Many, many years ago, I felt hopelessly blocked, unable to write. Not blocked on a project, but thwarted when it came to writing at all. Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones simplified things for me. “All” I had to do was write for a fixed amount of time, consistently, over a period of time. Of course, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Even today, finding ten minutes can seem impossible in days filled with minutes that are thrown away. The task seems big, bigger than than the time.
What makes non-stop writing useful a little shift in emphasis that means everything: it’s not about filling space, it’s about filling time. All our writing lives, or that part of writing lives when we are taught and learn, we are told how long something ought to be– words or pages. That’s the second question every student asks about a new writing assignment– “How long is it.” The first is “When is it due?”
Non-stop writing answers the “How long” question with “It’ll be as long as whatever writing for ten minutes non-stop will be.” I can always tell when students I’ve asked to practice the technique find that time an uncomfortable committment, because all of the entries in their notebooks are a paragraph long, or two thirds of a page long. Those who make the ten minutes a habit tend to settle into one and a half to three pages in ten minutes, depending on the urgency of their writing.
In a way, the feeling about finding those ten minutes is the inverse to the basic principle of the task. The task says, “All you have to do is write for ten minutes,” which seems simple, and slight. But psychic time is like feeling a tooth with your tongue on the inside of your mouth: it seems enormous. In psychological terms, being asked to write for ten minutes can feel like being asked to write twenty pages.
Non-stop writing helped for many reasons, reasons that others, like Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg explain so well. But it helped me in two simple ways. I developed the confidence to know that whatever the prose turned out to be like, I could, on demand, produce it. Within the inner landscape of writing that had become harsh, barren, and unforgiving, nonstop writing helped me find a place I could return to, again and again, small lush place, where the words both mattered and didn’t matter at the same time.