My grandmother recently passed away at 99 years old. When she was born, in 1919, the average life expectancy for a white American women (higher than that for males, or people of color) was 56 years old. As a child, the idea of a 99 year-old person, let alone her own ability to live to 99, would have astonished my grandmother. And yet by today’s standards, 99 is hardly old. It’s within the realm of possibility that members of my generation may cross the hundred-year mark without much surprise or fanfare. We, the privileged result of medical advancement and economic growth in the developed world, have more time on our hands than ever before.
What does that mean for us as writers? It means that you and I have more years available to us than F. Scott Fitzgerald did, or William Shakespeare, or Jane Austen. We have more time to perfect our craft, more moments of creative thought, more experiences from which to draw inspiration.
Now, I’m not saying that we should cling to the mindset of endless time. We never know what might happen to our bodies or minds, and the drive or capability to create might one day leave us. But, just as an exercise, let’s try a thought experiment. What would it look like if we oriented our writing practice around the idea of having an entire century of time?
Would we take more breaks— even sabbaticals— from the writing life?
Would we give ourselves more time to gather inspiration?
Would the chatter of the world, telling us to “publish, publish, publish” start to fade into the background?
Here are some ways you might be able to benefit by telling yourself that you have an abundance of time.
Take the pressure off
We all cling to self-imposed goals. “I want to be published in a major magazine by the time I’m forty.” “I’m quitting unless I’ve gotten an agent in six months.” “I’m not a real writer unless I can complete NaNoWriMo.” Goals, while helpful in more predictable life situations, can be pressure cookers for creative work. They can lead to frustration and, in some cases, burnout.
Instead of giving yourself a goal that may or may not be realistic, focus on the incremental process of writing, and celebrate the days when you stick to your best practices. Take the pressure away from an outcome that may not be completely under your control. Remind the goal-oriented piece of your brain that you have an abundance of time. You may turn out to be more creative without the pressure of a deadline in place.
Lower the bar
If you have a whole lifetime to write, why not spread it out more? Lowering the bar for your daily or weekly writing habit might make you more consistent and less prone to burnout. Five hundred words a day doesn’t feel like much to someone who wants to publish next week. But five hundred words a day can result in ten personal essays in twenty days, or a full-length novel in 180 days. You can make the threshold even lower. I’ve heard of people who’ve written one paragraph a day, or even a sentence— it didn’t matter, as long as they stayed invested in their writing project. Does it really matter if you publish this year or next year? When you’re 95, will you care if you published your first book at age 39 or age 40?
(Maybe it does matter to you, and that’s okay too; remember, this is just a thought exercise to give us some perspective!)
Focus on quality
If you’re not focused on quantity, you can focus on quality. We often think that if we can’t devote a certain amount of time per day to our writing practice, we might as well give up. But you can still get a high quality result with a small amount of time— or a smaller number of words— when you’re truly focused. Remind yourself that a constant drip of water, precisely placed, can wear away stone.
Honor your reality
Think about this season in your life. Are you raising small children? Caring for older parents? Leaning in at your day job? Maybe you don’t have a lot of flexible time at this season in your life, but in ten years, you’ll be on the soccer sidelines with your writing notebook instead of literally kicking the ball back and forth with your three-year-old. Keeping the long term in perspective can help you see your current situation as temporary. How creative can you be with your time right now? Work within the framework of your reality, knowing that circumstances change over time.
Take a break— a real one
Have you ever thought about taking a sabbatical from writing? If you’re in a creative slump, or just want to try something new, it’s okay to take a few months off to pursue a different passion. Maybe you want to cook your way through a new cookbook, make a quilt, or focus on reading books instead of writing them. If you have a whole lifetime to spend and regenerate your creative energy, you don’t have to focus it completely on writing. Take a break— a real one— and come back to writing feeling refreshed.
I’m closing our mental experiment with one final thought. We don’t know that we’ll live until ninety nine, and it may be foolish to live based on that assumption. Perhaps feeling an abundance of time will condition us to allow time to slip through our fingers, leaving us unfulfilled at the end of our lives.
But it’s equally foolish to place a stranglehold on time, squeezing it so tightly that we don’t allow ourselves the space to truly live. Our perceptions of time must balance between abundance and scarcity, rigid schedules and relished relaxation, so that we can live our best lives on our terms, at our preferred tempo.
Interested in reading more about time perception? Stay tuned for the next Be Well, Write Well post, in which I’ll share my experiences tracking my time for an entire month.
Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical fiction and personal essay, for which she won the Scott Meyer Award in 2017; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, at Facebook.com/sowulwords, or on Twitter @sowulwords.