers and doctors have in common. He says the world of medicine is not made of drugs, equipment, labs, and white coats but of "stories that situate the person, account for the past, impact the future, and offer a sense of what to do next."  The good doctor listens and gets to know the patient. He or she is immersed in the drama of human life.

He asks the reader to imagine being in an ER where a man on a gurney is wheeled in, followed by woman carrying a red rose and a sombrero.  Whether you are there as a medical professional or visitor, you will inevitably, says Barfield, pay attention to the woman with the rose and sombrero. That's why he says being a writer and being a doctor are so similar: they involve paying attention.

He quotes William Osler: "It's much more important to know what sort of patient has a disease than to know which disease the patient has."  Interns need to be trained to be curious about the lives of the people they treat; so too writers begin by paying attention to details and end up telling stories about what they see and hear around them.

Writing, then, is not a matter of genius or great talent; it demands many things, including a love of language and certainly an interest in people.  And whatever time we can find in our busy lives to record the often amusing, shocking, ironic, or disturbing details of ordinary life might be enough--if we stay committed to the task.

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