Alarm Clocks and True Presence

Recently, I finished Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me: Monks, a Marriage, and A Writer’s Life. In it, she talks briefly about the common excuse people give about not having “time” to write. She dismisses this, claiming that the true artists arrange their life in such a way that they make time for their craft. I have to agree with her, as I think about my younger sister, who always seems to be juggling more than one job, who never gets enough sleep, and who nonetheless manages to prolifically produce art in her garage. It also reminded me of a post I read on She Writes about how beneficial using an egg timer can be in finding/making time to write.

Joanne argues her case well; in particular, I like what she says about imagining that the timer is her “boss” who might stop by any time to make sure she’s working. I’ve found alarm clocks and timers to be incredibly beneficial to my writing, especially during times when quantity is more important than quality (NaNoWriMo, when I’m on the home stretch of a first draft and just want to wrap the darn thing up already). There’s something about the timer that takes the pressure off. I make it about time rather than about talent; I tell myself, “All I have to do is make it to the ding of that timer.” I don’t have to write 1,000 words. I don’t have to write a complete scene. But that time is going to pass no matter what, and even when writing is excruciating, it’s more interesting than staring at a blank screen or out the window for an hour. And what often begins feeling like drudgery quickly becomes so immersive that I jump with surprise when the timer does go off and pulls me back into the world.

There’s one thing Joanne doesn’t cover in her post that, for me, is one of the biggest advantages of using timers and alarm clocks for writing. And that’s that it allows me to be fully present. We live in such an overscheduled world that I think we’re in a constant state of distraction, always wondering in the backs of our minds what time it is; checking the clock can become both a mode of procrastination and an obsession. When I have a timer running, I know someone else is keeping track of that time. I know that when an allotted amount of time has passed, the device will notify me. So time becomes of no concern, and that’s incredibly liberating.

That’s why I use alarm clocks not just for writing, but for almost everything. I set them for when I should be heading out after lunch with a friend, so that I can spend all my time with that friend listening to her and not glancing at my watch. I set them when I’m in danger of squandering a whole afternoon digging through a used book shop. I set them when I’m rewarding myself with half an hour of reading time.

We all get the same amount of hours in the day. But I think we can get more done if we let go of the responsibility of keeping track of every minute of them.