I recently began teaching writing full-time, and this is the first summer in at least a decade that I don’t have a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5. Staring down the blank runway of my calendar at the end of May, I was simultaneously grateful for the elusive “time to write” and terrified that I would squander it. Lucky for me, the guidance I needed walked right across my lap. Jim, a three-year-old tiger cat who never lost his kitten fuzz, and his brother-from-another-mother, Jeff, a tuxedo with a trademark tuft where his tail should be. If you were to watch them try to fit their eight legs into one windowsill or chase a shadow across the wall, you might not think of them as competent guides. They are, however, masters of daytime management. Here are some annotated highlights from The Kitties’ Guide to the Writing Life.
Establish a Routine
To make the best of the time between your morning bowl of crunchies ‘n’ bits and nighttime ocean-fish with gravy, set up a rotation of activities. For example: morning nap, mid-day chasing tails, early afternoon sun-stretch, late afternoon nap, pre-dinner meowy hour. Set an allotted time for each and stick to it.
The “keep a schedule” advice has been repeated countless times, in just as many variations. (See Maria Popova’s round-up of some of the greats.) Most of the “day in the life” features I read, however, are the time-logs of brilliant people whose lives are by definition anything but routine. Whatever quirks or restrictions they adopted are validated by their publication lists. Jim and Jeff offer models for even the humblest of days. Through their snoozy patterns I learned: 1) My schedule can be set by no expectations other than my own. 2) A routine is freeing. Knowing that I am working within an hour allotted for research, for example, releases me from worrying that I should be spending that time revising (or that Susan Sontag would be journaling now, or Thoreau would be out for a walk…)
Bonus Tip: Leave a buffer in between planned activities, in case you get absorbed in a project or in that recurring dream where you’re floating on a sea of tuna in a catnip canoe.
Report to Your Stations
Find your favorite spot for each part of your routine. You might choose a lap (Jim) or a tipped-over file box (Jeff) for your morning office hour. When you rotate to your porch later, the wind tickling your belly fur will be enough to get you into the mood for your morning stretch.
“80 percent of success is showing up,” or so says the adage attributed to Woody Allen. That’s easy when an employer tells me where to be, but less so when it comes to writing. I’ve tried to follow Jim and Jeff’s examples of making the best of what a space can offer. At my desk I’m in the posture for on-a-deadline writing or revising. The library inspires me to dig into the research phase of a project. A park bench, the front stoop, or anywhere with a breeze frees up the flow of a brainstorming session. Check out a local guide or list of places to write if you need ideas.
Bonus Tip: Find a fuzzy friend to meet you at one of your favorite spots. Companionship and accountability make bug-patrol or post-crunchies curl-up more pleasant and productive.
Even the most productive routine needs to be broken. If you hear the can-opener, go to the kitchen.
Unexpected opportunities pop up, even in the summer: calls for submissions, public readings, etc. As I scratch my head over whether I should break from my action plan to pounce on one of these diversions, I marvel at how the cats snap from snoring to meowing at the counter in the flick of a can-tab or twitter of a chickadee. How do they calculate their response so quickly? They don’t. Sometimes they score prime quarry---a shred of tuna. Sometimes they fly face-first into the window screen. Many of the small successes I can chalk up for the summer sprung from deviations from my to-do list. Whether I got the hoped-for results or not, my routine, and my fuzzy companions, have always been there when I’m ready to return to them.
Bonus Tip: If you get an unexpected chance to pitch a story or a blog post, jump on it, and consider adding kitties.
Emily Avery-Miller writes and teaches in Boston, MA. She loves tracking tech buzz, geeking out in museums and exploring new trails. Her prose and short fiction have appeared in Art New England, Bird's Thumb, Literary Bohemian and others.
Read Emily's essay Eye Contact.