Time, Will, and Ganging Aft Agley: Part 1

 If you want to write, you’ll find the time, whether you have a day job or not.  Time is not the issue: the will to write is the issue.  The ability to will yourself to write is enhanced when you have a schedule. 

–Jeff VanderMeer, Booklife


I started off the New Year with a writing plan.  Mine was either pretty modest or a little too ambitious, depending on what mood I’m in. 

Here’s what my plan looked like:

  • Write seven days a week
  • 1000 words/day Autobiographical Non-fiction
  • 1000 words/day Fiction (starting on January 15)
  • 10 shorter non-fiction pieces/month (interviews, essays, posts, etc.)
  • Keep a daily working journal

My idea was to write in one mode in the morning before the teaching day began and write in another mode at night.  Some of the journalism pieces I could slip in throughout the day, in between classes and meetings, and finish them at night.  Working on these smaller pieces during a teaching day often gets me fired up for class. 

If I’m lucky, the writing fuels the teaching and the teaching fuels the writing.  It doesn’t always work that way, but it does often enough.

After a very relaxing winter holiday, I was eager to get moving on a memoir of the time I spent working on a newspaper in the Alaskan Bush when I was 20 years old.  The words for a fiction anthology were coming slowly.  Every line I put down felt distant and strained.  I settled on the Alaska memoir as my primary focus.  I would get a good 15K into the project, before adding fiction—long or short–to the work day.

I was so excited about my plan that I even started a few days early. 

Yes, yes, I had a plan and we all know what the Scottish poet Robert Burns says about plans:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

I hit the first day of January 2010 at full throttle.

The wheels started coming off my plan by the end of the first week. 

First problem:  I was having trouble sleeping because writing autobiographical non-fiction, for me, is like taking a mop handle to a hornet’s nest.  If I do it right, I stir up a lot of hornets, and my dreams get pretty bizarre.  Great for the writing, but bad for the nerves.

One of my former creative writing teachers, Chris Offutt (Kentucky Straight, The Same River Twice), used to tell me that good writing entailed picking your scabs, opening your old wounds.

At the end of one writing session, I wrote in my working journal, “I choked up writing the short scene.  This is a place I want to hit in every chapter — to push myself to emotional honesty — to get that uncertain, uncontrolled dizziness and to search out lessons from the emotional confusion.”  There were nights when I stepped away from the computer and felt like I’d just stepped off a boat that’d been caught in a storm.

I wrote hard and fast for a week or so, and then I started missing nights. 

Second Problem:  classes started up.  The month long January term, called Interim at Wofford College where I teach part time, started with a vengeance.  We met for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.  That’s a moderate amount of classroom time, but the preparation time was enormous. 

A night course at the Greer campus of Limestone College (20 miles away) began a few days later.  That one meets three nights a week for three and a half hours at a time.  That’s a lot of hours of instructional time and a lot of prep time, too. 

The last two weeks of December had been very relaxing with lots of reading, napping, and simply hanging out with my family.  January reminded me of the time I leapt off some rocks into the Red River in Canada.  I landed feet first in white water and sort of woke up downstream with a lot bruises.

I’m not complaining.  Paying work is good, very good.  In January, I had a little more than usual.  The pay checks will be a little thicker than usual for January. 

But the teaching was beating the crap out of my writing discipline.

Most of the writing I was doing was spec work.  I had few deadlines, except those of my own making.  I amended my goals.  I switched from seven days a week to six, and then dropped down to five.  I bargained with myself.  How about instead of 1000 words/ day, I do 30000 a month?  Already, that little voice in the back of my head was saying, “You know you’ll wait to the last weekend of the month to write the last 20000 words, right?” 

The fifteenth (when I was supposed to add fiction to my daily schedule) came and went.  The fiction writing never got going.  I settled for doing research and making notes on index cards.  It was demoralizing.  I sagged, stoically, under the shame.

I have two copies of Booklife near my computer.  One is the ARC, my teaching copy.  The other is a fresh, clean copy Jeff signed for me when he came to speak to my freshman humanities class at Wofford this past fall.  This morning, I picked up the fresh one to see what Jeff had to say.

Sure enough, he had plenty.

“If you want to write,” Jeff says, “you’ll find the time, whether you have a day job or not.  Time is not the issue: the will to write is the issue.  The ability to will yourself to write is enhanced when you have a schedule.” 

Thanks, Jeff.  I shake my fist at you!

He is, of course, right.  Very, very right.

A couple weeks ago, we had the novelist Robert J. Randisi visit Wofford.  I first discovered Randisi’s work in college in the early 1990s.  Back then I read his crime and private eye novels.  These days I read his westerns, a lot of his westerns.  Randisi writes in an unadorned style with lots of humanity, lots of action, and terrific pacing.  His novels are heavy on dialogue, natural-sounding and enviable dialogue that accelerates the pace. 

(Elmore Leonard, that great stylist and master of dialogue, once said, “If Bob Randisi’s Eye in the Ring moved any faster you’d have to nail it down to read it.”)

In the last week alone, I’ve read close to a dozen of Randisi’s books.

In a bio on the Beat to a Pulp website, I read that Randisi is “the author of over 540 books, 50+ short stories, 1 screenplay and the editor of 30 anthologies. He has also edited a Writer’s Digest book, Writing the Private Eye Novel.” 

Surely, I thought, that has got to be a typo’.  540 books?

Remember, I discovered this number around the same time I was struggling to get 1000 words a week, let alone a 1000 words a day.    

When Randisi got to town, I asked him about that number.  540?  Really?  Turned out, that for all my familiarity with his work, I had somehow missed the fact that Randisi created and writes the monthly action-western series, The Gunsmith.

He helped me with the math.  Randisi has written, since 1982, between 13 and 27 books a year–every year.  At least a book a month–rain or shine, healthy or ill.  Just about every single day for the last 28 years he has worked on a western in the morning and something else–a mystery, a private novel–in the evening. 

That, my friends, is the will to write.

And I find Randisi’s will to write more than a little inspiring.

To be continued on Monday…