15 Minutes

My favorite Nashville-based New York Times contributor reflects on the power of writing something rather than nothing, even if you only have (say) fifteen minutes at your immediate disposal. Nothing I didn’t already know, but there’s knowing and there’s doing. She did it, with her new book Late Migrations and a steady stream of terrific opinion and nature-reflection pieces in the Times. Thanks for the timely reminder, Margaret Renkl.

Crossing the Finish Line in Fifteen Minutes a DayPowell’s …So I started out with a paltry goal of 15 minutes a day. Some days I didn’t manage even that much… But most days I kept writing anyway: 15 minutes when I could manage it, a single sentence when I couldn’t. In only a few weeks, that little jump-start had gotten under my skin. After five years of surrendering to work and eldercare responsibilities, those few minutes with a notebook every morning had given me permission to write again…
A single essay is not much to show for a month of writing, but it was also not nothing, and that was the truth I found myself clinging to. It was an actual essay, and it would not exist if I had continued to wait for my life to get easier, for some magical expanse of writing time to open up. A month later, I made that 15-minute writing goal my New Year’s resolution, and I stuck with it, more or less, for the next two years.

I didn’t write every day, but I wrote many more days than not. I opened my notebook first thing in the morning, and I kept it open all day. Some days I came back to the essay again later, whenever I had a few minutes to spare. That was the unexpected advantage of writing every day, if only for a tiny stretch of time: even when I wasn’t sitting at my writing table with a pen in my hand, I was keeping the essay in my thoughts. When the time did come to sit down again, I didn’t need to re-read what I’d written; I didn’t waste time trying to remember where I’d left off. It was always right there, ready when I was, because I was never far away from it.

Even more surprising was the discovery that I didn’t need to be consciously thinking about what I was writing to be thinking about what I was writing. The act of writing seemed to prime my unconscious mind for more writing. I could be standing in the shower or carrying groceries in from the car or waiting for the dog to do her business, and a word that had eluded me earlier in the day suddenly handed itself over on a tufted pillow. Sometimes a dead-end from the morning’s 15-minute session turned into an epiphany later that night…
I did the best I could in the time I had, and the time I had was 15 minutes a day.

But 15 minutes a day, it turns out, is enough time to write a book. It’s also enough time to knit a sweater, to learn a musical instrument, to establish an exercise routine. Mastery won’t come overnight, but that doesn’t matter. Life is not a race, and this is not the story of the tortoise and the hare. It’s the story of the tortoise and herself. Whenever anyone asks me how I finally came to publish a book at the age of 57, I tell them that I gave myself permission to spend 15 minutes a day, in the midst of working and raising a family and tending to failing elders, to remember who I am

And thanks for those last five words, making this explicitly relevant to Identity and Truth.

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