How do you write like you’re running out of time?

I recently became obsessed with Hamilton the musical, just like the rest of America. It came into my life during NaNoWriMo, and I found the timing serendipitous. I was so inspired by the marriage of hiphop and American history that I figured the words would flow from my mind faster than my fingers could type them.

This did not turn out to be the case.

NaNoWriMo

I started off promisingly. I got up early on the first of November, even though it was a Sunday, and made tea and set up my novel in Scrivener. It was quiet and still in my apartment, and the sun was making nice patterns on the coffee table. I was caught up on work and there were a few hours before we had to meet a friend for brunch. I tend to work best when I have enough time, but not too much time. These were ideal writing conditions, and I did OK that first day, probably because I gave myself a head start.

I’ve been out of new ideas for most of 2015 and I was concerned about starting from scratch so I decided to use NaNoWriMo to make serious progress on a novel I had been tinkering with for ten or so years. I kept the first chapter—about 5,000 words—and abandoned the rest, which was mostly scattered paragraphs in which I was trying out different characters and scenarios to see what fit.

Even with this 5,000 word head start, I couldn’t get moving. For the first ten days of NaNoWriMo, I tried to write every day, even if it was just a few sentences. It wasn’t a lack of time holding me back; my problem was all focus. I would think about my novel when I was doing other things, mundane things like showering, laundry, and running, and in those moments, it seemed like I had so many words inside me. When I would finally sit down to write, though, those words were gone.

After several days of this, I decided to make an outline. I opened a fresh Muji notebook and put all my faith into its smooth, creamy pages with their tight ruling and faint, gray lines.

Muji

The outline didn’t save me, either. I figured out what should happen in at least nine chapters, and I was feeling pretty good about that because I want this to be a novel mostly of words and feelings so nailing down some plot points has always been hard for this one. Even when I knew what to write, every time I tried, nothing happened. I would produce a few sentences, maybe a whole paragraph, but it never felt like I was getting anywhere. I kept thinking about Alexander Hamilton and how he would just “write day and night like he was running out of time,” and I wanted that. I’ve never felt more alive and more myself than when I’m writing like that.

This was my first prolonged case of writer’s block. It is possible that I’ve had it for most of 2015, but I’ve been ignoring the symptoms. I have always found that reading is the best cure for writer’s block, but I’ve been reading more than ever this year. I just finished the twenty-fifth book I’ve read so far this year. Twenty-five doesn’t sound like an overwhelming number, but it is easily ten or fifteen higher than last year. I’ve never been very good at making time for reading, even though it is one of my favorite things to do. My plan for next year is to make writing a habit the way I have made reading a habit. Writer’s block is real, and it’s time to stop ignoring the symptoms and assuming they’ll go away.