Create When You Can

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I recently self-published a novella that I started writing in 2017. It was inspired by the life (and death, in early 2017) of a dog that I adopted from a shelter in 2002. It’s called Buddy and Thomas, and it’s about a stubborn dog that disrupts the life of a person with a very isolated and controlled life. It’s a simple story about friendship that is appropriate for readers of many ages. My shameless plug up front is that Buddy and Thomas is available for Amazon Kindle, and is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Cover of Buddy and Thomas novella, with illustration of a beagle walking on a city street.
The cover for Buddy and Thomas, available for Amazon Kindle.

When I started writing Buddy and Thomas, I was working a conventional but very stressful day job. I was working rotating schedules and there were time pressures that, for me, amounted to the wrong kind of stress. I found myself exhausted and anxious a lot of the time, even outside of work. I rarely had the energy to write, but still felt compelled to tell this particular story.

Since I lacked so much energy by the time I got home, I started writing the story during lunch breaks and the rare slow period (on weekend shifts) at work. This was a job that didn’t allow me to carry around a legal pad or use a personal computer, so I used the only tool that was easily available to me – the Notes app on my smartphone. I wrote most of the story’s first draft on my phone. It was hardly an ideal situation, but it was what I could manage at the time.

By the time I was ready to start revising the story for publication, I was out of that day job and in a much better situation for creative work. I ended up being very pleased with the final result. But I don’t think I could have written the story any other way. And that is the point of this post: If you don’t have an ideal situation to fulfill your creative work, make use of any available time and do it anyway.

I’m hardly unique in being in this kind of situation. The writer Scott Turow wrote his first novel in a spiral notebook while commuting to and from work by rail. The result was Presumed Innocent, a best-selling novel and a “wildly inventive work of fiction” that was adapted into an equally successful motion picture.

During the years J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, she endured the death of her mother, a marriage, the birth of a child, divorce, and severe depression, among other major life events. The book took years to finish, but it’s hard to dispute the enduring quality of the work.

So if you are busy and tired, maybe those examples will provide some comfort. You are not alone, and you can still create your masterpiece. It might take longer, but don’t think of giving up as an option.

There are a few tips I can offer if you need some inspiration in creating whenever, and wherever, you can:

Be safe. This may seem obvious, but we live in a world of constant distractions. Walking in a public place is a not a good time to write a novel on your phone or tablet. Keep your wits about you and know your surroundings.

Use whatever technology is practical. I used a smartphone. Scott Turow used a spiral notebook. If you’re painting, it might be nice to work on a large canvas, but use whatever size medium will work in your situation. If composing on your grand piano isn’t an option, look up piano simulator apps for your laptop or tablet. Writing a novel while commuting by bicycle isn’t practical – but time spent waiting for stoplights can be used to document your thoughts with a voice recorder app. Write on a napkin from a coffee shop if you have to. Do whatever it takes.

Photograph of bicyclist on city street surrounded by tall buildings in Montreal, Canada
Do what you can when you can.

Focus on the work. There are times to think about questions of length or scope of work, identifying your audience, etc. While you are creating is not that time. If you only have a twenty-minute commute or, like me, a thirty-minute lunch break, be entirely in the work during that time. Dwell on the big questions before you begin. Or, sometimes, after you’re finished.

Be prepared. Since I was writing during lunch breaks, part of my pre-work preparation involved fixing my lunch (there was no time to waste buying food, standing in line, etc.), making sure my phone was fully charged, and carrying a pocket-sized notepad for moments when I couldn’t reach for my phone. If you are using a specific time period to be creative, do some advance work and have tools, supplies, and your work area ready so you don’t waste critical time.

Remove distractions. If you only have a short time period every day to create, be ruthless in your use of that time. Remove any and all distractions. I take some inspiration here from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. (The premise of Deep Work isn’t entirely relevant here – our premise is that long periods of focused work are not currently an option. However, some concepts from the book still apply.) He especially talks about electronic distractions, writing that “we increasingly recognize that these tools [social media and infotainment sites] fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate.” If you’re only able to work creatively for short bursts of time, make sure no distractions of any kind are in your way. Turn off social media, lock yourself in a room by yourself, etc. Again, do whatever it takes. Twitter will still be there later.

Scott Turow wrote a best-selling novel and launched a long, successful, writing career while commuting by rail. It seems daunting to complete a novel, or any other creative work, in a series of short work sessions. But let’s do some math. Let’s say you write 200 words per day, five days per week, for one year, allowing two weeks off for holidays, sick leave, etc. At the end of a calendar year you will have written 50,000 words.

The question is this: What do you want to have accomplished at the end of a day, a month, a year, etc.? Do you want to write, or don’t you? Ultimately this is about living your priorities. If you’ve decided what your priorities are, what are you waiting for? Start today. There is no time to waste.

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