Any writer worth their salt knows that writing affects their life at times other than when they are simply hammering away at the keyboard. When we think of professionals who can’t escape their jobs, we likely to think of high-power corporate executives relentlessly scanning emails on their mobile devices, or getting bombarded by phone calls day and night, or wining and dining clients late into the evening. We think of emergency medical technicians and volunteer fire firefighters obligated to drop whatever they happen to be doing at a given moment and run, when an emergency call comes in.
But writers? Doesn’t writing just “end” when the computer is shut down or the notebook closed? Well, no. Learning how to balance writing and life can be as tricky for a writer as it is for any other professional bound to the job 24 hours a day.
Below are the first three of six situations that all writers will face at some point throughout their lives, and my suggestions for how to manage each. A strategic approach to each can make it easier to balance writing and life, and let you have both a productive literary life and a personal life. Anxiety is the wardrobe of the writer; don’t make it worse than it needs to be. (Part II of this series on how to balance writing and life is coming soon).
1. Success is in the writing, not the gaining
Remember that Bruce Lee quote: “In every passionate pursuit, the pursuit counts more than the object pursued “? I used to have a poster of Mr. Lee and this wise meme on my apartment wall back in the days when I trained in tae kwon do. Of course, during those years, I was writing too, and it was a powerful reminder that passion for something is not about attaining social or material rewards. It is about doing what we love, and nothing more. For writers, that is writing.
This can and will be very hard for writers who can’t help but check out the wild success of others who pursue the very same art they do. Names like Stephen King, David Safran Foer,Zadie Smith , Danielle Steel, Nelson Demille, Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, John Irving, etc. The list goes on. How dare such people succeed when we, writers as well, pursue the same dreams and still need to slog away at a full-time day job and receive no recognition in the process? No one stops by the Amazon page that features our books, no one writes reviews. It seems as though our voice has no listeners, our written words no readers.
Well, check yourself at the door, sonny. If you are really interested in attaining wealth, get a job in finance. If you want fame, then pull some crazy stunt and get your own reality show. Author the next Balloon Boy story and pray for that 15 minutes of fame!
Comparisons can be the death knell for writers pursuing a dream. Learning how to balance writing and life means not comparing your accomplishments to those of others; people naturally tend to notice what they themselves lack and what others have. People really do have this lovely ability to try to make themselves miserable by incessant comparison and, do so whenever they get the chance. Don’t, don’t, don’t go down that road.
Instead, compare your daily writing-related activities to what you can be doing, but are not. Determine what is in your control. What can you do to enhance your writing productivity today? When you write, do you waste time hanging around the kitchen while the coffee is brewing? Do you screw around on Facebook when you should wrap up that chapter? Do you suddenly think of a million other things you can be doing instead of writing, and let guilt plague you to the point where you simply leave your seat and go clean athletic socks?
It is hard to disregard the rewards others receive from writing when we write and receive much less. It is only human. Writing truly is a test of your passion; nothing in the world is worth doing unless it is done for love. If you can’t get away from chronic comparisons of yourself to others, it could be your passion for writing isn’t what it should be to succeed. The only true reward (and success) that ALL writers receive–more than publication, wealth or status–is the knowledge that they know what they love to do (which is something some people never discover in their lives) and make the time to do it.
2. Be prepared even when writing isn’t your priority
You can’t turn off the writing part of your life when you’re in the middle of writing a story; not even after you get up and step away from the keyboard. You may be in the middle of a long drive to Duluth when you’re suddenly struck by something revelatory about your protagonist or a crucial plot point. Pray to God you don’t swerve off the road! Or you may be flossing when you suddenly realize how your novel will end. If you’re not writing a story but are, instead, in the middle of a marketing campaign for your writing, you can’t turn off the truly awesome strategies that flow into your head that will help you put your writing in front of potential readers. You can be in the middle of a life-or-death project for the boss of your day job when whammo, some great idea materializes for your writing. Inspiration can and does strike at any time. How many people have said their best ideas come in the middle of the night or in the shower?
Most of our days are not spent writing, in the literal sense. We spend our hours sleeping, eating, working, reading and spending time with friends and families. Learning how to balance writing and life means not being afraid to invest time and passion in other activities but creating the means to record ideas and strategies when they appear, so you can come back to them later. Like a lot of people, I love my mobile device, and I regularly stick my nose in it whenever I get the chance. I think what I love most about such devices is how they allow me to send myself quick email messages or add notes to Evernote about writing so that any idea that enters my head can be recorded with sufficient detail on the spot.
Let’s start off by saying ideas will be lost if you don’t capture them. Don’t assume that the great idea you have right now will remain a day or even an hour from now. Our heads are filled with stuff–some constructive, some useless. Our heads don’t distinguish one from the other either and so while a writer’s head may serve up a fantastic idea one moment, it may yank it away soon after and replace with it cravings for chocolate or an episode of Baywatch. Don’t rely on your mind–YOU need to do the job.
Of course, no matter which way you cut it, doing so takes time away from whatever else you are doing. Spouses tend not to like mobile devices at the dinner table. Okay, fine. For some reason–maybe it’s because it’s more old-fashioned, I don’t know–pen and paper are more acceptable. I can’t figure it out. And the pen and paper doesn’t even need to BE on the table with the meat and potatoes and the vegetables. Keep them surreptitiously in your back pocket. When inspiration strikes, whip out the paper and write your idea down. If you’re driving, pull over to the side of the road to write it down or utilize the voice recorder app on your mobile device. (Never keep your phone attached to your waist; keep it on the console for easier access. And don’t record while driving; wait for a red light!)
Might your spouse object even to this simple intrusion into your daily affairs? Perhaps; I think individual personalities come into play here, so I won’t overstep and advise on every situation. But if you’re a writer, part of your job is making sure you don’t lose good ideas when they come. Figure out how you can make that work in your particular relationship.
It is so much easier to balance writing and life if you don’t have to be afraid to lose inspiration. Live your life in every way possible but, like those emergency medical technicians, know that you’re always on call.
3. Don’t let your fears drive you to hide inside your writing
Remember The Kinks? Their song, “Rock and Roll Fantasy“? Yes, I know. I discovered it at the roller rink too when I was only nine years old! Here’s one verse:
There’s a guy on my block, he lives for rock
He plays records day and night
And when he feels down he puts some rock ‘n’ roll on
And it makes him feel alright
And when he feels the world is closing in
He turns his stereo way up high
He just spends his life living in a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy
He just lives his life living on the edge of reality
Some people without imagination think reading and writing are, in general, just attempts to escape from reality by those with weak knees, much like the poor sack in the Ray Davies song. (Of course, as a side note, that judgment would seem to question thousands of years of storytelling, right? I mean, back in the Stone Age, artists still found time to sketch mammoth hunters and family hearths on the cave walls. I wouldn’t consider anyone who lived without central heating and electricity, without the Internet and Starbucks, without phone lines and television, to be weak-kneed.) But I digress.
Writing and storytelling represent much more than escapism. But a few apples can spoil the barrel, and some people will attempt to escape into art where there are no sharp edges, where no one will say no or reject or judge you. Don’t be that writer. Don’t bring a bad name to this craft.
Life is full of fears and success in life means overcoming your response to fear. Brave people don’t lack fear; brave people have courage in abundance to face it. If you’re a young writer and are afraid to talk to that girl, just talk to her. Don’t write a story about a young man talking to a girl. If you have a messed up family, don’t just write a novel about a messed-up family. I mean, a lot of writers DO, which can create some seriously awesome literature. Aside from making you want to jump off a bridge, Eugene O’Neill‘sLong Day’s Journey into Night is seriously good stuff. But hopefully, he talked to his family too or tried to work out issues with them. It’s only fair for someone who has a life, which is to say, everyone including writers. That doesn’t mean the result will be what you hoped for, but that too is a fear we all need to live with. The word for that, boys and girls, is “disappointment”. But learning how to balance writing and life means knowing when to apply your emotions to engage in unpleasant situations in your life, and when to constructively apply your creativity (even using real-world situations as the basis) to your writing.
Don’t let your art help you hide from life’s challenges and problems. Things suck, occasionally, for everyone. Have the courage to face the suckiness. One day, I may post about my experience writing Journeying Away and September 11. That will provide me with the chance to tell you about some escapism I tried to pull, and how it did nothing but hurt me in the long term.
How to Balance Writing and Life – 3 More Strategies
So those are three strategies to help you balance writing and life. In my next post, I’ll review three more. But in the meantime, what do you think? Can you or do you apply any of these to your own situation as a writer? I look forward to hearing from you.