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How to carve out time
by Steve Leveen

If you had been on a certain sidewalk north of Boston a few years back, at 6:00 any morning but Sunday, you might have noticed a handsome, dark-haired man parking a 14-year-old Toyota Tercel wagon. Six days a week for three years, he sat behind the wheel and wrote.

The man was Andre Dubus III. Due to his noisy home filled with three young children, and his shared office at Tufts University, his car was the best place he could find to work on his novel. At 7:30 he would drive to either his carpentry or teaching job.

His House of Sand and Fog turned into a finalist for the National Book Award. Oprah selected it for her book club. Dreamworks bought the film rights. Dubus, like so many other successful people, carved out time with discipline and sacrifice to accomplish what he yearned to do.

Carving out time to advance your dreams, while holding down another job, is an age-old theme. How do some people manage to do it successfully?

Rising early in the morning is a common way. That's what lifestyle author and lecturer Alexandra Stoddard did in the 1960s to get started. "I had young children and I had to get up before they did. That was my way to get  some work done."

Rising at 5:00 a.m., she would get two hours of writing in on her first book before waking up her girls and going off to her job as an interior designer. Today, Alexandra has some 22 books to her credit. She still writes each morning.

In another case, lunchtime provided the golden minutes. As the receptionist at WXEL public television station in South Florida, Mary Rodriguez had a TV monitor within easy view. Unbeknownst to her employers, Mary was watching the "GED on TV" course while she answered the phones. At night, after she put her young boys to sleep, she studied for the General Educational Development test with books she borrowed from the office. Six months later she took the test. "I cried when I opened the envelope saying I'd passed." Today, Mary manages a literacy program and is working on her four-year degree.

"When Eugene Miller landed his first job out of journalism school in 1948 as a reporter on the Greensboro (North Carolina) Daily News, his schedule was from 4:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. During the day, "I had nothing to do and nobody to do it with," explained Gene. So he went to the library and studied trade magazines. "The mastheads looked like they had lots of correspondents but none in Greensboro. I wrote letters to 100 of them saying ‘I'd like to be your correspondent,’ and I got responses from about half. The responses all had the same theme: 'We don't think there is much news in Greensboro, but if you're willing to submit articles on speculation, then fine."

For the next four years he was a correspondent for 50 magazines while working his beat on the Greensboro paper. "I wrote one to two articles per day before I went to work, and I made much more money before I went to work than what I made at work." His efforts led to job offers from Newsweek and BusinessWeek. He took the BusinessWeek offer, which led him ultimately to top business slots at the New York Stock Exchange and USG Corporation. Now in his 70s, Professor Miller teaches at Florida Atlantic University’s business college.

Rarely is it easy to carve out time from your regular life. It takes vivid goals and true persistence to escape the gravitational pull of a workaday life and succeed in establishing a new orbit.

There are plenty of traps along the way. You might get going in a spurt of ambition, only to encounter an illness or a family emergency that derails your schedule. Keeping a journal is one way to see if you're just temporarily off schedule or always making excuses.

In the end you'll have to ask yourself: How badly do I want this? Only you—each morning, noon or night—can provide the answer.

Sitting in his Tercel every morning, Andre Dubus knew he wanted it badly. "I stole that time in my car each day because I knew if I did not, I would simply stop being me—my very essence would just slip away." Andre spent another year typing what he'd written into the computer. In the end, it took him four years to write House of Sand and Fog.