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Roundtables

Like Pushing an Elephant Into a Volkswagen

Writers who haven’t quit their day jobs, who cram in the writing hours around full-time work, discuss juggling office life, family, and creativity.

Daniel Esquivia-Zapata, Geraldo y su Texto, 2014. Courtesy the artist and RJD Gallery, Sag Harbor. Via Artsy.

The myth of the full-time writer is a perniciously sticky one—and it doesn’t help that once in a blue moon a J.K. Rowling does come along, thereby entrenching the cultural delusion that being a full-time writer is a thing that could realistically happen. But the truth is that being a full-time writer is basically just the literary equivalent of a career in the NBA.

Everyone else has to write on the side. I’m one of them: For the past year I’ve managed to fit about 10 to 15 hours of writing into a more-than-fulltime workweek. I’ve more or less given up going to the gym, and more reluctantly given up cooking dinner, one of my favorite ways to end a workday. My husband is the primary cook now, as well as the housekeeper and dogwalker—a division of labor that not only offends my egalitarian ideals but those of the latent proper Southern homemaker that I didn’t realize I’d been socialized to be until I stopped trying to live up to her.

Even with all his help, I don’t write every day. I can’t write every day. Sometimes I take a whole week off from writing to sleep and read and cook and clean and watch a dozen episodes of Justified, which is probably a necessary vaccine against burnout but makes me feel like I’m slacking.

I don’t want to complain too much because, let’s be honest, this is a craziness I’ve chosen for myself, and a privilege. I’m not scrubbing toilets 12 hours a day, six days a week just to put food on the table, and I’ve got a partner who makes it possible for me to pursue my dream without completely losing my mind. But I still wonder how other writers manage it.

With a major assist from Leah Falk of MFA Day Job, I’ve gathered seven writers—all of whom, if not necessarily bound to the 9-5, have to keep one foot firmly outside of the literary world to get by—to discuss their experiences.

Annie Choi writes and produces online educational animated movies for kids. She is the author of Shut Up, You’re Welcome and Happy Birthday or Whatever. Her work has appeared in Pidgin magazine, Urban Omnibus, and White Zinfandel, among others, and she has been a featured storyteller on The Moth. She lives in New York City.

Charles Yu is in-house counsel at a consumer technology company, doing strategic partnerships, IP, contracts, and corporate legal work. He is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe, Third Class Superhero, and Sorry Please Thank You, and is working on a novel, Book of Wishing. He lives with his wife and two school-age children in Irvine, Calif.

Christine Montross is an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and director of counseling resources at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a staff psychiatrist at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. She is the author of Body of Work and Falling Into the Fire (both nonfiction). She and her wife live in Rhode Island with their two young children.

Julia Fierro is the founder and director of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of Cutting Teeth: A Novel, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two young children.

Patrick Hoffman is a private investigator and author of The White Van, with another book on the way. He lives with his girlfriend and two cats in Brooklyn.

Rob Rynders is a full-time United Methodist pastor and runs a part-time coaching consulting business. He is currently shopping a proposal for a nonfiction book on how the revitalization of cities is shaping religion and spirituality. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and two young sons.

Russell Contreras is a law enforcement and immigration reporter with The Associated Press in Albuquerque, NM, and is working on a book about JFK’s last night and the Latino Civil Rights movement. He lives in Placitas, NM, just north of the Sandia Pueblo, with his wife, baby daughter, and a dog.

 

Let’s confront the increasingly illusory romance of being a full-time writer: How do you feel about your job—both the job itself and how it impacts your writing?

Julia: From the outside, I think it appears as if I have the perfect work/writing setup, and in many ways that is true, and I am always grateful to have a life in which my “work,” running the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop (SSWW), is also linked to writing. My schedule is slightly flexible, which is very helpful when you have two young children, but each time I take a break from work to go on a field trip with my kids’ school or volunteer in their cafeteria at lunchtime, it sets me back 20 to 50 emails. I could work all day and all night and still never catch up on emails responding to applications, checking in with instructors, and all the administrative work that goes into running a business. I am now, after 12 years of building the business, able to take a break from teaching workshops, which allows me some time to write. When I teach and run the business and juggle family and parenting, I can’t squeeze in writing. Teaching is an incredibly rewarding experience, but also time-consuming, and, for me, emotionally demanding, and while I miss it very much, I need to write.

Rob: I have a job that is very flexible and fulfilling, but is also very stressful and frustrating at times. Writing is a big part of my work, whether it be writing a sermon, blog post, or article. Sometimes all of that can involve things I want to write about, but other times I’m trying to create content for something I’m not super excited about. That often happens in a sermon series that was a good idea at first, but then I realize that everything I had to say about the topic I said in the first week and I still have three weeks of compelling content to create. Overall, I love my job, but I also love the writing I do on the side. It can keep me going when things aren’t going well or I’m feeling stuck. My job also directly influences and impacts the content for my personal writing projects and gives me credibility with my audience. I also think my personal writing helps me be a better leader and a better creative at work. In other words, I need both.

I’m lucky because the company has been incredibly supportive of my “other” career of writing books.

Annie: I love my job. I care about what I do and I believe in what the company does. I’m lucky because the company has been incredibly supportive of my “other” career of writing books. I work four days a week, which leaves me one day to write, plus weekends. This isn’t enough time, but it’s reality. Full-time writing is basically impossible for me. I’m not good at hustling, pitching stories, or getting freelance work. I value the stability of a job that provides benefits and 401k and so I try to make my personal work adapt to a full-time job. In the past, I’ve worked jobs that I didn’t care about in order to spend more time writing. It was some 9-to-5 action where I wasn’t creatively or emotionally invested. But, I found it to be too mind-numbing and felt drained and uninspired at the end of the day. With this job I care deeply about, I feel exhausted, but still inspired. Ultimately that helps me with my own writing.

Patrick: I’ve spent the last year and a half as a full-time fiction writer, and am now confronted with the fact that I have to go back to work. That advance can only take you so far! You have to pay taxes! But it’s also true that I miss working. I love my job. I was working full-time as an investigator at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office when I wrote my first book. It took me three years to finish. But after writing full-time, I can honestly say that I think it will do me good—both for my sanity and my writing—to get out of the house and back into the world. I usually can only write for three hours a day (at the most), so if I’m not working I get caught up doing stupid stuff like scouring Twitter and reading my reviews on Amazon. I’m starting my own private investigation business in New York City, literally, right now, so I think it will be good to be back out on the streets.

Julia: I agree with Patrick on how work can be a benefit to a writing schedule. I’m at my best, emotionally and in my productivity, when I’m busy. Maybe this is largely due to the fact that I’ve struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder most of my life, but the less time I have to worry, the better. I already mentioned the fact that I am not a disciplined writer, and that I’ve never been good at schedules in any part of my life—writing, working or parenting—so it makes sense that a huge chunk of free time each day isn’t the best motivator for me. Perhaps, this will change as my life and work schedule changes. Who knows?

Charles: I feel grateful for my job. It pays the bills. I’ve been very fortunate with writing. In the past few years, the prospect of possibly finding a way to make writing (together with writing-adjacent activities) into a full-time job has become more real. Which has made me confront whether I’d really want to try to do that. And to my surprise, it’s not as obvious a choice as I’d have thought a few years ago, when quitting the day job was what I dreamed about. Partly because of that security and the freedom it affords in my writing, to not have to depend on it for income. Part of it because I think, what would I do with all that time? And wouldn’t it come with more creative and financial pressure?

Christine: I love my psychiatric work and I feel strongly that the practice of medicine enhances my writing. Physicians are present in the most stripped-away and vulnerable moments of people’s lives: birth, death, disease, diagnosis, cure. These are potent and deeply human moments, and they are the roots of so many literary themes. I know I would have less rich material to write about were I not a doctor. I also feel as though my clinical work and my parenting work force me to prioritize productivity in my writing time. In my MFA years, when writing poems was my only obligation, I spent many hours waffling in front of blank pages. I don’t have that luxury now, and I think it makes for more authoritative and decisive moves as a writer. It also short-circuits procrastination.

Julia: Christine, I was on a panel—Mothers Writing About Motherhood—at the Binders Symposium for Women writers last month, and we talked about how limitations can add to our lives as writers, and how they can even be a helpful tool in inspiring us and motivating us. I thought about this phenomenon, which sounds like an oxymoron in a way, for a while afterward, and I think it is true. After I had children, and had to work while I was raising them, I felt as if I could do anything! Those limitations—not being able to afford childcare, for example—forced me to surpass even my own expectations for myself.

Russell: On the one hand, being a reporter keeps me involved with the writing process. Every single day I am writing something. However, it is a specific type of writing: quick stories for mobile apps, newspapers, and broadcast outlets. Sometimes I’m able to tackle enterprise stories, which can be longer and have a magazine feel to them, yet not as much as I would like. It is easy to stay in this mode and not venture back into narrative nonfiction, literary journalism. I like to compare it to someone who likes to use an exercise bike every day. Sure it will keep you in shape, but if that’s all you do, you will have problems trying to run a 5K or lift weights. One needs balance, and to get it, you need to develop a plan that involves a writing schedule, a reading schedule, and a meditating schedule.

Christine: I’m struck by how much we all seem to like our day jobs. Maybe that’s part of the magic of making it work. If you’re in a job that you hate and that drains you, I imagine it would be harder to find the energy or stamina to write in the off hours. Our jobs don’t seem to be 100 percent about paying the bills for any of us. The jobs themselves have redeeming qualities in our busy lives.

 

How different is your project from what you do for a living? Do you have any strategies for shifting gears? Have you ever done writing-related work (whether actual writing, research, or making notes) at work?

Rob: My writing projects and my work projects overlap quite a bit since I’m usually writing for faith-based audiences. The difference is that my personal writing projects are typically geared toward leaders, while work projects are geared toward a more general audience. I’ve worked on personal projects during work hours, but those hours are so irregular, including early morning meetings, evening meetings a few times per week, weekends events, and so on, that I can easily end up with multiple 14-hour workdays per week, so if I take an hour here or there, no one will mind. If I get inspiration for something related to my personal writing I’ll often take a break from my work and jot some notes down or even write a quick draft. I’ve also found that if I’m have a creative block related to work, taking some time to shift my brain to a personal writing project will help generate the ideas I need for work, and vice versa.

Patrick: At the public defender’s office we’d work strange hours. Sometimes I’d have to be out working until two in the morning, so we were encouraged to do a little of our own stuff on the side. I would spend an hour a day, sometimes at lunch, sometimes after work, usually sitting in a car, and try and handwrite three pages. The investigating definitely helped the fiction. The essence of my job is to find people—usually victims or witnesses of a crime—convince them to talk to me, and listen to their stories. I take notes, and then write a report about what they said. At the public defender’s office we were doing this all the time, so it was great writing practice: You’d have to crank reports out on a strict deadline. Also, you end up talking to people that you would never otherwise talk to; or, you find yourself in a jail cell, with your client, a man or woman who might be on the eve of a trial where they are facing a possible life sentence; it’s intense! It’s the perfect job for an aspiring writer. I could go on and on about this, but it was also good for me to listen to the way people speak—I used to watch hours of police interviews—and you start to cue in on the rhythms of people’s speech patterns, that kind of thing. Finally, and this was key for me, the job gave me enough of a sense of authority, whether deserved, or not, to start writing a crime thriller.

I can easily end up with multiple 14-hour workdays per week, so if I take an hour here or there, no one will mind.

Christine: I work in the psychiatric hospital on the weekends and I write and parent during the week. My current writing is closely related to my clinical practice on a thematic level, but I am very intentional about the work not overlapping in time. When I’m with patients, I want to fully be engaged in their treatment. And similarly, I’ve chosen a clinical job that allows me to turn off my pager Monday morning, trust that my patients are safely cared for in the hospital, and engage fully with my writing.

Charles: I have made notes. Not much actual writing, and even with the notes it has been years since I have done that. Partly that’s a function of my increasing role at work, and the nature of my job. My first job was at one of these really intense corporate law firms, where I was in the office for 12 or 14 hours a day, week in and week out. Your time wasn’t yours, but that was freeing in a way. A lot of times you’d be trapped in the office, waiting for a document to come, or comments to come back from the partner or whatever, and there’d be nothing to do. It’d be 10 p.m. on a Thursday. So, little sketches, absurdist corporate cartoons, that sort of thing, it was a natural thing to just fill in the dead spots, to break up the crushing monotony. But at this point in my career, I’m more in control of my own time and schedule. I go to work to get my job done. So I keep writing and the day job pretty much completely separate. And on the writing side, as I’ve written more things and developed more of a way of working on my stuff, I have also gotten more disciplined, or at least more particular about my process and environment. So writing in that office setting just generally doesn’t work for me. I’m not in the right frame of mind.

Russell: My project came out of a story I did for work. I wrote a piece on JFK and Hispanics after the 2012 election that generated some buzz. I knew I wanted to expand it and possibly make it into a book. So, I took some time off from work and went straight to south Texas, where some of the elder civil rights leaders lived, and interviewed them. I also took time off to go to the archives at the University of Texas, the Hector P. Garcia papers in Corpus Christi, and the Houston Public Library. Gathering the information was like gathering material for a story, but for a longer piece. I shift gears by accumulating all the material I could, then work (initially) without a deadline. I wrote without the notion of a deadline so I could free myself from any formulas and to see what would happen. During lunch, I am looking online for new information related to my book, even if it involves using a mobile app while waiting in line for food.

Annie: I mostly write humorous personal essays about life, death, and the crap in between. For my jobby job, I write scripts for movies about the solar system or dividing with remainders or the life of Susan B. Anthony. Obviously the content is very different. But the scripts have a lot of humor; it’s just geared toward young kids. So, I’m not dropping F-bombs the way I would my own work. I think maintaining and sharpening different senses of humor is good for my personal writing (and my life). Sometimes in my job, I’ll be researching and learn something that I’ll incorporate into my personal writing. Maybe it’s a fact about reptiles or a fact about a historical figure. I learn a lot of random shit at my job and some of it winds up in my work.

Charles: I love Annie’s phrase “random shit at my job” because over the years, I’ve come to realize that it’s my source material. It’s true: even being a lawyer, working in a square box of space and time, can be fuel for creative output. I’ve found inspiration in the weirdest, most mundane places, and usually not when I’m looking for it.

Julia: I jump from work to writing and back again in what might seem like a disorganized way. I was never disciplined or organized enough to have a “schedule,” so I have to steal the time to write, so to speak. Since there is always Sackett Street administrative work to be done, or my children to play with and take care of, I have to make the conscious choice to sit down and use that precious time to write. Sometimes, I write as soon as I get to work (at the Brooklyn Writers Space) in the morning. I might even log on to the Freedom app (to block the internet) before I leave home, so that when I get to the Writers Space, I can’t answer emails. Or I might answer email all day and then ask my husband to put the kids to bed so I can write from 6 to 11 p.m. My writing process has changed a lot since I had children and became a business owner, and I have become very productive. I always wrote fast and revised later, but now I can write many words in one sitting. Much of this productivity is due to the fact that I think about the novel I’m working on for months leading up to committing myself to it. I might send myself 10 one-line emails a day with notes about character habits, thoughts, a scene idea, a few atmospheric details. All of these notes make their way into a massive document, and the typing of these ideas helps to inform me of what exactly I want to write about. It saves time and allows me to feel more confident about sitting down and jumping into the writing when I have the time.

 

When, how often, and for how long are you able to write on an average weekday? Weekend? Are you satisfied with the amount and quality of time you’re able to devote? Is there anything you devote less time to than you’d like in order to carve out time to write?

Rob: Most of my writing work comes early morning after I drop my son off at school at 7:15 a.m., after the kids go to bed, or on Friday, which is my day off. I probably struggle the most with keeping a regular writing schedule, though. Even if I schedule time I often get distracted by something else or can’t get motivated. My goal is to get in at least an hour per weekday and a few hours on my day off. Sometimes if I have a few blog posts and other writing projects piling up I’ll use a comp day to get caught up. With a lot of my personal time devoted to extra writing I probably neglect exercise the most. I’ll tell myself I need to get the gym but then I’ll end up working on something else, or I’ll just be too tired to do anything that requires a lot of brainpower.

Annie: I will never be satisfied with the amount and quality of time I’m able to devote to writing. I think I could write full-time for a year straight without breaks and still feel that I could’ve used my time more wisely or done things differently. I have one full day devoted to writing during the week. I’ll also write on the weekends, though that is always tough. When I’m under a deadline, I’ll write after I get home from work and on the weekends. When a book is due, I’ll take vacation at work so I can finish. My office is also good about granting unpaid leave if I need it.

My writing process has changed a lot since I had children and became a business owner, and I have become very productive.

Patrick: When I was working at the public defender’s office, I was on a strict one-hour-a-day schedule. When I was writing “full-time,” I tried to do three hours. The first book took three years; the second took one year, which, mathematically speaking, makes sense. In my new phase, I’d like to be able to find two or three hours a day to write; we’ll see.

Russell: This is interesting, Patrick. Do you try to stay on a schedule or dedicate certain days to write now that you have more time to write? I’m curious to see if your two or three hours are a daily plan. Also, I’m wondering how long your next project will take since now you have carved out the day.

Patrick: Russell, the two or three hours is definitely a daily plan (at least in the drafting stage; I find that in the editing stage all plans become moot). I’m editing the second book right now (the one that I worked full-time on), so, at the moment, the next project after that seems so far away that I can’t help but wonder if it will ever come to be. 

Charles: A good night is two to three hours, during the week. A good weekend day is four to six hours. If I can get that, and I can’t always get it, then I’m generally satisfied. Any more and I find just ways to waste time. Although at the moment, I am trying to get through a crucial phase in the writing of a novel, and this is when I dream and agonize and generally thrash around at the impossibility of it all. When I’m stuck in the middle of something big like this, there are never enough hours or energy or caffeine. I feel I’m failing in all kinds of ways: not enough time with my kids or wife or parents or brother or friends or dog or cat, let alone the general business of being a decent human being who is actually experiencing real life in a meaningful if ordinary way. Not some shut-in curmudgeon squeezing out 300 terrible words a day. The one thing I don’t give short shrift to is my day job. Probably for survival reasons, and professionalism, I guess. But it’s more than that. For some reason, I’ve always felt that slacking at my day job to do more writing would be cheating. At the expense of my writing time, I just can’t seem to ever take it easy at the lawyering. I always have to do my best. Which is one of the reasons I think my current situation might be untenable.

Christine: My days vary a great deal, and I’ve come to embrace “writing” as a similarly variable concept. Right now I’m commuting to New Haven two to three days a month to participate in seminars in the Yale forensic psychiatry department as research for my current book project about the confluence of mental illness and the criminal justice system. I’m not sitting and writing, but I am devoting time to research and to thinking about what this book will become. I’ve also been traveling a lot this year to give readings and talks on Falling Into the Fire. All of that fits under the auspices of “writing” for me because I feel as though those are endeavors that are part of the work of being a writer. Actual time at the desk typing tends to be more of a binge for me. When I have a deadline or am trying to finish something, I’ll work at it several weekdays in a row. I’m satisfied with this balance, but it’s a continual work in progress. And rather than giving short shrift to something in order to carve out time to write, I find I often give short shrift to writing in order to do far less rewarding tasks—returning emails, managing the practicals of a household, etc., etc.

Rob: This totally resonates with me. I'm constantly collecting research, ideas, and illustrations for my writing projects. It might be something I come across on the internet, in a book, or from a conversation. I think that’s one of the most enjoyable parts about writing, being on the lookout for those things, and even sometimes being surprised by them. Where I procrastinate the most is in the actual sitting down and pulling that material and those ideas together into actual words on the page.

For some reason, I’ve always felt that slacking at my day job to do more writing would be cheating.

Russell: As a new father, it was hard to get into a schedule and be consistent. So I made a deal with my wife: on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and one day on the weekend, I go straight to the University of New Mexico library and write. I stay off social media (when I can) and focus solely on the book. Of course I wish I could have more time, but with a one-year-old and a wife who is a full-time teacher, that’s not possible (especially if I want to stay married). Once I am in the zone and I have turned all social media connections off, I can get a lot of writing done. If I tire, I go straight to a related book and look for new information. Unfortunately, I am no longer working out as much as I’d like. I used to take boxing classes and play soccer. Not anymore (for now). Not enough hours.

Julia: Sometimes weeks go by when I don’t work on the current novel, especially if it is a busy time for Sackett Street workshop registration, or if I have a bunch of readings, festivals, or conferences, or if I have essays due to magazines or anthologies. When I am in serious writing mode, when I am finishing a novel, or in “the zone” and feeling an urgency to get the pages out, or if I have a deadline to get a revision to my editor, I could write and revise eight hours a day. And this is when I fall behind on work for Sackett Street, as well as household work, but, like I said, if I don’t steal the time, I wouldn’t get the writing done. I wrote most of Cutting Teeth on late nights after doing SSWW administrative work all day. My writing hours were 6 to 11 p.m. on the weeknights two or three times a week, and I would also try to use one full weekend day to write. It was a big sacrifice for my family, which I’ll explain in detail below, but how else would it have happened? I wrote Cutting Teeth in nine months, mostly because I had to, although my natural process is to write the first few drafts quickly, and then spend months revising for hours each day.

Annie: I think everyone has picked up on something, which is that we all squish writing time into our schedules and end up feeling burned out at times or feel like we’re failing in other areas. Sometimes I think of it as a zero sum game—if you get a productive five hours of writing, then that’s five hours you’re not spending time with your family or friends or cleaning. So something else has to give in order for your creative process to thrive—and no matter how supportive people are in your life, you still feel like you’re shorting them of yourself.

 

We all dream of having Nabokov’s Vera to deal with the drearier business of maintaining our physical habitat: cooking, cleaning, paying bills. Since most people take care of this stuff after work, do you get any household support so you can get your writing done?

Rob: During this past year we actually hired a landscaping service because I was spending three to four hours on my day off doing yard work. That cleared up a lot of bandwidth, not just so I could have some time to unwind and relax, but it also allowed me to spend more time writing. We have a pretty small house so the chores don’t take a ton of time to take care of, but sometimes I can get behind from being busy or just too tired. My wife is usually pretty good about reminding me when the bathroom is getting funky or she can’t remember the last time I mopped the kitchen. I still think it’s important to do my part around the house. Nothing is worth sacrificing my family for.

Annie: I don’t have household support, so all the cleaning and cooking is up to me. Under a deadline, I won’t eat much, just because it’s such a hassle. In those moments, even ordering through Seamless feels like an inconvenience. However, I will clean my apartment when I’m frustrated or blocked. So for that reason, my apartment is spotless. 

In return for my writing schedule, I have agreed to feed the baby every morning during the workweek. That way, my wife can work out and get her morning chores done without rushing.

Patrick: Ha ha! When I was writing fiction full-time, I did most of the cooking and cleaning, partly because I couldn’t afford a house cleaner or a dinner out. Also, my girlfriend, bless her heart, is not much of a house cleaner.

Charles: I get complete household support. My father-in-law visits often and when he comes to stay with us, it’s like having a third parent in the house, only more energetic, patient, and experienced. And my wife is both hyper-capable and hyper-supportive. It wasn’t always this way—we have definitely had to work to learn each other’s rhythms and needs, and it is an evolving and not-always-perfect dynamic balancing act. But the only way it’d be possible for me to do both the day job and write as much and often as I do is the self-sacrifice that my wife makes. That weighs on me, too—when I have a bad day with the writing (which is 19 out of 20 days), I feel like I’ve wasted her effort.

Christine: My partner and I are very egalitarian about the division of labor in our home. We are equally active parents and we naturally each take on our share of domestic tasks. I cook; she cleans up after. I grocery shop and pay the bills; she does the laundry. We divvy up driving the kids around each week. We have a small amount of weekly childcare, which is priceless, and we pay to have our house cleaned occasionally.

Russell: My wife and I split the household chores. In return for my writing schedule, I have agreed to feed the baby every morning during the workweek. That way, my wife can work out and get her morning chores done without rushing. On my “off” writing days during the week, I watch my daughter so my wife can take care of her teaching duties, and I don’t write. I do, however, try to sneak in a documentary related to my book when I can. Most of the time I just end up watching Daniel Tiger or Harry the Bunny. 

Julia: Like I mentioned above, I would never have been able to run Sackett Street, be a mother, and write without a ton of help from my partner, my husband. He put the kids to bed (not an easy task) most weeknights while I was writing and revising Cutting Teeth, and took them on trips every Saturday so I could have a whole day to write. I stopped cooking when I decided to write Cutting Teeth, practically overnight! My husband quickly realized his love for cooking. Phew. My “stealing time” to work definitely put stress on our family, but my husband and my children were as supportive as they could be, and I think/hope they are proud of me and that they look at me working so hard and feel inspired by it. I think it is also important to mention that my husband works full-time in advertising and also gets up at 5 a.m. to work on his own writing. Without his support and his salary, I wouldn’t have been able to develop Sackett Street from scratch, or have enough money to hire adequate childcare. I think the financial aspect of the family/work balance, especially for creatives who don’t often make big salaries, is often ignored in the discussion of work/life balance. 

Annie: I agree with Julia here. Money seems to get pushed aside in these discussions. There’s an assumption that if you work, then you are making enough money. So when we talk about work/life balance, we assume the “work” part is viable. But that’s just not the case for most writers. We certainly don’t go into writing for the money. But you can’t not work. A two-income family going down to one income is not a viable option for most people—certainly not with kids. And when you do take on less work, the financial strain ends up posing other challenges.

 

Let’s talk about families. You only get a little time at the end of a workday to spend with partners and kids. How do you balance your writing time with family time? If you live alone, how does your writing affect your ability to maintain your intimate (romantic or platonic) relationships?

Russell: The schedule I have developed makes it easier to spend quality time together. On the weekends, even the day I am writing, we all still spend time together and we try to plan events. We’ll go to the zoo, maybe walk along the Bosque near the Rio Grande. Other times, we simply go to church at a Jesuit parish in downtown Albuquerque. Honestly, I go so I can take my daughter to say hi to La Virgen or Santo Niño de Atocha. Sometimes I try to write AND watch my daughter. It seldom works out. The last time I did that I was editing some pages and left some on the floor. She crawled over and ripped then up. I think she was trying to tell me something … so I cut out that part and started over.

Annie: My boyfriend lives in Austin, so we make time for each other to Skype at night. We also try to visit each other every two to three weeks. It’s not ideal, but we make it work, and the work is worth it. My boyfriend has a ton of other creative projects, too—and we even have projects together—but we still manage to make time for each other and our own work. When either of us is in the throes of a deadline, we’re very understanding. We know what it’s like, so we give space and support. 

Patrick: I don’t have kids, but for the past year and a half I have been spending way too much time with my cats. They might have a hard time adjusting to me being out of the house, or, who knows, maybe they’ll like a little break from me.

Charles: Yeah, it hurts. It sucks. It’s a calculus I do in my head, on an hourly basis. What am I giving up, sitting here in this room? How could this possibly be worth it? As I’m typing this email, I can hear my kids asking questions about me, right in the other room. The worst part isn’t that they don’t understand. It’s that they do understand. They are seven and five, and they understand and are supportive. “Daddy, when you finish your book, can we go look for bugs at the park?” “Honey, I will never finish my book, because I am a terrible writer and a failure as a person.” “OK. I’m having chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs for lunch.” There might come a time when it really won’t be worth it anymore—really.

There isn’t an elegant solution to cramming a writing life into a non-writing life, just like there isn’t an elegant solution to the problem of trying to push a baby elephant into a slowly rolling Volkswagen.

Christine: Because my spouse is a playwright, we have a shared understanding of the importance of protected writing time. That’s never a conflict. We do try to stagger the busiest times of our projects when at all possible so that I can pick up the household slack when she is finishing a script, or vice versa when I have a deadline approaching. My weekday writing time is made possible by the fact that I do my clinical work on the weekends. Of course, that hospital schedule means I miss a lot of the family life that happens on the weekends. I only made it to one of my son’s soccer games this year, and I sometimes drive all the way to my daughter’s out-of-town swim meet in order to barely catch her getting out of the pool at the end of a 30-second race. I miss weddings and get-togethers because life happens for most people on the weekends. That’s a sacrifice, for sure. But in contrast, I’m home most afternoons when the kids get home from school and we almost always have dinner and evenings together as a family. I don’t think there’s any way to do the balance perfectly. This feels like a good system for now.

Rob: This is what I’m most worried about when/if the full-length book proposal is accepted and I’m up against someone else’s deadline. I can already see myself getting less sleep at night. I often put off the bulk of sermon-writing until Saturday and can end up missing important time with my wife and kids. My family already gives me a hard enough time when I tell them I have to go out for another meeting, so I’ll need to decide what other personal and side projects will need to be dropped or postponed.

Russell: Rob, when you put off the bulk of your sermon writing until Saturday, do you feel like you are getting enough research in for a good piece, or is most the material memorized? I’m curious how you balance this, because there are times when I feel like I feel I know my material well but should dig deep into some other book. It is as if I’m second-guessing myself.

Rob: I’m rarely ever satisfied with my sermons; I feel like I always could have done more. I spend most of the week researching, writing bits and pieces, and figuring out structure. The writing of a manuscript on Saturday is actually my memorization process. I’ll write the full thing out and “memorize” as I go, then read over it a number of times and practice it once or twice.

Julia: This is a tough one. Living in New York City, with its high cost of living, which demands that you work as much as possible to get by financially, means that my husband and I work a lot. All the time. I often have to answer emails while I’m with my children, and I wish there was a way around this. We find ways to spend time with them—I pick them up from school two days a week and we spend the weekend doing family activities—but I am always on call for Sackett Street work, because I am the only administrator. I hope that I can, soon, afford to hire an assistant to help with running the workshop. Until then, I do the best I can. I love working, writing, being busy—it is emotionally healthy for my obsessive-compulsive nature, if not physically healthy—but I do wish there were more hours in the day. I write late at night and my husband writes in the early morning hours, yet, still, we manage to find time for each other. Since we are both writers and readers, we have so much to share. 

Rob: In reflecting on these responses, I’ve reminded myself that I always need to be conscious of what I’m sacrificing. I’m in this “season” of having young children and I know I won’t get this time back with my kids. As they get older I’m definitely finding more time again for side projects, but also realize I’m sometimes making a choice between extra time with family or trying to get some writing in. In other words, writing opportunities will always be there, but my kids will only be this age once.

Christine: I find it interesting that for many of us, the day job/writing job balance seems to be an easier one to navigate than the family/writing balance. I think some of that is that it’s hard to challenge the demands of a traditional job: There are hours you have to be there and a paycheck you have to earn. Carving writing time out of a family schedule can feel more volitional, or like “extra” time that you’re taking away from family or household obligations.

Charles: I can identify with Christine’s idea of “feels like a good system for now.” That’s how I think of it. There isn’t an elegant solution to cramming a writing life into a non-writing life, just like there isn’t an elegant solution to the problem of trying to push a baby elephant into a slowly rolling Volkswagen. The life of a writer/jobby-jobber/parent/spouse/everything else is always going to be a kludgy and jerry-rigged contraption.

biopic

TMN Editor Liz Entman Harper has lived in St. Louis, New York, and Nashville. She sweats the small stuff, like hyphens and commas, and has a day job, but won’t bore you with the details. More by Liz Entman Harper