This week, I’m a guest on the Marginally podcast, which is about writing (or the creative life) when you also hold a day job. I immensely enjoyed the conversation with Olivia and Meghan, not least because it was free of the usual nuts-and-bolts of how to get published. Instead, we discussed the vexed issue of writing and money.
In every podcast conversation or interview, there is at least one question where I wish I’d offered a better, more considered answer. This one was no different and it was related directly to the premise of the podcast: How do you navigate the writing life when you have an intense day job? Does such a thing as balance exist?
Few things are more personal than making time or finding balance. Today, my idea of balance is keeping email off my phone and only working about four hours on the weekends. Ten years ago, while I held a corporate job, my idea of balance was not looking at email after 10 p.m. daily. Each of us must deal with shifting personal circumstances (e.g., our family needs us, we need a day job for health care) and psychological demons (e.g., that awful teacher who told us we’d never make it as a writer).
Unless you’re a trained Zen monk, or you experience perfect days, harnessing your energy consistently and productively takes years of trial and error—of learning how to establish and improve habits that support your creative goals. And that requires some modicum of self-awareness.
That said, here are a few principles that I find universal.
1. Ideal conditions never arrive.
This is the biggest trap of all: I’ll start writing when…
When I have the time, when my kids are grown, when I quit this job, when I have more job security…I’ve heard it all.
While such thinking can be rooted in self-sabotage and fear of failure, most of us do face a tangible barrier to getting writing done. It’s just that the better conditions we think will arrive never do. A new barrier inevitably takes its place.
I’ve always loved Claire Cook’s story of how she wrote Must Love Dogs. As a middle-aged parent, the only time she had was the five minutes in her van while waiting to pick up her kids at school or soccer practice or whatever. And so that’s what she used. She wrote a whole novel that way—and it launched her very successful career.
So, the best thing you can admit, straight away, is that you will never have ideal conditions for writing. You may know that already. But have you considered that having ideal conditions may hurt your writing?
2. Too much freedom can hurt your art.
I’ve heard all the excuses for not writing, and I’ve also observed the people who have absolute freedom to write when, how, and where they wish. This rarely confers them any advantage. In fact, writers who are least in need of their writing to pay off tend to be the most concerned with monetary gain or recognition. Because that’s the most common way we determine if what we’re doing has any value, especially in the US. If we can’t show a pay off, how do we justify the activity? We become uncomfortable and guilt sets in. We blame ourselves for being frivolous or self-indulgent.
Even if guilt is not an issue, too much freedom can also produce writer’s block, prolific experimentation that goes nowhere, and a paralyzing lack of focus.
Borges did his best work when burdened with a day job. Louisa May Alcott wrote her best work because she had to earn money to support her family—and she was told a story for young girls would sell. Austin Kleon keeps a file of creative people whose physical shortcomings led to their greatest work.
I often say the friction between art and business can be productive—it forces innovation and can be the basis of creative work and not just a barrier to that work. As Kleon mentions, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way elaborates on this philosophy—the philosophy of stoicism. Marcus Aurelius said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
3. The writing life is not without compromise.
Or, more starkly, it’s not without sacrifice. Some writers are known to be lousy family members. (Here’s a piece on whether great novelists make bad parents.) That’s not to say being a writer gives anyone permission to be cruel or neglectful—but that a devotion to writing means less time and energy for everything else. Most writers thank their family and friends profusely in acknowledgments (or in award acceptance speeches) because they understand that we express our love through attention, and attention for our work means less attention for everything else.
I have no children and few family obligations, and so issues of compromise for me look quite different. It’s more about: How much am I willing to give up this other thing that I love? Am I willing to give up TV time? Cooking? Sleep? Running? Travel?
Making a sacrifice for one’s writing can be scary, because the energy cost is high and a tangible return is rarely guaranteed. If you don’t have supportive loved ones, it’s all the more difficult.
If all else fails, take the pressure off yourself.
This is something I mentioned during the podcast. There are periods in your life when focused, sustained writing is simply not realistic. You have other priorities, work you enjoy, or unique demands. Acknowledge it and stop beating yourself up about it—it’s possible to expect too much of yourself. John Cleese said, “If you’re racing around all day, ticking things off a list … and generally just keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.” During some stages of your life, you will not get writing done.
The big life challenge is having the self-awareness to recognize your situation for what it is. Either it’s the best you can do right now or you’ve made the wrong turn at Albuquerque. If you’re not sure of your status, then ask: What’s the one thing you know you must do, but you’ve been avoiding it or putting it off?
I’m often asked how I’m so productive or keep things in balance. Irony: when I last wrote about this subject, it was because I was disappointed by my answer during a podcast! Keep in mind that a writer who pulls off the balancing act doesn’t necessarily mean they feel balanced—and they may not even know how they manage it. While it doesn’t hurt to try out someone else’s work-life approach, finding time or balance is ultimately a challenge we each face alone, in negotiation with our loved ones. And it almost always comes at the cost of something else.