Sleight of Hand: Tricks for Success in the Writing-Life Balancing Act

November 10, 2009

This article first appeared in the September-October 2009 issue of The Penn Writer, a bi-monthly newsletter published by Pennwriters, Inc.

Observe, the writer’s magic wand: with one wave, you will be bestowed with days upon days of perfect, uninterrupted writing time.  All your other responsibilities will float away like mist from a lake, leaving you with clarity, vision, and creative depths.

Sound too good to be true?  That’s because it is: for writers, freelancers, artists, and other independent business people, there is no magic wand with which to clear the path of life and add hours to the clock.  Unless you write purely for pleasure on passing whims, you must face the challenge of balancing writing endeavors and the rest of life in order to succeed with your craft.

For some of us, “the rest of life” might include jobs, partners, families, and commitments to community, friends, or personal health.  Some writers experience a natural ebb and flow of creative inspiration.  Other writers might operate at 100% capacity most days, but are no less susceptible than the rest of us to the arrival of a big, heavy-duty monkey wrench thrown keenly into the center of our creative works.

If the challenge is a constant writing-life balancing act, then how do we tip the scales?  In lieu of a magic wand, would you accept a little prestidigitation?  As creative professionals, we have a unique opportunity to leverage our struggle for time and energy into strong, successful writing.

First, let’s consider ourselves (also known as a self-evaluation):

To start with, grab a journal (or a whiteboard, a new word processing document, or a big slice of butcher paper).  Take your time and carefully list what’s important in your life.  Be as specific as you want – the point is to get your brain thinking actively about your priorities, motivations, and goals.  Revisit this process whenever you’re feeling stuck or powerless.

Review your self-evaluation, and consider where the specifics you’ve listed fall into broad categories.  You’re likely to find a handful of items which are all equally mission-critical, while others are less essential.  Some things may seem less important (like the daily dishwashing duty), but unless you’re already independently wealthy and pay someone else to do your dirty dishes, that’s going to be a daily priority.

Now that you’ve considered the layout of your world, it’s time to get crafty.  Remember, you are a creative professional so you don’t need a magic wand for this part – just a little ingenuity, and a willingness to suspend your disbelief long enough to change your reality.

Our solution is neither a matter of exorcizing the unattainable, nor of sacrificing the precious.  Rather, the deceptively simple acts of compromise, integration, and acceptance are going to be the secret ingredients behind our writing-life formula for balance and growth:

balance_growth

At the August 2009 Pennwriters Presents, Guest Speaker Janice Gable Bashman was asked for a few words of wisdom culled during her author interviews.  Her reply includes the following as quoted from an interview in Wild River Review with author/journalist Bill Kent:

“[…] don’t see your writing as a special thing that you can do only when you’ve put the rest of your life on hold; see it as a thing you do regularly, with as little fanfare or expectations as possible.”

Kent goes on to explain that the integration of writing and life results in benefits to both.  Sure, that sentiment looks great in print, but how do we make it work in our lives?  If we strive for balance in order to grow as writers, we must regularly consider our priorities, our motivations, and our goals.  Kent’s methodology suggests that we embrace both life and art as one.

Just as in medicine, not all solutions are right for all people.  Some of us like schedules, some of us prefer to go with the flow.  Some of us live with families or friends, some of us live alone.  Listed below are five tipping points which can be used to adjust the balance of life and writing.  These are not mantras, incantations, or affirmations  (but if you like those, grab hold of Eric Maisel’s Affirmations for Artists, or just keep repeating: “I will make time for life.  I will make time to write.”)  These are simple, common sense methods for transforming dreams into realities.

Honoring Commitments: Communicate Your Needs

In her article “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear” published this summer in The New York Times, writer Laura A. Munson discusses the challenges of love and partnership.  When her partner drops the bomb “I’m moving out,” Munson gets calm and creative.  Her response: “What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?”

Whether it’s your partner, your colleagues, or your congregation, it’s up to you to communicate your needs so that the people in your life can help you.  To skip this step might result in tearing apart some of the relationships which keep you healthy, happy, and sane enough to be a good writer.

Hand-in-hand with this step is its corollary: “Here is where I will uphold my commitments to you [family, partner, team, etc.]”  Be prepared to offer as much as you ask: if you expect understanding from your friends and family, you must return this gift by setting aside some of your writing aspirations in order to support the people around you.

Working From Home: Close the Door

In his book On Writing, Stephen King tells us that we have to be prepared to close the door and write.  Unless you live alone, there’s more to this than just slamming the door shut.  If you still want a friendly face in your home, you need to communicate with your fellow residents so they understand why the door is closed – and when it’s scheduled to reopen.

This practice isn’t about shutting yourself off from the world, alone in your writer’s paradise.  It’s about creating a space – physical and mental – in which to create.  When you’re a home-based professional, it’s important to establish a known workspace wherein you can practice productive habits, and get the actual writing work done.

Getting Serious: Discipline Yourself

“Someday, when you’re older, you’ll think back and remember ‘gosh, now I know why Mr. Sage kept talking about self-discipline!’ ”

I heard those words regularly in my elementary school years when Mr. Sage, provoked by the careless or lazy efforts of his students, would descend into lengthy lectures on the virtues of self-discipline.  I couldn’t tell you everything he said, only that my memory involves the clock face, the image of Mr. Sage astride his stool, and the echoing phrases above.

As it turns out, Mr. Sage was right.  In my youth, I thought he was pedantic, condescending, and probably wrong.  In my adulthood, I can see how easy it is to skip this step, and how instrumental self-discipline can be in achieving my goals.  Take my friend and Co-Chair of the Pacific Northwest Pennwriters Chapter Anita Marie Moscoso as an example:

Moscoso works multiple jobs and supports kids, household, pups, and partner.  She’s politically active.  She’s always ready to lend a word of advice and insight to her fellow writers.  Moscoso also sets aside 4-5 hours every night to write.  The result: she churns out stories and is making significant progress on her first novel-length manuscript.  In short, she gets it done.

Getting Real: Accept Change

Go back to that list you created with all that’s important in your life.  Now take a look and consider: what’s not critical?  When you decide that you’re serious about writing, some things are going to be sacrificed for the greater good (good writing, that is).

Accept that some things in your life aren’t going to get done, or aren’t going to be completed at the time or to the degree of perfection you might have planned.  Accept that the ideal, uninterrupted writer’s paradise about which so many of us dream is an illusion.

The more you review and rewrite your master list, the more likely it is that you will discover some priorities that are not as important as you once thought.  Be prepared to adjust to the inevitable upheavals in your life.  Dr. Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? provides a clear, easy-to-read discussion on anticipating (and embracing) the one constant common to all of us: change.

Finding Peace of Mind: Embrace Your Experiences

In the autumn of 2008 I was invited for a short radio interview with Robert Krulwich of NPR to discuss Dr. Nalini Nadkarni’s newest book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, which I helped to produce.  At the time, I had just moved from Philadelphia to Seattle, only to find myself on the way to southern California to help care for a family member.  It seemed like my life had become the perfect storm in which all my writing goals would be funneled up from the earth and then dropped splat-flat.

While traveling through the gorgeous California redwoods via Carmel en route to Santa Barbara, I spoke with Krulwich by phone to make arrangements.  I had searched frantically online using Wi-Fi access to find a recording studio along the way where I could complete the interview.  Krulwich solved my problem with a simple statement: “You’re traveling through the redwoods, and Carmel is beautiful!  You should enjoy all that, and I’ll find us a studio in Santa Barbara.  We’ll talk when you arrive.”

It makes perfect sense: we can’t rush past the pleasures of life, nor can we skip the rough roads.  As Bill Kent reminds us, putting life on hold in exchange for writing is a non-option.  It is our experience which provides the personal resources we need in order to create.  In Ann Charters’ The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, we are told that Stephen Crane “believe[d] – as did Ernest Hemingway after him – that ‘the nearer a writer gets to life, the greater he becomes as an artist.’ ”  Every task, event, chore, and chance meeting can be a resource for your writing.  Don’t waste a single experience.

These are just a few ideas for learning to accept, integrate, and compromise in order to achieve the writing-life balance.  When considered in the context of our secret formula (priorities, motivations, and goals), we create opportunities for growth as writers and people.

I cannot guarantee that these methods will solve all your problems, but I believe that attempting them might lead you to the solution that is right for you.  At the very least, these tricks may distract you for a while, and sometimes that’s all we need – a distraction to take our eye off the pea so that the shell game of life can reformulate into new possibilities.

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The Perfect Present: A Short Story by Jade Leone Blackwater

September 24, 2009

Gold Frog Garden, Copyright © 2009 Jade Leone Blackwater

I wrote The Perfect Present in August 2009 for my sister’s 25th birthday.  I’m sharing this story here in audio, read aloud by yours truly.

This story is rated “OK” for all ages.  I’m new to audio recordings, so any inconsistencies in the reading are a product of my practice (and possibly my over-enthusiasm while practicing the art of character in voice).  I recorded this story using Audacity.  The recording lasts about 25 minutes, and the (.mp3) file is about 23 MB in size (so it might not stream very well).

If you are among the deaf readers in my audience and would like to read a copy of The Perfect Present, please email me with your request.

Happy Birthday Sis, and enjoy everybody!

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CLICK HERE to Download an Audio Recording (.mp3) of THE PERFECT PRESENT by Jade Leone Blackwater


The Perfect Present Sketch, Copyright © 2009 Jade Leone Blackwater