3 Principles for Finding Time to Write

writing life time balance

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.

For more, listen to Episode 44 of the Marginally podcast.

Posted in Business for Writers.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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MegeGardnerGina RicksS. Hicks-BartlettAbbey ChallinorStar Ostgard Recent comment authors

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Brooke E Turner

I’m an English major taking 18 credit hours this semester. One of my classes is a fiction workshop where I had to pound out a rough draft of 20 page short story (which I submitted on Sunday). I also work about 25 hours a week and have an assistantship on top of that. In a nutshell, my time is very limited. I decided that I needed to do a little bit of writing a day… maybe a page or so and that the morning before work or class was the best time for me to do it. I think the… Read more »

Bill Nelson
Bill Nelson

I have a full time law practice that demands long hours. I’ve learned that if I force myself to write after a long day in the office, I have little creative energy left and my writing suffers. So I’ve simply accepted the reality that quality writing is more important than quantity writing. This realization created space for peace in understanding that waiting to write until I can be in a place of mental calm is what is best for me and my writing. And writing from a place of inner calm helps me produce my best work and keeps the… Read more »

Cathy Shouse

Trying to understand this: “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.”
So is the reverse true? Writers who need their writing to pay off will find a way.

Viktoria N.
Viktoria N.

“There are periods in your life when focused, sustained writing is simply not realistic.” Going to print it and put it over my desk. I’m tired of feeling like a heart-not-in-it wannabe just because I have interests other than writing and some of those occasionally take up all 24h a day has. Thanks for posting! And thanks for infusing the business of writing with some pragmatism!

ingrid

Claire Cook’s story won’t leave my brain. I’ve read so much advice about making your writing your priority, cutting out time in your day, and many other inspirational words, this blog included. Yet her story stuck. Something about sitting in a van waiting for kids, surrounded by a lot of noise and distractions I would imagine, really made me feel guilty. There is, as you say, enough guilt in making time for me and my creativity, but I think this balances out the guilt. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge with the world.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I’ve often heard people say “when I find the time”. My response has always been “You don’t find time – you make time”. Five minutes in a van – Claire Cook didn’t ‘find’ that time; she made that her writing time. The second point really resonated with me as well. In all areas of my life, the more time I have to do something, the greater the chance it will not get done or will get done sloppily. I need my brain to be in high gear to get things done, not tootling along in second, and knowing that I… Read more »

Abbey Challinor
Abbey Challinor

Hi Jane, The three principles that you have mentioned in your post are absolutely correct. Finding and managing time for writing is what needed the most for writers. It’s a very good post and a guide for beginners also. This post is very helpful for me as well. Thank You.

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[…] all want to write better, faster. Jane Friedman lays out 3 principles for finding time to write, Emily Temple shares 25 writers’ views on writer’s block, and Laura Drake tells us why learning […]

S. Hicks-Bartlett
S. Hicks-Bartlett

This very topic has filled the pages of my last four journal entries–at least! Thanks for putting an exclamation point to this.

Gina Ricks
Gina Ricks

Thank you for this article! It resonated with me–especially about the ideal conditions never arriving. Finding time to write is an ongoing struggle, but I’m learning that a lack of time isn’t my only obstacle to writing. I’m also trying to tackle deeper struggles with fear, self-doubt, and perfectionism. Thank you for your insights and the reality check that it is possible to expect too much of ourselves.

MegeGardner

Thank you!! I remember the intense sense of relief I felt when I realized that the perfect conditions were not only never going to come together but were wholly unnecessary. I write in my head when I can’t sleep, and the rush to capture words before I head to my day job. If I can write a novel that way, anyone can!!