Blog/ Publishing/ Writing

Balancing, juggling, maintaining

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.

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  • sdn
    December 13, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    work dates are good for editing or reading mss, too. (in theory.)

  • Claire
    December 13, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    And this, also very interesting. So often the ‘day job’ writers have tends to be something they’re not into, or can schedule sneaky writing hours into, but as someone in that soon-to-leave-college-and-face-the-allegedly-real-world state, it’s nice to hear about someone managing to juggle two passions. :)

    I still need a Writerly Notebook. Scribbles on bus tickets et al just gets messy.

  • sara z
    December 13, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    Funny – I do #3, too, even now. If I’m having one of those days where 3 or 4 rolls around and I don’t feel like I’ve really started, I’ll do the lay down/shower/coffee thing. It works.

    All these are great. I want to have a work date with you! Next time I’m there, we will.

  • Zoe Trope
    December 13, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. I think the one thing that underscores all of your points is this: dedication. Like working on your writing in the evenings, after a full day of work. Setting aside time for writing on a regular, scheduled basis. Keeping a writing journal at all times. On top of that, you are also dedicated to your day job – it’s not just something to pay the bills or pass the time.

    It’s funny because you didn’t use the d-word, but you embody it more than almost anyone I know.

  • Steven Fox
    December 16, 2008 at 1:44 am

    I blog on my news site, , and now that I’ve plugged it I can say even these methods work on news stories. I look for creative stories I can phrase and make juicy. It is tough if you have to work with news as that is usually boring. Being creative works best when you combine your imagination with your interests and watch the ideas flow.