Time to prioritize time

Easier to say than to do, right? Every day I start with a list of things to do, and time collapses or twists and leaves some of them undone. Which means I have to choose.

We all have our extracurricular passions–what gets us out of bed in the morning. And we all have our responsibilities–whether that’s folding laundry, going to work (some days, even when that is your passion), applying for a job, driving kids to soccer practice, or distracting the cat.

Earlier, I mentioned that I was learning to write on the Number 10 bus. Any free write session can be fraught with anxiety. (What if I have nothing to say? I don’t know what to write about. This sounds stupid. The guy next to me needs to get off the bus). But if I don’t write on the bus, then I’m home and working on other things–job applications, grocery shopping, hatching a strategy for what’s next–and those other things are important. Writing can fall through the cracks.

My husband said, “You just have to carve out the time” and I thought, “I can’t!” But I can. In my corporate context, this is time management: juggling the immediate things (a.k.a. fire drills) with the big projects. Now, writing on the bus is the first step, and I’ve been using a few tools to help.

1. Wait. If I catch the early bus, it’s packed and I might not get a seat. I am nowhere near coordinated enough to write standing up in the aisle while the bus lurches through traffic. But many people have pointed out that choosing the same time each day (whatever that time is for you) trains your mind and your body to be present and prepared.

2. Tomorrow gives me another chance. This tip comes remarks Christopher Howell made at LiTFUSE 2012. Show up every day and write–if it doesn’t go well on one day (or on a string of days), maybe the writing will go better the next day. And we always have revision, iteration.

3. Use language. You’re writing–how do you write and not use language? I mean start with specific words or a phrase. This one comes from Dorianne Laux at LiTFUSE 2013. Many prompts start by offering a list of words–but you can choose your own list from a poem that you happen to have on hand. The beauty of this is that you start by reading–always a great prelude to writing (although I’ve been known to get so caught up in the poems that I say, “Aw, what the heck, I’ll just keep reading until I get home and then I’ll write,” which likely won’t happen). Then aim for one of your words or phrases per line. (But you don’t have to stop at the end of your list.)

If instead you want to start by using a whole line from someone else, delete it during revision, or credit the original author.

Bonus: Read poems that are unfamiliar to you, and choose words that you don’t usually use. I tend toward the Saxon words, so I’ve been experimenting with those polysyllabic Latinate words just to mix it up. (Confession: I love the word “mellifluous.”)

I find this kind of constraint doesn’t always help with thematic content–writing new poems for a specific project that’s already in place. But it helps me stretch, and then I’m better prepared for tomorrow.

4. Start over. See number two. Sometimes, a poem I thought would work just won’t. The more I revise it, the worse it gets. I can write down the idea, or the one or two lines that feel important (what’s at stake in the poem) and start fresh from there. (The advantage is that now I’m not starting with a blank page.)

Then I can prioritize and pursue the job applications and vacuuming and reading and revising and the many things that each take less than two minutes but could easily add up to a week.

What tools do you use to keep writing? How do prioritize?