Zoe asked me to write about how I balance my full-time job with my writing career. Here are some ways, and I’d love to hear more thoughts from those of y’all who are also balancing writing (or drawing or music or theater or…) with another job.
1. Always, always carry a notebook. You can’t control when you’ll have an idea for a new project or suddenly see how to solve a problem in a manuscript, so make sure you’ve always got a place to jot down some notes. I’ve gotten better about this over the years. Very occasionally I still have to resort to cryptic scribbling on a receipt, or the back of a meeting agenda (ahem), but usually, I’m prepared.
I also think it’s important for this notebook to be dedicated to writing projects, and not used for anything else. Here’s why. Let’s say you’ve decided you’ll put all your writing notes in your personal journal, because after all, you are a fully integrated person and you can’t, you know, compartmentalize yourself, man, your writing comes from your HEART and your HEART is in your journal.
So you flip open your journal to note down what you’ve just realized needs to happen right after the swordfight scene, and the first thing you see is the intricate dissection of a recent relationship drama, or the nearly illegible, yet compelling, evidence of your latest middle-of-the-night gnawing anxiety attack — and before you know it, that idea is gone. I am all for keeping a journal, too — but in the immortal words of the Offspring, you gotta keep ‘em separated.
2. Have work dates. Work dates with friends who are also writers allow for simultaneous social interaction and productivity! The key to this strategy, of course, is to keep the former from overwhelming the latter. My best work dates happen when we go to a coffeeshop and agree to declaring a break at a specified time, like, say, a half hour or forty-five minutes after we begin. Then we talk for maybe ten minutes, maybe as long as fifteen, then put our heads down again and work for another half hour, forty-five minutes. Repeat until everyone’s too jittery to work more, or our energy has given out, or some combination.
3. Between jobs, rest and ‘reboot.’ I don’t do this every day, but I find that if I’ve had a challenging day at work and I know I need to do a lot of writing in the evening, it helps to take a short nap, or at least lie down and close my eyes, before I open up my laptop. In extreme cases, I will try to fool myself into thinking that I’m starting an entirely new day by showering after my nap. And then drinking some coffee. Which tends to lead to rapidly accumulating sleep dept, but, um, well. It’s something I do.
4. Write short pieces as well as long ones. As my patient readers know, I am not the fastest gun in the west. Doing shorter pieces means not only that folks will have things to read from me between novels, but also that I get the satisfaction that comes from completing a project. When I’m working on a novel, it’s impossible for me to judge how long it will take. At some point early in the novel-writing process, I always think the equivalent of the optimistic generals at the beginning of the First World War: “Ah, it’ll all be over by Christmas.” And then I find myself in a trench, wearing an ill-fitting gas mask and dodging shrapnel, and it seems impossible that I’ll make it out alive. It is an extremely good idea, when you’re in that trench, to climb out and write something that you can finish. This even works, on a smaller scale, with blog posts.
5. Don’t beat yourself up. This is one of those “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” pieces of advice. I am constantly aware that my friends who don’t have day jobs are publishing more frequently. I am constantly worried that I’m not fast enough, that people will forget me between books, that I’m not getting enough done. BUT. I try to remember: I care about both careers. My work as a librarian is rewarding, too. And publishing is not a race.