[Editor’s note: Kelly Shire is the winner of the first HippoCamp conference scholarship contest, which included an essay prompt of ‘writing lessons learned.’ Hippocampus is publishing the winning and two runner-up essays in this and the next two issues.]
When my two children were both old enough to attend school, I was excited by the prospect of solitude and the chance to finally return to writing. But over a decade had passed since earning my MFA; I was out of practice at putting ideas into words. Knowing a daily routine would help, I faithfully sat with coffee and my laptop each morning, but found the silence of my empty house and the blinking cursor unnerving. In fact, I was afraid – of starting, finishing, or choosing a story to tell. A champion procrastinator, I frittered away months with excuses and distractions. Finally, gripped by an “it’s now or never” attitude, I sought advice from a stack of self-help and writing craft books to pull me out of the swamp of my fears. Most of these books were relevant enough, but none seemed to address my particular brand of stuckness.
Or that was the case until I read Theo Pauline Nestor’s craft book, Writing Is My Drink. Already a fan of Nestor’s warm and generous voice in her memoir How to Sleep Alone in a King-Sized Bed, I was receptive to her writing advice. I especially related to the dilemma she describes in chapter three, detailing the terrible writer’s block she experienced when it came time to write her master’s thesis. Mired in inertia, she despairs of tackling the required hundred pages that stand between her and graduation. By way of distraction, she buys a used paperback devoted to women artists and their approaches to work. In it, she discovers an essay that becomes key to unlocking her block.
That essay, “Learning to Work” by Virginia Valian, explains how the writer found herself in a situation much like Nestor’s. Unable to begin work on her dissertation, she determines she can allot a certain amount of each day to writing. Is it for an afternoon – three hours – an hour? No. Valian concludes that all she can handle is fifteen minutes of writing at a stretch. Fifteen minutes! “What magic had I stumbled upon?” Nestor writes.
In fifteen minutes stretches and then longer intervals, Nestor follows Valian’s lead and is able to complete her thesis. And I, holding her book, was immediately motivated to try this method, too. At my kitchen table, with an eye on the clock, I uncapped a pen and put it to the legal pad before me. I wrote longhand for fifteen minutes, and was glad to stop when time was up. But the next day I wrote a little longer, and still longer the day after that.
It’s a simple concept, yet that initial experiment of setting a timer evolved into something I only imagined for myself: a workable writing routine, one that I actively miss when life gets crazy and pulls me away. If I’m away too long and the page becomes daunting again, I remind myself that fifteen minutes is nothing to fear. And I’m grateful for the magic I stumbled upon.
I love this essay—obviously your writer’s block isn’t blocking you anymore. In an essay I wrote for The Magic of Memoir about writing my (upsetting) memoir, I confessed that my husband used to urge me to write for just 5 minutes. It worked. I got the manuscript done—sometimes only a little at a time. Your essay above will encourage others! P.S. I’m now eager to get a copy of “Spent” and Nestor’s books. Glad I met you on Twitter.