Saturday, September 3, 2011

Making Time for Your Writing--How Many Plates Are You Spinning?

Each choice we make, each change we bring into our lives, requires a certain level of attention.  Normal activities that are in a groove require a different kind of attention, because they are on a maintenance level.

But if we're tackling something new, like health or family changes, a shift in job responsibilities, a new exercise plan, new financial goals, it becomes like
a plate spinning in the air above our heads.

We have to keep the plate going so it doesn't fall.  And our attention gets used up.

Often, writers who want desperately to write but can't seem to, have more plates in the air than they can comfortably manage.  So the writing plate falls with a crash and the writer might not even have time to pick up the pieces.

So, first, it's a matter of knowing what you are handling that's out of the ordinary.  Beyond what you need to need to keep body and soul together in your every day, you need to look at what's pulling your attention.

That's why this week's exercise can be transformational. You begin by listing what's unusual in your life, your current "spinning plates in the air." Then you do the same in your writing life.  Finally, you assess the quantity, need, and any intersection between the two--is there room for your writing? 

Assessing Your Spinning Plates
I began developing this exercise after I read Jennifer Louden's wonderful book, The Life Organizer.  Louden believes that a person can only comfortably juggle four to six major focuses at any one moment.  As I began assessing my spinning plates, I realized how true it was for me.  More plates than five or six, I feel ovewhelmed; and conversely, if there are fewer new things in my life, I feel bored and uncreative, like I'm staying too safe and not risking enough.

So the goal is to keep an eye on how many plates you have going at any one time--and if your writing can comfortably become one of them.  Because if you're working on a book, especially, it takes a certain level of attention that is not within the norm.

When I began working with this idea three years ago, I took a large sheet of paper (or used a two page spread in my journal) and drew six circles.  In each circle was one main focus of my life just then.  I only wrote down the focuses that needed constant attention, like they were really plates I was spinning above my head.  So "food choices" became a circle only if I was trying to eat healthier or change my diet in some way; if I was feeling the food arena of my life was already humming along, it didn't go in a circle.  If my relationship with my teenage son or spouse was doing well, that didn't need a circle.  But if I was aware of change or growth that needed my attention now, or we were having conflicts, this went in a circle.

Trying anything new meant adding a dedicated circle for that area.  Reinventing a system or fixing a troubled aspect of my life also meant adding a dedicated circle. 

In other words, if an out-of-the-ordinary event was taking my attention in a more-than-maintenance way, it became a plate in the air.

Daily life:  categories 
* physical body needs (improvements in health, sleep, exercise, diet)
* emotional needs (changing or improving relationships with family and friends, improving self-care, addiing more private time, starting therapy, beginning a journal or any self-reflective path)
* intellectual needs (starting a class, going back to school, learning and growing in any arena)
* family needs (challenges or changes on the home front)
* home and possessions (buying a new/used car, moving, weeding out clutter, organizing new systems)
* financial needs (saving more, paying off debts, increasing income, starting a business, promotion and marketing)
* spiritual changes (finding a new church or religion, starting volunteer service, self-inquiry on a new level, new prayer or meditation practice)

Scan these categories and ask yourself, What am I trying in a new way right now?  What improvements are  required in my life to feel in control, balanced, and healthy?

Draw your circles of any area that feels like it needs extra attention right now, which could be a plate spinning in the air.

The next step in this assessment exercise is looking at what you need to have in place to allow writing to be part of your life--and to get your book written and published.

Creative life:  categories
privacy needs (enough private space and security of writing area--including computer security)
time needs (having a dedicated writing practice and permission from family and work and self to write)
feedback and support needs (being part of a writer's group, online or other writing class, or other exchange where you can get encouragement, support, and appropriate feedback to keep you going)
adequate supplies (do your computer and printer work well or do you have enough paper and pens?)
skill building needs (are you needing the next step in skills as a writer, maybe via a class, one-to-one instruction, or good books?)

If you have any of these areas that need attention, draw an additional circle on your page.  Inside, write your writing life, and include whatever might be missing right now.

The final step with this exercise to to look at the different circles.  See if there's overlap.  Is there a need for more alone time in your daily life, which might correspond with a need for privacy in your writing life?  If so, what small change can you make?  Perhaps you just need to have a family meeting and ask your beloveds to give you time and space to be a creative person.  Or perhaps you need to dedicate a private space to yourself within your home.  Or maybe you need to finally get that computer of your own so you don't have to share with your daughter.

It's back-to-school time, so the energy is perfect for making such changes right now.  Catch the spirit and reinvent both your writing and your life!

PS  If your circles included a nudge to learn more writing skills, there are still a few openings in my fall online writing class, Your Book Starts Here, sponsored by the Loft Literary Center.  You'll have 24/7 access to the classroom site, be part of a wonderful community of fellow book writers-to-be, and receive personal instruction from me online.  Click here to find out more or register. Cost is $510 ($459 for Loft members) for the twelve classes.  Or join me at my one-day workshop at Grub Street writing school in Boston on Sunday, September 18, to get a solid overview of the book-structuring process and how to create and maintain a writing practice to sustain you through the book-writing journey.  Click here to find out more or register.  Cost is $115 ($95 for Grub members).


  1. Very useful. I know I'm juggling way too many plates. Gotta make time to draw some circles!

  2. Thanks for the great exercise, Mary. Now for the next question, if you have way too many plates spinning, then what? Do you just choose a few to give up on?

  3. Elisa,

    Ah, the million-dollar question. Yes, I usually gulp when I see how many plates I have going, then take a good look at each one and see which can be put down, put aside, or finished up. Often I find I've taken on plates that aren't entirely mine or maybe don't need to be spun just yet. Other times I just have to push my way through finishing stuff that's been hanging on and making me crazy. And still other times, I have to sadly choose between many great plates and tell myself I'd rather be healthy and do less. It's not easy--but the exercise gives me a good reality check which cuts through the overwhelm and unconsciousness, most times!

    Good luck with it. And thanks for posting a comment.


  4. mary--- great piece. barb

  5. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Barb!

  6. I want to put a question out for your readers.... what is the most difficult plate to manage? For me its the house/family plate. I guess that is why Virginia Woolf said you need to kill the angel in the house before you can write. Any tips on how to outsmart the house angel? thx. babs