There are so many romantic notions about being a writer. Some are perpetuated by writers themselves (it's always advantageous to make your work sound more mysterious than it really is) but the worst, the most pernicious evil of this sort, comes from People Who Could Be Writers, aka LFS (Lazy Fucking Slackers). This is the idea that one needs time to write, i.e. "If I could only find the time to go away and really write, just write, I could get that [screenplay, novel, memoir, essay, perfect tweet] written."
Well, yes: How nice. I wish I had a chunk of time where I had nothing to do but write. I also wish I had a second home in the Bahamas, a private jet, and the answer to world hunger, but none of these are liable to show up this afternoon, and I'd like to finish the novel I'm writing before I'm dead. So in the meantime, all I've got is this little office room in my current apartment (thank goodness for that), a car that really ought to be in the shop, and just enough cash on hand to feed our dogs and cats. But I am writing a novel.
I'm currently holding down three jobs, and I'm a married man. I work full-time at Universal Pictures as a story analyst, I teach at UCLA Extension and at seminars around the world, and I'm a private script consultant who also runs a weekly writing group, while often maintaining my relationship with wife Judith (an empathetic journalist) via watching our favorite TV series together. Nonetheless I do have little dust-grains of that most precious commodity, writer's gold: minutes in the day when I can fit in a little writing.
Minutes?! you say. What am I supposed to do with that?
It can be done this way. I have lived to tell. Some years ago, I wrote the first draft of a first novel in a year by getting up an hour earlier than I had been, six days a week, and said novel was sold to Random House and published some 3-4 years (and some 7 drafts) after that. These days, the commitment is by necessity even shorter: I'm working on my second novel for twenty minutes a day.
Okay, I cheated - it's outlined, and it's based on an old project, so a lot of the grunt work was already done before I embarked on this Writing By Tidbit gambit. Still! At the point where I was complaining about NOT HAVING ENOUGH TIME TO WRITE to my longtime friend and writing soldier-in-arms Mr. Bob, he asked me, What amount of time could I reasonably find in a given day to devote to writing? And thus...
Sometimes I don't get to my 20, first thing. Sometimes it's "Hey, Judith, how much time before that lasagna's out of the oven?" That's when I grab my 20+ (yes, sometimes you get to Plus - I often go past 30). And here's the thing: This first draft will be erratic, all over the place; the quality will be wildly uneven. As with any first draft, it will include blind alleys, tangents, overlooked gold mines... all manner of mistakes will (and have already been) made. But it will exist.
That's the one obvious major accomplishment - creating that all-important something where there formerly was nothing. The other is that by working even 20 minutes a day, you feed the beast. It lives and thrives. The work stays with you. It ferments in your fevered brain. You're "in" the work, even unconsciously, 24/7. And that's immensely valuable, even if the draft itself seriously blows.
First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it.... The first draft of a book is the most uncertain—where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better.
The ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Oh great gods in heaven, the wisdom, the zen and the art of creativity inherent in Malamud's phrase. When you're writing a first draft, perfection is not just the enemy of the good, it's the Death Star. It will zap you and your big ideas into oblivion before you can get a single passable page out of your printer.
No, you have to be brave enough to write badly, to write it awful. You need the courage to write a really shitty draft, the sooner, the faster the better. Be wrong fast, as the Pixar guru Andrew Stanton famously put it. After all, a draft is just something to change.
So go for twenty minutes, and go for bad. If you sincerely, consciously embrace the premise that your first draft will suck, you won't compare it to all those paradigms of good writing you've studied, you won't worry about what anyone will think of it, and you won't beat yourself up for any of your multitudinous easily available beat-yourself-up options. Because it sucks! It's supposed to. That's its job.
A lot can happen in twenty minutes. One thing that will happen is: you'll be writing. You'll be a writer, as opposed to a LFS who dreams of that perfect script or book that's always next month, next year, next life. Writing this way may not fit the romantic paradigm, but stick with it, and it will get the damn thing done.
If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
--St. Thomas Aquinas *
Stop thinking about writing as art. Think of it as work. If you're an artist, whatever you do is going to be art. If you're not an artist, at least you can do a good day's work.
* See the comment by Jeff Takacs re: the proper attribution for this quote