As I write this, it is just past ten pm. I’ve left my partner to go to sleep on his own, since this column must be posted before morning, and I haven’t had a chance to get to it. It’s just been one of those days…at the end of one of those weeks…at the end of one of those seasons. For months now, I’ve been saying, “When I finish _____, then I’ll have a little down time.” The weeks come in, the weeks go out, and that down time has been absent. I suspect, at this point, that it’s not coming.
Which means I have to make peace with life as it is.
Often, people who are not writers express the most envy over my hours, the fact that I work for myself, and thus don’t have to punch a clock or report to anyone, or (especially if the person is a woman who has been required to wear pantyhose), get dressed to do my work. In Colorado Springs, where I live, it also snows a lot in the winter, and the fact that my commute involves walking down the hallway in my slippers elicits a great deal of envy, too.
All those things are terrific, don’t get me wrong. But you see the clock. You see that I am working. And I have been working 60 and 70 hours a week every week for most of this year. I often work weekends and late at night, when there are fewer distractions.
Balance is the single most difficult part of a writing career, at least for me. This week, I’m engaged in contract negotiations, which always feels like bargaining in a Morrocan market—you need to know the language and how to play, and how to play tough. It makes me jumpy. Also, my mother has a vacation week and I feel like I never spend enough time with her, so I should carve out an afternoon. The book project on my desk needs daily tending, of course, and I have had blogs to write, and a column elsewhere I need to think about. My dogs want to be walked every morning, and I really need some vigorous exercise at least three times a week, and probably four if I’m not going to be as grouchy as the creature from the black lagoon. Since the exercise sometimes leads to injury, I often need physical therapy or yoga or massage to put things right. There are promotional things to be addressed—websites and social media and mailings and appearances (which sound glamorous, and probably are if you are super-famous, which I, unfortunately, am not). I also have a spiritual group that gives me sustenance I thus seems as if it should get some of my time in return.
Oh, and I haven’t mentioned my partner, who does get neglected when everything piles up and we go out to dinner or eat out of the freezer five times a week.
But some weeks, you just can’t do everything. I can’t do it all this week. Just can’t make it happen. The truth is, this “cushy” job takes a lot of time, and for me, a lot of uninterrupted time. I tend to discount some of those hours because the actual writing time is sometimes small—an hour or two of focused writing every day.
What I need to do, every day during a hard writing period, is wake up to plenty of time alone, in my own head, with whatever tools might help me that day. The act of actually putting words on the page is only the barest tip of the pencil. I noodle around, letting characters emerge and present themselves. I draw charts—plot arcs, character arcs, timelines. Often, I make menus, and then cook things from those menus to see if they will actually taste good. There are piles and piles and piles of research material to sort through, every time, all of it different from the book before. None of that counts as strictly “writing a book”, but it all goes to the end result.
Knowing that is my responsibility. It’s my job to erect the walls that my work requires, to erase all the expectations of others and put the work first. Every day, day in, day out. Of course family counts, and of course we must make room for friendship and social time and spiritual pursuits, but the truth is, this is a job that takes pretty much everything you’ve got. We all know this.
What often makes me feel guilty is not that I love my work, and love it so madly I don’t mind that it takes 70 hours a week to do it properly, but that I do love it so much more than other things. I struggle with balance because there are very, very few things in life that satisfy me as much as writing. In addition, much of what I do that looks like balance is just a way to do my job better.
Tonight, I poured out my struggles to my ever-patient partner—how do I do it all? I asked. He said simply, “You don’t.”
I asked, “How do you choose? There are all these people who need my attention.”
He said, “Don’t forget the most important one.”
I honestly had no idea who he meant. Himself?
“You,” he said, and touched my nose.
Ah. Me. I’m the one who loves my work madly. Madly. It’s fun and challenging and interesting every single day. I love learning new facts and new ideas and ways to make the writing better. I love creating new worlds and developing characters and exploring ideas. I love everything about it—the work, the back-work, the business, the readers, the circle. I love it. I am, in an old-fashioned sense, devoted.
I’m not balanced! Huh. My life is strongly tilted toward books. I adore them. I love thinking about them and talking about them and reading about them. I love writing. And given that, I’m taking a vow to stop feeling guilty about it.
I hope you will join me. Let’s immerse in our shared passion. Write like it will make you drunk. Write as if you will save the world. Write as if it will save someone’s life. Write to make yourself laugh—and everyone along with you. There are two caveats: your children will grow faster than you can even imagine, so spend plenty of time with them. And make time for your partner. Other than that, do what will support your writing. It will reward you, I promise.
What are your stumbling blocks? What makes you feel selfish or neglectful? How can you let all that go and write to set somebody free or make them laugh or save the world?