Writing in the Interstices

By Edward Ashton
Nov 20, 2019 · 709 words · 3 minutes

From the author: In which the author discusses his writing process, chicken wings, and his dislike of Working Moms (the Netflix show, not the actual people.)

When I was in graduate school, one of my writing professors pulled me aside after class one evening. He wanted to offer some well-intentioned advice.

“Writing a novel,” he said, “is like launching a rocket into orbit. You can sit there and grind away on the launch pad forever, but if you never achieve escape velocity, you’ll only wind up crashing and burning in the end.”

Setting aside his questionable understanding of orbital mechanics, I got the point he was trying to make. He felt I had too many distractions in my life, and that if I didn’t winnow them down, I would never reach my potential as a writer. He wanted me to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Failing that, perhaps I could at least stop spending so much time eating chicken wings, or running around on a basketball court?

I thanked him politely, but I knew even then that a single-minded focus on writing wasn’t going to work for me.

I’ll preface the rest of this post by saying that I’m not in any way suggesting that the approach that I’ve taken to writing is the only one that works, or even the best one—but it was definitely the best one for me. I’ve always had a lot of different things going on in my life. As an undergrad, I had two majors and a raft of extracurriculars. In graduate school, I got into triathlons. Shortly after that discussion with my writing professor, I met someone. We got married. We had a child, and then we had two more. I got a job, then started teaching classes on the side because children, as it turns out, are expensive.

Through it all, I kept writing. I produced dozens of short stories, as well as two published novels. How?

The answer is that I learned not to need unbroken hours of solitude in order to put words on the page.

I have a friend who’s a very talented writer. He’s sold short pieces to multiple professional markets, won awards, gotten solid reviews—but he hasn’t published anything in years now, because he’s got a young family, and he just doesn’t have the time. He does, though. We all do. Contra my professor, writing—even novel writing—doesn’t have to be accomplished during marathon sessions in a garret somewhere. You don’t need to quit your job, or ignore your children, or alienate your spouse to produce a novel in a surprisingly short amount of time. You just need to learn to write in the interstices.

What do I mean by this? Your life’s interstices are those stretches of time between finishing one important thing and starting another. Classic interstice? The end of lunch. My work generally gives me an hour to cram food down my neck in the middle of the day. I eat a lot, but even so, I don’t actually need that much time. In between the time I finish eating and the time I need to get to my next meeting, I could surf the net, or jaw with my coworkers, or just get my nose back to the grindstone. I don’t. Instead, I usually pull out my laptop and bang out somewhere between a hundred and two hundred words. That doesn’t sound like much—but over the course of a year, those words will add up to half a novel or more.

Once you stop thinking of writing as something that has to be done in a specific place and  in big chunks of time, opportunities to add to your word count start to appear everywhere. Waiting for your kid to finish soccer practice? That’s a hundred words, easy. Partner insists on binge-watching Working Moms? Half a chapter. Stuck in a desolate canyon with your arm pinned under a boulder? You’ll have to type with one hand, but you ought to be able to finish a short story at least before gnawing your way to freedom.

Anyway, the tl;dr is this: we all have time to write. We just need to stop thinking of writing as the bricks in our life, and start thinking of it as the mortar in between.

Also, writing professors know jack-all about how space travel works. Can’t forget that part.