Finding comfort in writing practice 3: Finding time for ideas

[This claims to be the third in a series, but I posted the first and second on LinkedIn, to test whether posting as LinkedIn articles boosted my views.]

This is my third post in the series on finding comfort in a writing practice, and, in a way, I’m finally reaching the points that I initially wanted to make.  I started this series to help a parent I know whose writing practice has been thrown off due to child care demands. I’m not a parent, so I know the concerns of parenting only secondhand.   But I’m pretty sure that a lot of the general suggestions I made in the previous post about developing a practice are far more difficult, if not impossible, for parents. The parent of a young child may never have 15 minutes undisturbed to write, and may never be able to nail down a regular time to write. And, of course, when a parent does have time that they’re not directly caring for their children, there are pressing practical needs that will take precedence over writing—all sorts of self-care and housework. Even if there are a few minutes to write, the chances appear unexpectedly—the desired writing routine may seem out of reach.  It would be a bit facile to just say “make a commitment to your schedule.”

Although I’m not a parent, there are some points that I feel qualified to make.  These are largely ideas about a general relationship with writing and how writing fits into our lives.  In particular, what interests me is how to fit writing into the little empty spaces in out lives. Because the most important dimension of writing is the ideas that we want to express, we can actually work on our writing without actually writing, or with only a little writing.  In the long-run, completing a significant written work—a doctoral dissertation or work for publication—takes many uninterrupted hours of focused attention; I don’t want to suggest otherwise. But, in terms of building a writing practice that can provide some comfort in the moment, and that can be productive in the long run, the imaginative work that fits into the little spaces in life is extremely valuable.

Write because you’re interested, or even fascinated

Ideally, people will write about ideas that interest or fascinate them. In practice, lots of people end up working on projects that don’t interest them. That’s unfortunate, but a little outside the scope of this article, because it was inspired by someone who is interested in their work. Sometimes, however, people who have lost interest in a previously interesting project can re-ignite their interest by re-evaluating their relationship with the project, and my suggestions here might help with that.

The key here is that, if you’re interested in an idea, you’ll think about it, and thinking about your ideas makes a difference.

Visualization and imagination

Imagining how and what you’re going to do, helps you do it better.  Many of the same neural circuits that fire when you actually do something also fire when you imagine doing that thing.  Visualization doesn’t replace practice—especially not for a writer, for whom it is absolutely necessary to get words on to the page—but it can be a strong supplement to it.  For people with difficult schedules, visualization can lay a foundation for productivity by using brief moments of time to develop ideas and phrases that can later be put into writing.

It’s easy to find time for a single thought

Life is filled with moments where there is time for idle thought. Can you fill those moments with thoughts about the ideas you want to write about, or thoughts about how to express those ideas? If you’re sitting at a traffic light on your way to the grocery store, you have time to ask yourself “how would I express that idea?” Or “what is the most important conclusion I can draw from that?”  There’s time for such passing thoughts when cooking, or when doing laundry, or bathing, etc.

Thinking about what you would write, or how you could explain an idea to different people, is a way of engaging the ideas that you will ultimately write about.  Thinking about what to write helps develop ideas and can help you find phrases.  Maybe you don’t write down that thought you had while stopped at the traffic light, but maybe you get a chance to make a quick note on your cell phone while waiting on line at the grocery. And, perhaps most importantly, thinking about a subject helps keep it near the forefront of your mind.

Building patterns of thought

The more you think about an idea, the easier it becomes to call that idea to mind. The most obvious case of this is repetition: the more you repeat something—a name or a phone number or a poem, for example—the easier it is to remember it. Ideas don’t have the same fixity as the words of a poem printed in a book, but they do have some of the same continuity.  If you think about your subject today, you have a place to start thinking about that idea tomorrow.  If you don’t think about your subject for a week, then you have to search your memory for the ideas that you were thinking a week ago.

And the more you build patterns of thought, the more likely the thought will pop up in your mind spontaneously in idle moments.  An idea that you have been considering is more likely to appear in dreams than one you have not.

Geek out

Pretty much everyone knows someone who is extremely interested and absorbed in some idea, pursuit, or activity.  Such people are often mocked as geeks for their focused interest on subjects.  Whatever the interest—be it a game, or a sport, or a job, music, art, etc.—it becomes a dominating focus on a person’s attention. In academia, of course, scholars often “geek out” on their subject of study. Such focus is often derided, but the person who is focused in that way often enjoys the focus and finds meaning in it.  If you are a writer who is struggling to find time to write, and struggling to find time to attend to your work, a geek-out approach can be useful in building patterns of thought.  Focus on your interests; think about them whenever you can.  The more you do, the easier it will be to write when you do find the time.

If you’re writing fiction, think about your fictional characters and setting. If you’re writing non-fiction, think about your subject as much as possible.

Reflections in daily life

Non-fiction writers can often see traces of their subject matter in daily life.  Someone studying human behavior in a specific field of endeavor—in restaurants, for example—may not be able to go to restaurants to observe people in action, but they can still think about how people behave. Perhaps something they observe in their family will remind them of how people act in restaurants.  Or perhaps someone is studying some human characteristic—intelligence, for example—in some specific setting (restaurants, for example), and even though they may not be able to go to a restaurant, they can observe people around them—their families, people at grocery stores—and ask how intelligence (or humility, or honesty, wisdom, creativity, etc.) plays out in the situations they can observe and compare those observations with their ideas about how the characteristic of interest plays out in the specific setting that they are concerned with.

To be sure, not all non-fiction studies have reflections in daily life, but if yours does, then you can develop your thinking on the subject even if you aren’t writing.

Exercises

How would you explain your idea and your interest to your child or children? Or, more generally, how would you explain to a 5-year-old? Or a 10-year-old? Or a teenager?

What would you say you study? Why do you study it? What good is studying it?

What is your “elevator pitch” to a peer? To someone who might offer you a job? To someone who might publish your work?

Conclusion

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, schedules have been upset, and finding time to write is difficult, especially for parents who are now tasked with constant childcare. But, as I have argued in this series of articles, a positive writing practice can provide a form of comfort, offering a chance to focus on things other than the stressful state of the world.  Therefore, it would be good to be able to focus on writing, and especially on the ideas that interest people.  In this article, I have focused on the purely intellectual part of writing—the development of ideas for writing.  Thinking about what you would write if you had the time is a habit that you can develop. All it takes is a focus of attention in the spare moments when the mind wanders.  In the long run, thinking is not enough for a writer, but developing patterns of thought and developing the habit of thinking about your writing—not as an adversary, but as a fascination—can help make actual writing more effective when you find time to sit down to it.