Storyville: Balancing Life and Writing
One minute the house is calm and quiet; the twins are playing Legos in the living room, the puppy is asleep at my feet, my wife is out shopping for groceries, and all is well in the world. I sit at the computer and put the finishing touches on a short story that I’ve been writing all day. And then all hell breaks loose. Somebody hits somebody else, there is a loud crash of glass breaking, there are screams, the dog starts barking, the garage door opens, and my concentration is shot. Does this ever happen to you? Or maybe you have a deadline for a story but that hot girl you’ve been dying to take out finally says yes, and the concert on Saturday is not sold out, and then the next thing you know you’re waking up in a strange apartment with a smile on your face, but you’ve blown the deadline, and nothing was written, not one single word the entire weekend. How do you find the time to write, read, and do research while balancing your personal life? It’s not easy, but here’s how I do it.
WRITING AT WORK
Whether you have a full-time job working nine to five in an office or spend your evenings waiting tables, there are moments in and around your job where you can do things that will contribute to your writing. If you can’t actually write or read while working- in other words, there is no down time- you can be aware of the world around you, making mental notes of the settings, smells, and snippets of dialogue that you hear. Always be open to your surroundings and jot down ideas on a napkin or slip of paper. Do you have a lunch hour (or half an hour) every day? Bring a book to read and absorb the greatness of other authors. Did you know that I wrote Transubstantiate on my lunch hours while freelancing for a client? Every day I went down to the lunchroom and grabbed a sandwich and came back to my office, closed the door, and wrote. I only had an hour, so most days I wrote 500-700 words. But, over time, I learned that this process could work for me. Each day was a different character (Monday: Jacob, Tuesday: Marcy, etc.) so the rest of the time I would only THINK about these people, and I had to wait until the next day to continue the story. It turned out to be a great process for me. See if there is something in the way that you earn your living that can contribute to your writing. I’m sure there is. Ambulance driver, stripper, factory worker—there are stories in your life, all around you.
SET A TIME AND PLACE
If you have a regular schedule (or even if you don’t) try to set some time aside to write. Are you a morning person? Get up an hour early and write each morning. Are you a night owl? Take an hour late at night to write after everyone else in the house is asleep. But try to make it a schedule you can keep. For those of us that are married, maybe with kids, it’s hard to find the time, right? Set a time a place and make sure to talk to your family about your needs, and let them know that these times are important to your writing and your career. If they know that every Saturday from 10-12 you are going to be in your office writing, they’ll come to respect it. If you’re at your desk every morning from 6-7 typing away like a mad fool, they’ll honor what you’re doing (in time).
BALANCE AND BARTER
If you don’t have a set time or place to write, if you don’t write every day, then find a way to barter and balance your needs as a writer with your needs as a father, a husband, and a brother. I negotiate. I say that I have some deadlines coming up, so if they will give me a couple hours to write, then I’ll spend the rest of the day with the family doing whatever it is they want. When I was writing Disintegration, I’d often ask my wife to take the kids to go see her mother in the south suburbs so I could write all day in the quiet house. And then I would write my ass off, anywhere from 5,000-10,000 words. I took advantage of those moments and didn’t waste my time online or watching television or goofing off. I wrote. So find a way to ask for what you need, and then, when your time is up, put your work aside and spend time with the people that are important to you. Compartmentalize if you can. And then keep your word, and be that funny, generous, giving person when you’re with them. Don’t bring them stress or frustration. Leave that at your desk.
SHOW THEM YOU’RE SERIOUS
One of the best ways to show your family, friends and co-workers that you’re serious, is to be serious about your work. What does that mean? It means that you write a lot, you send out your work, and you get your work published. It means that you put in the time you need to learn the craft, and if that means paying serous cash to take classes locally or online, do that. One of the ways that my family really understood that I was serious about writing was when I was accepted to an MFA program and decided to take on that work. If I was willing to spend thousands of dollars, to drive eight hours each way twice a year and spend ten days down in Kentucky, if I was willing to turn off the television set and read each night so I could finish the insane commitment of reading one novel a week, then I was obviously serious about my writing. As I had more and more success, I shared that with my family. Selling my first book, publishing alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub, landing an agent, and actually getting PAID for my writing, those things all showed that I was serious, and that I was having success. And in turn, they respected what I was doing.
SET YOUR PRIORITIES
You really need to think hard about what your priorities are in life. How important is your writing? Is finishing that story more important that seeing your daughter dance in her first recital? No, it isn’t. Is posting up on Facebook and Twitter when you’re excited about a new story more important than sitting down to dinner with the family? No, it isn’t. I get manic at times, and get so involved with my writing and editing and promoting that I often don’t realize that my priorities are totally out of whack. Nothing will upset my family more than me being selfish, when all they want to do is to spend time with me. So take a deep breath, and even though you’re on a roll—save that story and put it aside. Go outside and kick a ball, run around with your dog and kids, and toss some steaks on the grill. If you are 100% honest with yourself, you’ll know when you need to write, and when you can stop. And most of the time, it should be easy to see what the priority is. That doesn’t mean that your buddy or girlfriend can’t see the 7:30 movie instead of the 6:15 movie if you’re in the middle of something. That can wait. Part of what makes good writing great is being honest in your words, your characters, and the emotions that you put on the page. The readers will know when it’s authentic. The same thing goes for your family and friends, so be honest with them and honest with yourself and make sure your priorities are in order.
This is a tough one, but I can’t stress it enough. Is writing a hobby or is this something that you really want to be your career? The odds are already against you, and as an older writer (I’m 44 as I write this column) I always feel like my time is running out. You will need to make some sacrifices. Why didn’t I write and succeed when I was in my twenties, you ask? Because it was more important to me to live “the life of a writer” than to actually write and study and evolve. I was lazy and self-centered, and would much rather get drunk and chase girls, go out and spend money and eat out and run around than actually buckle down and write. These days I have to look at my schedule and ask myself on an almost daily basis what’s important to me. I don’t go out with my friends that much. Most of my weekends are spent with my family. I have also learned to turn off the television set, the PS3, and get off the web as well. I used to play softball every Wednesday night, for about the past eight years. But I hurt my back (herniated disc) so I had to stop and think about what I was doing. I’m okay now, I’m not in pain, but I decided it was time to retire from softball. That hour a week wasn’t taking away much from my writing, but the way that it trickled down to affect my life (medical bills add up to more time working a real job which means less time to write) was something I had to consider. So take an honest look at your life and then cut out one or two things. And then take that time and write. There are only so many hours in a day.
QUESTION YOUR FRIENDSHIPS
What friends are building you up and what friends are pulling you down? This may seem like a strange thing to talk about, but this can be one of the most dangerous ways that a writer’s career can be killed. How many of you have never shown your work to your parents, siblings, friends or co-workers? Is it because it’s too dark, violent, or sexual? Or it is because in one word your best friend, brother, or spouse could totally destroy what you’ve created? That doubt, that jealousy, that lack of understanding—it’s extremely dangerous. And that’s why places such as LR are so important. We “get it” here at LR. We understand what it means to kill off a character you love, and why you’re upset about it. We understand why you are angry about getting rejected by that “white whale” magazine for the ninth time. We understand your frustrations about a horrible narrative hook, a setting that feels thin, or an ending that doesn’t resonate. And we also know what it means when you finally have success and get accepted someplace, where most people outside of a writing community nod their head and say “That’s nice, dear.”
Surround yourself with people that actually listen to what you say and support your writing, even if they aren’t readers. My best friend from college, who I’ve known for over twenty years, he never reads. But we talk about my writing, he’s always excited for me, has kind words to say, and even bought the signed/limited edition of Transubstantiate. Just think about the people you surround yourself with, and whether or not they are making your life better or worse.
Another way to balance your work and home life is to set deadlines. Whether these are self-imposed to get the words flowing or actual days by which your submission must be in, use them to motivate yourself to write. And it sounds professional, right?
“Hey, honey, give me twenty more minutes then we can go to the pool. I have a deadline for this really cool anthology of post-apocalyptic stories and I have to turn this in tonight. Okay?”
That works a lot better than turning and growling while you pound away furiously at the keyboard.
Hopefully if you draw a line in the sand, then when you have a day to yourself you aren’t just wandering around the apartment, or surfing the web, or picking at some random idea that may or may not work out. If you have been thinking all week about that zombie science fiction erotica flash fiction piece, then by the time you sit down to write the story will probably flow right out.
One of the best ways to balance your time between writing and the real world is to set short and long-term goals. I will write 500 words by lunch. I will write this column before dinner so I can watch a movie with the kids. I will write a chapter a week, so that I can finish this novel by Christmas. Whatever it is. I’ve found that setting a lot of small goals really helps me to be patient while going after the longer ones. Selling a novel, landing an agent, getting a teaching job, those are hard things to accomplish, and will take a lot of time. If you balance that with shorter goals, then you can compartmentalize your tasks and check things off, which always makes you feel like you’re making progress.
TAKE BREAKS TO ABSORB
Part of what informs your writing is absorbing the world around you. Stephen King talks about how the most important things a writer can do are read and write. So to balance all of the creating, take the time to ingest. It’s important to go out and see films on the big screen, to go see live bands, and to read authors that are in the genres you write. Enjoy yourself. What was it King said in The Shining? “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Balance. If you are feeling empty, if the writing isn’t coming, take a break and go have some fun—go dancing, go play pool or darts and have a few beers, go out to dinner with friends and don’t talk about writing at all. It’s a major part of your life, but it isn’t everything.
Balance. Think about that word. It’s about give and take, moving up and down, while still maintaining control. I think that if you are honest with yourself and those around you, if you give more than you take, and if you are serious about being a writer, you’ll find the time to write, ways to steal a few hours, and the ability to pick up (or put down) a story at any time and still make it work. It takes time, practice, and an understanding group of family and friends, but in the end, it’s definitely possible. Hugs and kisses go a long way too. Because in the end, what these people really want is you—your time, your undivided attention, and the things that make you special. Don’t be so stingy. Honor the people in your life, and they’ll do the same for you.
Here are a couple of short stories by authors that I know are extremely busy. How they balance it all, I don’t know. The first is Benjamin Percy, and the story is “The Hand” at Storyglossia. The second is Brian Evenson, and his story is “Anskan House” up at Redivider. These guys are both teachers, short story writers, novelists, fathers, husbands, and some of my favorite writers going.
TO SEND a question to Richard, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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