ejb writing studio, erin j bernard, old books, novels

Ten Million Unwritten Novels: How To Keep Creating Stuff When There Just Isn’t Time

Driving home tonight, I found myself feeling almost unbearably creatively suppressed.

Dramatic, right? But it’s true. I’m terribly busy with family obligations, plus the task of wrapping a large editing project with a tighter-than-tight deadline, and it’s felt lately like all I do with the miniscule shred of free time that’s left is sit in the damned car. Traffic has become unbearable in my city these past few years, but there is a bright spot: I have also discovered that my mind does some of its best wandering when I’m spacing out at the wheel.

ejb writing studio, erin j bernard, old books, novels

Until recently, I’d been in the habit of logging these road insights into my SmartPhone at stoplights so that I might regather the threads later, at a time when doing so wouldn’t threaten the lives of everyone around me.

But rumor has it that the fine for using your phone while driving is now $1,000-plus here in Oregon. That’s even if you’re stopped, that’s even if the insight you are desperately trying to capture could very realistically turn out to be super important in the course of human history, or at least might make your SO giggle. Nope, not even then.

I just cannot even handle a whopping traffic citation at this juncture in my financial and emotional life, so my whole driving-while-writing racket is now totally shot to bits, and I’ve got even less time to write, and this afternoon, it was really pissing me off.

I had a couple of cool ideas that gelled on the long, boring drive from my grandmother’s apartment in Vancouver to my own home across the river in Portland, and because I am a person who absolutely must write things down if I am to have any hope of retaining them, I lost at least half of them by the time I got home and sat down to gather them.

I sometimes wonder how much art has been lost to the world because people just didn’t have the time to make it?

How many great American novels and pithy, perfect love songs and heartbreakingly sincere watercolor paintings will never, ever be because somebody got interrupted, or they got tired, or they fell in love and decided to blow off work for the month of October to make love and smoke French cigarettes in bed instead (and probably never felt one whit of guilt about it, either).

Yes, some people only have one or two really brilliant pieces of work in them and then they run out of stuff to say and are definitely finito, but I’d wager that most of us creative folks have the opposite problem: an overabundance of ideas and a scarcity of time in which to execute them, over and over, until time runs out completely and we die and all that’s left in our wake is a small trail of completed projects, a few of which are really pretty good, plus a whole mess of other unfinished and unrealized creative business that we never quite got around to.

This thought is maddening!

Creative people are compelled, by some inborn instinct, to create stuff. But we are also compelled, again by instinct, to recreate and sleep and screw and laze about, just like everybody else. We have dogs to feed and friends and relatives to not neglect, and these things require our time and attention.

The push and pull between these two needs is discomfiting, and never-ceasing, and can sometimes lead a person to wonder if they might have made a great and massive mistake in electing not to live alone in a cabin in the woods somewhere with nothing but an old, sleepy dog for company and a stock of canned goods and a composting toilet for taking care of all that messy human business.

I’ll admit it: I go there sometimes in my mind. But never for long, and neither should you. Because you know what? Old dogs can’t read your pages and point out a glaring plot hole you had totally overlooked, and canned food gives you botulism, and composting toilets smell abominable and often make people ill (this is true; remind me to tell you my story about the eco-hostel in Nicaragua sometime). And, let’s be real: for all their writerly and painterly solitude, the woods kind of suck. Nothing even happens there!

Your life certainly doesn’t happen there.

Your life happens here, wherever here might be at this particular moment, and all your obligations and complications and compunctions aren’t really the thing standing between you and those ten million unwritten novels. They are of a pair, which is to say that creative people need fodder in order to create, and it happens often that we find ourselves with either way too much fodder and way too little captive time, or vice versa, and, yes, it is infuriating, but it’s sort of a beautiful dilemma, too.

What’s to be done? Here’s a few things that are helping me to keep writing as I wade through this stupid-wonderful-insane busy season of my particular life:

  • I sleep a little less than I really probably need to every night, because that does free up time for making stuff. Sleep is important, but creating is, for me, essential, and so it often wins out.
  • I write in snippets, compulsively, on my SmartPhone and in a tiny notebook I carry everywhere I go (except, now, when driving).
  • I have completely stopped watching TV and have just about entirely stopped watching movies, even though I ADORE film as an art form, because writing is more important, and all those beautiful, actually already-realized works of art will still be around in two decades when my life isn’t this stupid-wonderful-insane busy. And I’ll check them out then.
  • I follow the threads of my random ideas all the way to their tippy tips, and then I yank that thread even tighter, because there’s always something else to say, always a new angle you haven’t thought of yet, and this is all really just wonderful bonus material that you don’t have to do much extra work for.
  • I don’t make excuses for my own laziness, nor do I try to wriggle out from the feelings of guilt that bubble up when I haven’t written for awhile, because guilt often indicates, for me, that I’m not pushing myself hard enough, and that I need to reexamine how I’m spending my time.
  • There’s not always time to write, but there’s always time to take notes on your life, to observe the world unfolding around you. Each day offers an infinite number of opportunities for a writer to learn more about the human condition, which is, after all, our primary subject. Overheard conversations, radio stories, newspaper and magazine articles, Facebook feeds. The teachings are often subtle, but they are there. Never be a passive receptacle for information. Engage with the world, and take copious dictation. For the writer who has learned to listen like a writer ought to, the mundane is an absolute goldmine. It’s where EVERYTHING HAPPENS! Engage with it, compulsively.
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