I wrote my first story age 4, typing it out on my parents’ Osborne before I could even hold a pen. This was followed up when I was 7 or 8 by my first “novel”, Cyclesta, an epic tale of a dynasty of fish, and by age 11 I had started my sequel to The Lord of the Rings.
I always knew that I was going to be a writer. I knew this even when I reached the end of my university years and realised I wasn’t that good. I put aside fiction and poetry, concentrating on graduate school, research papers, and building my academic career instead.
By the time I woke up one morning in 2014 and thought, “I’m going to start writing fiction again,” I hadn’t written more than a few paragraphs of fiction in more than a decade. I’d gone from a student with an endless supply of time to a married parent of a toddler about to embark on a tenured academic position in a new country. I challenged myself to write 500 words a day – exactly – (I am motivated by arbitrary and obscure constraints) and if I missed my 500 words one day, they rolled over to the next day. Within these constraints, I gave myself perfect freedom: I would write whatever I wanted to write, without any concern about whether I should write it, or whether it was good, or whether I was allowed.
I very quickly realised that 500 words is a lot of words. Too many words. I woke up in the morning and was daunted rather than inspired. Within a day or two, I reduced my challenge to 400 words a day, and that was the first important lesson that I learned: where 500 is impossible, 400 is doable. I went on to write 400 words a day for the next two and a half months, and continued to write sporadically on that project over the next two years until I had 80,000 words. Two years later, I extracted a short story’s worth of material from that 80k, and it resulted in my first fiction acceptance as an adult (“The Sum of Our Memories” was published in Hannah Kate, editor, Nothing, Hic Dragones, https://www.hic-dragones.co.uk/product/nothing/).
If the first lesson I learned was immediate and obvious, the second lesson I learned from this practice I only realised I’d learned in retrospect, and that is that: writing breeds writing. The more I wrote, the easier it was. Small, achievable goals meant I had the impetus to write every day; actually writing the words meant I wanted to write every day.
A few years into my new job, I joined a group of other academics and writers in formalising the 400 words a day challenge; each month, we bet the others in the group $20 that we could write at least 400 words a day 5 days out of every 7. It was during this that I learned my third lesson about writing: All words are real words, all writing is good writing. Many other people in the challenge only counted “real” writing, e.g., word intended for publication. I, on the other hand, counted everything – blog posts, referee reports, comments on student papers, things I would not otherwise have written had I not needed to reach my 400 word goal. Because writing breeds writing, all writing is good writing. To separate out my words into those that “counted” vs. those that didn’t would only have served to say “some of the things you are writing are valueless”, when manifestly they were not, because they primed the pump. [The words for these post are going into my daily word count tracker!]
Which brings me to the title I chose in this post: Writing in the gaps. Leisure time – time to think, uninterrupted time, time when I am not exhausted – is hard to come by, when you have a partner and a child (even if she is no longer a toddler!) and a demanding job, even before you add a global pandemic into the mix. Often, I have only a few minutes here and there, a moment when a few sentences spring into my head and I dump them down on paper. It is in the gaps between all the other calls on my time that I am able to write, but even if it is just a few sentence here, a random Twitter poem there, all writing is good writing, and writing in the gaps means I am doing what matters most: Putting words on paper and building something out of them.
All words count.
All writing matters.
Writing breeds writing.
Write what you want, without judgement.
These are the lessons I’ve learned over the last decade or so, which give me the freedom and permission I need to write in the gaps.
Dr. Sara L. Uckelman is an associate professor of logic at Durham University. Writing in the gaps has resulted in a steady stream of published short stories, flash fic pieces, and poems over the last 5 years, including a story co-written with her (then 8yo) daughter, which resulted in the establishment of Ellipsis Imprints, a small press based in the northeast of England, which publishes SFF, poetry, anthologies, popular nonfiction, and books written for and by children.
For more about what she writes and publishes, see https://sluckelman.webspace.durham.ac.uk/fiction/ and https://www.ellipsis.cx/~liana/ellipsisimprints/. You can find her reviews of short science fiction and fantasy stories at https://sffreviews.com/.