• Tayari Jones
  • When It Comes to Writing Time, Sometimes Less Is More
When It Comes to Writing Time, Sometimes Less Is More
Written by
Tayari Jones
November 2011
Written by
Tayari Jones
November 2011

This Is Not Writing

Many of you know that I am spending the year as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for  Advanced Study at Harvard University.  It’s wonderful here.  There are fifty fellows and we are given a full academic year to basically do our thing.  My thing, as you can imagine, is researching and writing a new novel.  It’s called Dear History and it’s turning out to have a mind of it’s own– but that’s a post for another day.  This opportunity is what I have always dreamed of.  It’s a room of my own and more.  The perks: Very few real responsibilities.  (We go to a couple lectures a week and eat a nice catered lunch.)  A large office with natural light.  Access to an excellent cappuccino machine.  Extra cool colleagues.  A monthly stipend.

With all these goodies, you would think I’m over here writing like a mad woman.  After all, when I am teaching, don’t I whine that I don’t have enough time for my own work?  How many posts have I written about creative ways to carve out a little time for your novel or other projects?  But guess what? I am not yet getting my work done here at Harvard.  Why? Because I have too much “free” time.

In my own defense, I arrived here bone-tired after the 48-city Silver Sparrow tour.  And moving was no walk in the park.  But that’s really no excuse.

Here’s what happened:  I have been sleeping late. Why? Because I have all the time in the world.  No reason to pull myself out of bed and be seated at my desk by 6:45am.  I have also been experimenting with my hair, pen-palling with half the universe, fooling around on ebay looking for pretty typewriters, etc. And I won’t lie– there have been spa days.  In short,  all this luxury has sort of lulled me into becoming a slacker.

Back when I was teaching, I knew every quiet moment was precious and I took full advantage. I would happily turn down three days at a day spa, for three days at a writing retreat.  I stole time to write and did it gladly.  (Remind me to tell you the story of how I once wrote a novel on my lunch hour, barricaded in the faculty loo!)  But now, quiet moments have become a little ho-hum.  I let this pass through my fingers because I know that the next day will bring many more opportunities to write.

Luckily, I am nothing if not self-aware.

Although this seems counter-intuitive, I am making myself write by giving myself less time to write.  I am putting myself on a schedule that involves more than just my daily date with the blank page.  I joined the gym and signed up (and paid for) three classes a week.  I joined the  Boston Athenaeum and I will go there twice a week.  Then, there are the twice weekly Radcliffe lectures.  I’m also making an effort to attend lectures all over the Harvard campus.  This week and next, I’m editing  a friend’s manuscript, eating up more precious time.

I’ve only been at this a week, but I already feel it working. A couple days ago, while attending a lecture on Romare Bearden, I came up with an idea so strong it wanted to kick it’s way out of my head.  The next morning, i was in my writing office at 5:30 am, eager to get started.

This is not to say that I wish I had a job in a canning factory or that my writing would benefit from me working the graveyard shift at the local mental hospital.  A writer needs time to write, time to think, and a certain amount of leisure.  A writing life must also be a life.  Not only do my new activities make my writing time more valuable– I’ll admit it, there is something particularly sweet when time feels a little stolen– but all the other things I am doing stimulate me and inspire my writing.

I’ll report back in a couple weeks, but I think I’m on to something.

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  • Sandra Beasley

    I know exactly what you mean--that's part of why leaving my job at The American Scholar for "full-time" writing was so hard. Even though I had the relative security of the bulk of the advance supporting me, and a comfortable and work-conducive apartment I loved, that translated to....no pressure. Which translated to...no discipline. It gets better, as you are seeing for yourself; you figure out what you need to do. Onwards!