Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything


images[1]If you want to consider yourself a writer, whether you’re full- or part-time, the one thing you absolutely have to do is WRITE.

Yet one of the most difficult things is simply to get things written. There are so many other things always crying out to be done, and so many distractions. It’s a problem I’m always coming up against in my own life, so I thought it might be worthwhile looking at it here, and saying something about how I try to keep the words maximised and the distractions and problems minimised.

We all have somewhere in our hearts a notion of an ideal day – a day that in an ideal world would be ‘normal’. I’m haunted by the kind of day C.S. Lewis described, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, a day which was based on the ones he recalled from his time as a teenage student living in the country with his tutor, Kirkpatrick, at Great Bookham in Surrey. He writes,


If I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better…
At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road…. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, …For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere.
At five [I] should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven. But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing … the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that [I] would have almost no mail[.]

Or, we might add rather more urgently, no email! But we’ll get to that. Note that Lewis’s ideal day gives him 6 hours of work a day, plus up to three and a quarter hours of reading: though rather less if he has a social life in the evenings.

Not many of us could emulate that. So let’s see what we actually can do. I’m going to put down some bullet points of stuff that’s proved useful to me.

● I try to write something every day but I don’t worry so much about how many words it is. The key thing is to keep the wheels turning.

● But I do keep a word-count at the top of whatever I’m writing, unless it’s a poem. There’s an encouraging sense of achievement in seeing the tall slowly creep upwards.

● I always do some writing before I do email – unless I’m waiting for something absolutely vital. Once I look at my email, my mind is all over the place – mostly reacting to other people’s demands rather than my own. If I have a full day of work, I spend the morning writing and don’t look at email until after lunch. if I have to go on the internet to check something, I still don’t open my email. And I don’t allow my computer to make those annoying noises every time a new email arrives.

● I try to make all my phone calls together at one time of day – after I’ve done some writing.

● If I have to face really difficult or unpleasant jobs – researching a very difficult article, or starting to sort out my tax – then I do a limited amount (say half an hour) each day rather than either (a) put it off until it’s a crisis or (b) do the whole thing in one go. It’s amazing how quickly things get done by just chipping away at them for a short time each day.

● I try to identify the time of day when I work best. I’m not an early morning person: my brain switches on at around 10.45 a.m. so if possible I write then. I can do my email or go on Twitter in the evening when I’m tired and still do it adequately.

So there are a few suggestions. I list them because they’re tried and tested – for me at least. Let me know if you have scheduling or time-planning tips, and I’ll pass them on sometime in another post. Thank you!