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By Caroline Donahue

Writing rarely begins in a vacuum. Instead, there is a moment when an idea appears and as writers, our first instinct is to get it down on the page. Sadly, this impulse often strikes in inconvenient places at inopportune times. My novel appeared in the loo at Hops + Barley in Friedrichshain in October of 2016.

I was minding my own business, having a few ciders with my brand-new husband, and went to have a wee, as you do, and BAM, there it was. A character, and a reason I had to write about her.

This has been the case with most writers I have spoken to. One minute, there is no story and the next, it leaps into our minds. For the first little while after the idea appears, we get to enjoy the hunger it creates. “This will be good,” we think. “This could really be amazing.”

If we’re lucky, this carries us quite a long way. Even as far as the first draft, but I am proof that this is not always the case. Just like physical hunger, the hunger to write can be hard to fit into a busy schedule. I’ve worked jobs in the past that provided no lunch break, no time to eat except for a few gulps between phone calls and crossing items off an unending to-do list. Writing can be like that, too.

How do you balance the need to write with the demands of your life? Sadly, writing is one of those urges that the rest of the world doesn’t stop to let us fulfill.

“Oh! You’ve got a great new novel idea? We’ll take care of collecting the children and school, doing grocery shopping and all the work you do to pay the bills while you write this book,” said our lives, exactly never.

I have handled this badly so many times. I’ve resented my job, seeing it as the obstacle to getting writing done, only to realize that being between jobs and not knowing where the money is coming from next creates paralysis that shuts down the process entirely. We need a balance to get the book written.

This first step is to accept that the hunger to write needs to be acknowledged. If you dream of writing and don’t take this dream seriously, it will eat away at the rest of your life. All the other activities, engagements, and beautiful things that fill your days will begin to pile up in a nasty bucket entitled “Reasons I can’t write right now.” Don’t follow this path. I did it for over ten years, putting off writing until my life was just so and had plenty of space for staring out a window, seated behind a wide wood desk in an artfully torn sweater with a handmade mug filled with perfectly hot coffee. Spoiler alert: that day never came. It still hasn’t, so I had to accept as 40 was closing in on me that perhaps it was time to just get on with writing anyway.

Once you have accepted that your desire to write isn’t going away, you can address the question that is the most important:

How much time do you need in order to feel like you are making progress?

Hint: the answer does not have to be 8 hours a day, or even two. Or even one hour. As long as you are engaging with your work and taking steps forward, your writing will begin to feel fed, and so will you.

I have one client who dreamed of writing for years and now writes scenes in her phone on the train to work. A fifteen-minute train ride several days a week, where she adds to a list of scenes she imagines will be in the book, or writes a few paragraphs of a scene, is enough to stay connected to the story. It is no longer a story she might write someday. It is a book she is working on now. Right in the middle of a life as busy as anyone’s.

If you have an idea gnawing at you, start looking at your time. Where are there little moments you could connect with that idea? Do you have to wait in line? For trains or public transit? Do you get a lunch break? Could you take a little nibble in any of these windows?

This is a perfect time to confront your romanticized notions of what writing looks like. It might not happen in a notebook with a beautiful fountain pen. If you write a scene in your phone by sending yourself an email, guess what? It’s still writing. As I tell my students and clients constantly, no one ever picked up a book in a bookshop, flipped through it and then rejected it, thinking, “I’ll bet this author wrote that book in 5-minute chunks and has never been on a writer’s retreat by the ocean.”

Once your book is written, no one cares how you wrote it.

A confession: in my last job in Los Angeles, the land of no lunch breaks, before moving to Berlin, I got chunks of the novel written by walking the mile to work and dictating scenes into a voice recorder. Is this still writing? Absolutely.

Part of being a writer is figuring out how writing can fit into your life. This is essential. Your writing needs to be fed, or else it will start feeling on you. We’ve all been there: when the joy starts to leach out of things we once loved, when we start asking, “Is this all there is?” Don’t let it go that far. Stash a notebook in your purse, a tiny one will do, or open up a note file on your phone and write a few sentences. Tomorrow, write a few more. Go slow.

Your writing has waited for you a long time. You will figure out how to get your story written together.

Caroline Donahue is an American writer, podcaster, and English teacher living in Berlin. She is the host of The Secret Library podcast and co-host of GTFO pod. She is the co-editor of I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays, and the author of Story Arcana : Using Tarot for Writing. She is currently at work on her first novel.  Learn more at


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