I’ve been reminded recently, both by clients and by my own hectic life, that we often stay away from our writing because of a misconception about just how much time we should set aside before we even think about sitting down to write. I bet if I took a poll, most people would tell me they need to find at least a two-hour block of time before they can consider writing. Some of my clients have even claimed they can’t write without a free four-hour stretch ahead of them.
Thinking we need to find such picture-window opportunities to write is frequently a contributing factor in writing block. If a writer who has stayed away from the page for too long and, consciously or without being aware of it, feels anxiety around the prospect of writing, tells herself that to make a writing session worthwhile, she has to set aside at least two hours, she is actually creating an obstacle to achieving her goal. If you are already anxious, why would you want even to think about spending two hours with your stomach churning and your heart pounding? Anything sounds more pleasurable than that prospect, even getting on your hands and knees and scrubbing the toilet!
The amount of time you write is not important. What counts is that you write. So be easy on yourself. If you find that despite your best intentions, you haven’t been writing lately, if you have stayed away from that novel or story, memoir or essay, the column or feature you’ve been intending to work on forever, set aside 15 minutes writing time tomorrow. And if the thought of 15 minutes makes your stomach churn, make that five minutes.
I know what you’re thinking. Fifteen minutes doesn’t even count. Whenever I ask my clients or students to curb their writing time to 15 minutes for a week or so, they look at me incredulously. “15 mintes! I will barely get started,” they all say. “That will never work.”
But the next time we talk or meet, inevitably they’ll confess that I was right. Although they haven’t written pages and pages, they have written. And just as important, they feel that they have gained momentum for their writing. Now when they approach their computer or their notebook, they no longer feel as if they have bags of sand on their feet. For the past few days, they often tell me, they have been off and running the moment they sat down.
Our biggest resistance to writing can actually be an aversion to sitting down—not to the writing itself. That’s why, people often find that once they manage to place themselves in front of their computer or notebook, what they thought would feel awful, feels good. Of course, for some writers, the act of writing itself creates anxiety. And that’s where the time limitation comes in. Imagining trying to write for two hours, let alone four, sets the stakes much, much too high. But for most of us, fifteen minutes—or fiveif that’s what works for you–doesn’t feel like any time at all. It doesn’t really count, so there’s nothing to risk. “Sure, I can put words on the page for five minutes. No big deal.” And once you commit to this, I promise, you will be on your oway to writing that novel, story, essay . . ..