When the time’s right… and if it’s inconvenient, make it work.
The first way to approach this issue of when to write involves the easy response to the question: is there a time of day best suited for writing? I used to be a night owl. I’d drink some coffee, light up some cigarettes, turn my music down low (for my roommate’s sake), and allow for inspiration. As sleep has become more and more important to me, I find that late at night stopped working for me years ago. Sure, I might get into a good grove—and there’s something to be said for being up late when most of the world around you is sleeping; however, I found that when I would try to crash after a writing session, my mind would be so wired that I couldn’t shut it off. For this reason alone, I have shifted my writing time to much earlier in the day—late morning (after coffee has kicked in and all my emails answered) and early afternoon. This allowed me a lot of freedom with my schedule, in that if I got into a good grove, I could continue without having to cut it off anytime soon (for things like sleep). In general, however, I’ve found that as long as you are consistent with your schedule, the writing will come.
The second way—and perhaps the most crucial way—is knowing when to write, in terms of reacting to the world around you. One of my undergad teachers at UCSD told me that if it’s worth thinking about, it’s worth writing about. I’ve found this to be true, for if you are experiencing something, chances are someone who will find your work is too. That said, as Anne Lammott says in Bird by Bird, if your thing is coffee enemas, you might consider keeping this to yourselves. Your work might find its audience ever narrowing if it continues in this vein (though if this is your goal, go for it).
Outside of the writing routine, you will find that inspiration will not wait until you’re prepared—i.e. sitting in front of your computer or pad of paper. In these moments, when having a conversation with a friend, riding shotgun in a car and watching the landscape, having a political discussion with a friend, eating, an idea will announce itself. Unless you are blessed with an awesome memory (or didn’t have too much fun in your early years), you should be prepared to right this idea down (or type it into the notepad on your phone). If you rely on your memory, you forget a crucial detail, one that happened because the moment to receive it was right.
George Orwell once said that “All writing is political.” Since writing is really about you sharing your world view (in the most general way) with your audience, reacting to things that are “hop topics” can also be important—and if you are a person who belongs to a group whose voice is limited, then perhaps you NEED to speak up and shed light on an issue with your work. For example: if you’re a woman, should the world hear your story about a woman in the work place? If you’re an immigrant, should (at least some of) your work deal with this experience? If you’re gay, should you react to the gay marriage issue? There are perhaps plenty of reasons not to: don’t want to pigeon-holed, that story’s been written before… But if you wait for an “original” story to arrive out of thin air, you might get bored. Think about how YOUR SPIN/SLANT to a story is unique—after all, everyone’s point of view can illuminate a scene in a fresh way. Isn’t this why we write? So when you catch a whiff of something that kindles your passion—in a positive or negative way, grab hold of it.
These wonderful moments should not be planned—how could they be?—but you should be ready to catch them when they happen. This might mean waking up and scribbling the idea down on the notepad by your bed—turn the lights on though; it helps to be able to read what you’re writing—excusing yourself to use the bathroom during dinner, or stepping away from a group to take your notes. The strangers around you and perhaps even your friends might think you’re weird, but they’re just jealous they don’t get to be writers.