‘I need more time.’
‘I don’t have time.’
‘If only I could find more time.’
Does this sound familiar?
When speaking to fellow creative types, the thing I hear the most is the lament for the lack of time to devote to our much-loved art form, be it writing novels, painting landscapes, composing songs or quilting. Artists of all varieties need access to resources—technology, paints, textiles and education, for example—and included in that list is possibly the most coveted of all, time.
Until recently, I thought of time as a finite resource, and struggled with a year planner to work out how quickly I could write my next book, and the next one after that, and so on. With my fourth novel in progress right now, and further contract discussions at hand, I am forced to squash my creativity (by definition, nebulous) hard up against deadlines. But how can I possibly know how long it will take me to write a novel before I’ve even started?
The tricky thing for me to estimate, which I am sure is true for many other creatives, is ‘brew’ time. That is, the time I set aside for my creative project to marinate, so that when I later go back to it, I am looking at it with fresh eyes and lively new ideas. That ‘resting time’ for a creative project helps it mature to greater depth and richness. But is there a way to shorten the brew time, still get a pleasing outcome, and potentially increase my productive output?
Yes, I now think so.
In my struggle to understand how to do this, I spoke with author of twenty-seven novels, Dr Kim Wilkins (who also writes under the name Kimberley Freeman), and who coincidentally happened to be writing an academic paper on just this topic, and asked her about finding the balance between allowing a project time to brew and pushing forward towards a deadline.
‘I’m still learning, but I think I know instinctively if I’m procrastinating. There are also things I do to make the brew happen, like going for a walk, or sitting with my notebook and gazing out the window. I find if I keep connected to the project, and make time for it (including time to research, read, and think) it usually comes. I never force it. The writing is awful when you force it.
‘The incubation period is an acknowledged part of creative activity across all fields. It’s like an exercise rest day: it feels like you’re getting nowhere but you actually are. It can’t always be forward motion.
Kim’s idea that she can ‘make the brew happen’ piques my interest. I now realise that I have been thinking of my brew time as a completely passive activity, when maybe I could speed up my process by specifically allocating smaller portions of time to focused and active ‘thinking’ rather than having long lengths of amorphous subconscious brewing where I wait for the messages to swim up from the deep.
Possibly to my own detriment, having long breaks may even slow me down in more ways than I think. In Kim’s forthcoming academic paper, Writing Time: Coleridge, Creativity and Commerce, she says that ‘As in physics, the initial energy required to start motion (in this case, writing) is greater than that required once momentum is achieved. Interruptions force inertia, and that initial energy must be found again and again.’
The lesson I am receiving, then, is that smaller parcels of active time done more frequently will get me further than longer periods of action after lengthy stretches of rest. Possibly too, if I constantly see my manuscript with fresh eyes after extended absences I will simply reinvent the piece (creating more work for myself), rather than digging deep enough into what I already have to bring it to fruition as it is.
Kim also reminds us that time isn’t just time. Yes, there are sixty seconds in a minute but we don’t necessarily perceive it that way. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of a minute feeling like an hour and vice versa. Perhaps if I engage my thinking time more actively I might even trick myself and my creative flow into believing I have more time than I actually do.
Most of us will have also at some point found our ‘bliss point’ in an activity where we reach a sense of timelessness, or time standing still, or time meaning nothing. At varying points in our life, time shape shifts and bends. I am often reminded of that saying that goes around in the circles of new mothers—the days are long but the years are short.
Maybe the answer to my struggles lie in applying this same level of intense attentiveness to my novel as I did to my new born, where the whole world fell away to just leave he and I together, working it through, getting to know every different type of cry and facial expression, the sound of every breath and feel of skin. Every day was a marathon that lasted a week. And yet he has just turned five and it’s all happened in the blink of an eye.
Time is merely a notion. I now believe that it might just be possible to increase my productive output while simultaneously slowing down my experience to something that serves both my novel and myself just perfectly, perhaps simply by being more present with the time that I have.