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Juggling Act

Flickr Creative Commons: Alex Abian [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Alex Abian

Like most authors I know, I work at other jobs in addition to writing fiction. I teach creative writing to kids every week through a local non-profit. I work as a consultant on college application essays. I work as a journalist, too, and this year I’ve been reporting and writing articles every month for Parade magazine. And I’m in the midst of writing my fourth novel.

And like everyone I know, I have family and community commitments on top of that. Sometimes juggling all this works out just fine, and other times I have days like the one I had last week, when I had to take my elderly mother to a two-hour dentist appointment, make several reporting calls for my latest journalism piece, meet with two anxious and overstressed high school seniors about their college essays, read chapters of two other authors’ WIPs for my critique group, try to find a tree expert to deal with the dead branch hanging like a sword of doom over our front walkway, etc. On those days, even feeding the cat seem like one responsibility too many. And it all feels like a vast conspiracy designed to push my current novel-in-progress down onto the lowest rung on the priority ladder. I know my agent wonders how in the world it can take 6 months to write 60 pages—heck, I wonder how in the world it can take 6 months to write 60 pages.

So this fall, when my youngest left home for college, I decided I’d try to yank my writing back up to its rightful place in my priorities. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned:

Pay yourself first. This old adage about saving money—to take a bit of your paycheck and immediately deposit it in savings before paying any bills—also applies to writing. I even think about it that way. When I get up in the morning I try to “pay myself” by spending an hour or two writing before I tackle other work and obligations. If I can’t squeeze it in, I remind myself that I haven’t “paid myself” yet today. For me, something about the psychology of thinking about my writing time as something I’m doing FOR myself instead of another thing I’m supposed to do helps enormously.

Take what you need. One of the best things about being a writer is that everything you do and observe is a part of your creative work. Your life fuels your fiction, no matter what your job or genre. That coffee shop I worked in for a year became the setting for my first novel; my experiences making lattes and getting to know customers became the experiences of my main character. The simple fairy tales and fables we played with in the kids’ writing class I taught helped me figure out how to tell the arc of a character’s life in my second novel. I got one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever from the landscaper who came three years ago to do some work in my yard and it went straight into another novel. Your other jobs are part of your work as an author, not separate from it.

Make it your meditation. I’ve never been very successful at daily meditation. But over the last few months, I’ve set aside 5-10 minutes before bed to just sit and think about my novel. I close my eyes and allow my mind to enter the fictional world I’m creating and wander. If I start to think about specific problems—should I go back and fix that awkward dialogue in Chapter Two? Does my main character come across as too self-absorbed in the opening pages?—I try to gently bring my mind back to just wandering. I imagine myself sitting in the sun on a train platform in a sleepy little Adirondack town in late September with my main character. I try to smell the sweet, sharp tang of balsam fir, feel the crispness of the fall air, hear the cry of a hawk or a gull overhead. I sit with her and feel what she’s feeling. And all the other stuff—the three other jobs, my mom’s doctor appointments, the errands and responsibilities that fill my to-do list—drops away. I don’t know if this is improving my writing, but it’s sure improving my mood.

How do you juggle your writing with your life?

About Kathleen McCleary [2]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.