Thursday 16 July 2015

Fifteen Minutes

I haven’t written a word of fiction for six months. I’m not proud of it, not pleased about it, but there it is.

I’ve had the fairly pressing matter of my Tea and Chemo deadline to meet. 50,000 words of non-fiction are now with the publisher ready for its edit(s) and subsequent re-write(s) for publication in November - she says calmly, during a rare moment without checking her phone for the email from her editor together with its massacre of red pen, a hurricane of sighing and enough eyebrow raising to bring on a face-lift.

I’ve also been teaching, adding copious words of feedback to other people’s fiction and generally not sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. I’ve even read a tidy pile of novels, but no stories have left my own pen. I can’t remember any other period in the last fifteen years when I could say that I haven’t written any fiction for over a month, let alone six long ones.

This makes me sad. It also makes me feel a bit of a fraud: Try to write every day, I say to my classes. Exercise that writing muscle! Oil your writing brain with regular attention! It’s like the warm up before the event; means you’re ready to run a marathon as soon as you’ve tied your laces. Like anything, the more you write, the better you get. It’s like playing the piano, painting the skirting board, even doing the ironing – you weren’t born being able to do it.

Practise what you preach, my gremlins whisper.

As I watched my writing class put down their pens after their fifteen minute writing exercise today, something occurred to me. I already knew it, but seeing it played out so graphically in front of me was inspiring. I thought it might be useful to share this with you if you’re struggling to write, read, paint, phone a friend, apply for a job, complete course work, practise your serve or your music scales...

I noticed that when it comes to some things in life, fifteen minutes is quite a long time.

I’d explained the exercise to the six participants in the group. Pens and paper at the ready, I set the timer and off they scribbled. Meanwhile, I put on the kettle, gathered up the mugs from around the table, washed them up and set about making three coffees (one as it comes, one strong, one black), three teas (builders) and asked the abstainer once again if she was sure she wouldn’t partake in a beverage. Refusing a cuppa? Call herself a writer! I checked that my hand-outs were accessible for the next part of the session. They were. That took a good seventeen seconds. I handed out the drinks, rattled the biscuit box to remind participants of their whereabouts, answered a question or two on the exercise, returned the remaining clean mug of the abstainer to the cupboard, looked at the clock and told the frantic scribblers that they had two minutes left. Did I have time to use the facilities? Probably not.

My phone quacks very loudly when time is up which does tend to stop my scribes in their tracks, thus I can confidently say that fifteen minutes they were given to write and fifteen minutes they took.

How did they get on? Very well indeed. Even with a few moments at the beginning to gather their thoughts on how to approach the task, all had written more than a page of fiction. Some had written almost two. I have excessively large, illegible writing and even with my script, two pages means almost 500 words.

500 words!

There are only twice that amount in some short stories. There are only 40 times that amount in a short novella and only 160 times that in a short-ish novel. 160 lots of 15 minutes? That’s a novel in forty tiny hours.

It’s not true of course. Good novels, even first drafts of good novels, are certainly not written in forty hours, nor are the skills learned to paint a masterpiece or scales learned in one single working week. Chance would be a fine thing. We need to plan and think and practise and revise and totally change our mind and start again. But you see my point.

In fifteen minutes a day you could put on the kettle, wash a few cups, have a short conversation and make a few drinks. If you were a particularly succinct interlocutor, as was your opposite number, then you might slip in a brief visit to the toilet, too. But only that.

Or you could write two pages.

I’m not saying my washing up, tea making, snippets of conversation or even using the lavatory aren’t important to the very essence of being a happy, upstanding human being, but if we want it, really want it, there’s room in our life for both.

But, you cry, you fancy taking fifteen minutes out of your day to write a story like digging a hole and filling it in again? For writing read, two sessions of Seven A Day exercises, way too many press ups than are humanly possible, sketch a picture, do Sudoku, peel some veg, learn how to change a plug, how to use the sewing machine, read a couple of chapters, knit a few rows, mow the lawn, learn ten new words in a foreign language…

But here’s the deal: you have to be focused. Fifteen minutes is only productive if you devote it fully and unconditionally to the job in hand. Otherwise you won’t write two pages. Or sketch a picture. Or book your holiday. Otherwise you’ll just add your forgettable half-hearted attempts back onto your to-do list.

This was my last class for the summer. I have other work to do but teaching is my biggest commitment. I started my Fifteen Minute Fiction regime this afternoon. I wrote some of a short story which came to me when I was ironing months ago. It’s currently two pages of nonsense but hey, if I carry on tomorrow and the next day and the next, who knows what it will become?

So here’s my Fifteen Minute Regime: I have to write at least fifteen minutes of fiction every day. Even at the weekend. Even in a foreign country. That’s the only rule. My hope is that this daily fifteen minutes of fiction will be so engrained by the time the madness of the new term is here, that dropping it from my day would be as ludicrous as shunning the time it takes to make a cup of tea.

And that’s never going to happen.

So, will you join me?