Discover more from Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book
There's never a good time to write
Behind The Book: Writing an essay while teaching my kid about Das Racist
As I was sitting at my desk trying to trying to write this very first newsletter post , while my 13 year old son danced around my office singing “Booty in The Air” by Das Racist while holding our puppy that he got out of the crate less than five minutes after I put her in the crate to go to sleep, I thought of a question that I’m regularly asked which is: how do you find the time to write?
Some of you may know that I didn’t publish my first piece until I was in my thirties. I was a single mom of two boys and I was working full time in automotive marketing. I did not imagine that I could be a writer. Creative dreams were for women with supportive partners, disposable incomes, wealthy parents, and free time. I imagined the woman who came into writing in her thirties to be like, yoga thin and white and of the sort of subtle wealth that had you dressing like someone’s therapist except all of the costume jewelry you layered over your long printed silk blouses was real.
I started writing because I had to. Because every day of my life for over thirty years I had not been able to enter a room as a whole Black woman and all of the bits of me that I had held back over the years were packed so full inside that I thought I might explode. I started to write because I needed to know that I was not crazy and I was not alone.
That was how I started. But the kids didn’t stop needing constant attention. My job didn’t stop needing me to put in my 40+ hours. When I decided to actually pursue writing as a career, I needed to find a way to make time in a day that was already very, very full. Here are a few of the little tricks and tips I’ve used over the years to find the time to write.
Keep your writing ideas on your phone. Notebooks are cute but you will not have your notebook with you when an idea strikes you as you are chasing your kid around the park. Notebooks are cute but pretty useless when your kid scribbles all over your ideas or your new puppy chews them up. Notebooks are cute but do you know what ugly thing you always have with you all of the time no matter what? Your phone. No, it’s not sexy and no it doesn’t always feel creative, but some of my best writing ideas came from shit I jogged down in my iPhone Notes while grocery shopping. I’ll make a future post about how I write down my ideas to give me the best chance at actually turning them into essays.
Create a deadline you are accountable to. I learned early on that I’m NOT self-motivated. Give me a project that’s due tomorrow? I’ll give it to you today. Tell me I have a month to get that same project done? You’ll be lucky if I get it done in a year. Even if you aren’t going to submit your writing for publication yet, tell somebody - your partner, your cousin, someone in your writing group - that you’ll get them a draft or a chapter or a paragraph by a particular date. And make that date soon enough in the future that you’ll actually feel a little pressure to do it.
Side note: my son literally just burst into my office for an “Impromptu tambourine concert.” I didn’t even know we had a tambourine. We have too many musical instruments in this house.
Five minutes of writing is better than no minutes of writing. I know we hear stories of people who wake up at 4am and go sit at their desk with a cup of coffee and get entire book chapters written before their family even wakes up. I’m not those people, I don’t know those people. Write when you find the time to write. Five minutes here, ten minutes there - it all adds up and often can give you the motivation you need to push for that longer block of writing time when your inspiration has really struck and you need to get that piece finished. It all counts and it all helps you become a better writer.
Do something writing adjacent. There are plenty of days where I don’t have the time or the quiet to write. Some days, my ADD brain (if you want my ADD writing tips in a future newsletter, let me know in the comments) just says no to writing. During those days, I commit to doing something writing adjacent. Maybe it’s organizing the notes in my phone. Maybe it’s starting an outline. Maybe it’s reading a piece that is related to what I want to write about. Maybe it’s calling a friend and telling them about what I’m going to write when I have the time. Almost all of this work needs to be done in order to make your writing successful, so instead of treating it as an afterthought, treat it as part of your writing process so that you know you are still writing.
Ask for help. If writing is important to you and you are struggling to find the time to write, ask for help. I know it sounds like I’m assuming a lot about your support system, but help can come in many forms. Sometimes, yes, it meant asking someone to babysit for an hour or two so I could write. But that was rare. Often, it meant asking a friend for a playdate for the kids. Sometimes it meant asking for an occasional long lunch at work. Sometimes it meant trading chores with friends so they would do my laundry one week while I got some writing in, and I would get them the next week. Sometimes it meant begging my kids for just 15 uninterrupted minutes with the promise of board games when we were through. During my last book it meant asking my partner to handle all meal decisions and kid chauffeuring while I got a little extra writing in (I must admit, being healthily partnered during the writing of MEDIOCRE made a huge difference in being able to find time to write, compared to my single-life experience with So You Want To Talk About Race).
Invest in noise cancelling headphones. With my busy family, there was often very little alone time that I could get to write. I found that sometimes putting on some noise canceling headphones while the kids watched an obnoxious cartoon or while my coworkers talked on and on at lunch meant I could be physically present, and yet have the bit of quiet I needed to write a word or two. These headphones have been so crucial during these pandemic times when the whole family is at home and one kid will be playing piano while the other kid is playing guitar and then my partner (who is a musician and radio DJ) is playing new records to decide what he’s going to put on the air in the morning. Let me say again that there is just way too much music in this house.
Remember that there is no “better time”. Trust me when I say this: every stage of life is a shitshow. There is no time in your career that is a “better time” to start writing. There is no time in your relationship that is a “better time” to start writing. There is no time in your kid’s development that is a “better time” for you to start writing. There are only bad times and impossible times. During the impossible times, it just won’t get done. During the bad times, it won’t want to get done, but it can still get done. A “good” time doesn’t come around. Case in point: I just wrote this essay while explaining to my son that Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell was not just a song, but a place that actually existed and for a short, magical period of time you could get really high and then get someone to drive you to get a personal pan pizza and a seven layer burrito at 2am all in one convenient stop. It was a perfect time to be alive But, was this the perfect time to write this newsletter? No. I’ll be lucky if I remember to spellcheck this and now we’ve all got that Pizza Hut/Taco Bell song stuck in our heads. But this is the time I had and this is the newsletter you’re going to get.