When life is too busy, try a TMS

Time.

Never quite enough.

Not enough to do this or that and certainly not enough to dive into the writing we really, really, really want to do and give it all the attention it deserves.

Admit it or not, most of us have felt this way at one time or another; sadly some would-be writers make it an excuse.  Perhaps the TMS approach can help.

For more than ten years, I was privileged to teach a fifteen-week adult enrichment course titled Writing for Publication at a local community college.  I found a common problem with my aspiring writers, twin problems, in fact: trouble carving out a large enough chunk of time to write and trouble actually getting started.

And so the Ten Minute Special was born.

***

I start each class session with a TMS. 

I present a brief topic to explore, and if you don’t like it, write something else. 

No one will see the work of another.

Spelling, grammar, punctuation…don’t worry about them. 

There is only one strict rule, and that is to write for the full ten minutes.  If you can’t think of anything to write, then write “I can’t think of anything to write,” and after a few repetitions, your brain will get bored with that and start percolating.

Some TMS idea examples: Chronicle the last time you cried; describe a room in your home left to right, top to bottom; take an issue you feel strongly about and argue — convincingly — for the other side; detail the last time you felt ashamed; five minutes of character interaction in dialogue only, followed by five minutes of the same interaction with no dialogue at all; write your own obituary; etc.

At the end of each full course, I’d ask for a critique of what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved about the class.  Every time, without exception, the TMS would pop up as one of the most valuable elements of the class (often at the top of the list).  Several TMS topics went on to become the basis for short stories or pieces of non-fiction, and at least one TMS morphed into the beginnings of a novel (no idea if it was ever completed).

***

Digression…

In high school I played drums and was in concert band, marching band, orchestra, the pit band when we did musicals, the drill team drum squad, and an outside concert/marching band during summer.  This doesn’t count the hours I played and practiced (some may say pounded) on my drums at home.

In short, I played a lot.  And when I wasn’t really playing, I was sorta kinda still playing.  During algebra, my fingers twitched; in history class got my toes tapping; and in English those fingers would dive into a syncopated dance with my tapping toes.  And on those rare occasions when it was not possible for my assorted digits to tap, twitch, or dance, the music moved to my head.  It was always there; I loved it, learned it, and lived it. 

Friends on the baseball team would often walk, stand, sit with a baseball in hand, holding it, rolling it, squeezing it…learning it.  The same with guys on the football team, only with a football.

Another friend liked art class and had a knack for drawing; when he wasn’t working on anything specific, he would doodle aimlessly…living his craft.

Seeing a pattern?

End of digression.

***

I believe the class-time TMS exercises were especially effective for new and aspiring writers for several reasons: an instant, manageable (hopefully thought-provoking) topic, the time limit and requirement to keep writing helped short circuit that often pesky internal editor, the privacy curtailed self-censoring and allowed total freedom, and the communal aspect of everyone frantically scribbling away providing a shared creative atmosphere. 

And then there was the powerful realization that they could write a heck of a lot faster than they’d ever expected.  After a few TMS sessions, it was common to find them finishing three, four, five or more pages in those ten minutes.  Although not a math whiz by any means, I was able to point out how those same TMS efforts applied to their own writing and stretched to 30 minutes or an hour would lead to “making pages” at an impressive rate.

And how does any of this relate to us in — or aspiring to join — the writing business?  Well, when we don’t have the time to really, really, really dive into our work, we can take the brief moments that life grants us to live/love/learn our craft and flesh out a description, jot a few details of setting, doodle a map, chart fragments of potential dialogue, make a list of things we may need to research, detail a character’s history specifics that can help bring them into focus, etc., etc. 

Time.

A little here, a little there.

Adds up.

Jack Byrne contributed this article.

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