Every public middle and high school in my hometown sent two students per grade to an annual writing competition. It was a contest of speed: describe an object in 40 words before 10 minutes are up, argue a point of view for 120 words in 30 minutes, and so on. I went every year, and placed in finals a few times. (For finals: write a 400-word personal narrative in one hour.)
Despite all this or because of it, I still hate writing against the clock.
In Timequake, Kurt Vonnegurt says (jokes?) that writers are either swoopers or bashers. Bashers painstakingly lay down one word at a time, like bricks, but every word is the one they mean. Swoopers spill everything onto the page at once but then go over it again and again, cleaning up. I am a swooper, so obviously I think this is the best way to write. How can I even know what I want to say until I get it onto the page? On the other hand, how do I know when I’m done?
In graduate school, every helpful person in the world urged me to work on my dissertation a little bit every day. Just one hour each day, my advisors pleaded; just fifteen minutes a day.
I couldn’t do it. I tried the Pomodoro method: focus for twenty minutes, relax for 5. But I’d lose the thread, forget what I was doing. I needed time to warm up and then I didn’t need the timer at all. I wanted blocks of time: a whole morning to read and make notes and think, a whole afternoon to write and erase and rewrite.
Eventually, I quit my full-time job and picked up two part-time jobs in a wine shop and high-end grocery store. I rewrote the entire dissertation at those quiet counters, letting the infrequent demands for customer service schedule my breaks for me.
In “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot mingles elevated lyrical verse with the prose music of lower-class argot—as Shakespeare did, which you know he was thinking of. In one section, a conversation between two women failing the Bechdel test is punctuated by an announcement: HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME, in all caps like that. I am told it is the last call of a bartender at an English pub. When I first read the poem, I had never seen the inside of a pub; I had also never seen the inside of a train, and somehow assumed the announcement was for the latter. Hurry up please, this train is leaving the station.
At the beginning of the voluntary isolation period–after social distancing became imperative but before my city announced it would be sheltering in place–I made a list of all the things I wanted to do during what I assumed would be two weeks of working from home. Cleaning, organizing, clearing out. Hanging pictures. Practicing piano. Cooking. I didn’t put writing on the list.
After a month I started signing up for courses, workshops: how to write book reviews, how to write flash fiction. I remember almost nothing of these. Often, I turned off my camera and drifted into the kitchen or bedroom.
A year passed by. I remember almost nothing except what I managed to write down. Crawling out of the long dark winter into another isolated spring feels like waking up from a long, untimely sleep into a disorienting half-light, irritable but aware.
Create artificial pressures. Set a timer for ten minutes or twenty. Schedule calendar reminders: write at lunch and on the weekend, alone or with others. Take more classes. Miss every deadline if you have to, turn in everything late, just do something. Hurry up please. The train is leaving the station. It’s time.