The Writer's Survival Guide: Chapter 4: The Big Logistics

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You are now familiar with the major emotions that can thwart writers, as well as the general antidotes to the more difficult ones. But there remain issues those antidotes don't cure. Maybe you're a working parent. What good is discipline if your only free time falls between Barney and breakfast? Or you're a single person with prodigious social plans, or a wrung-out student. In these and many other cases, talk of tenacity or patience seems too ethereal; what you need are down-to-earth ways to work out the Big Logistics, and maybe even some small logistics as well.

When I began college, I'd already juggled school, friends, and a committed writing schedule for years. I figured I'd handle college with the same ease. But freshman week, as I received each syllabus and assessed my many new time commitments, I grew increasingly apprehensive. Each week, I was to read two books, translate fifty lines of Ovid, write a paper, take ballet, and make solid friendships that would last the rest of my life. But I soon found that Latin required five hours a night; papers, entire afternoons; books, whole weekends. Forget my own writing.

On top of this, I couldn't work in my room. High-ceilinged and north-facing, it retained a chill at all times. But I couldn't find anywhere else that was suitable, either. The library was a bazaar of gossiping bodies, the study rooms down the hall exhibits of cigarette butts and doughnut boxes.

I had no time, and I had no where.

For weeks I felt like a failure. I worked erratically — an hour on my bed, the school lawn, a chair in a corridor. I lost my coffee virginity. Scarfed candy. Relegated friendships to the wee hours. Relegated my own writing time to never.

Finally I sought help. Hoping to convince someone that I couldn't handle my four classes, I went to my dean.

"Help!" I wailed as I presented my plight. My unique plight, that is; surely no one else was as distressed as I.

The dean said, "You can't drop a class." (Sadist! I thought.) "But you can go see our study specialist."

I felt more bereft than ever. What could a specialist do — spin me extra hours out of thin air?

But I was too despairing to resist, so off I slouched to the specialist's office, incredulous and mumbling.

The specialist opened the door into a sunny room. I took a seat across from her, wondering if her pronounced blink was the mark of someone who can truly see time, or was mere eccentricity. I decided on the latter, and launched histrionically into my inventory of adversities, but before I'd gotten far she interrupted. "You just need to regain your sense of control," she said.

"I know," I replied. Though I didn't really know; I hadn't thought of it that way before. The problem had been too much work, not too little control of me. Then I caught myself. "Okay, I need control. So how am I supposed to get it?"

"Well," she said, "let's begin with a chart."

She pulled out a pad and made a chart and then she taught me almost all the time and place tips I have used ever since — many of which, I realized, involve attitude rather than action. "They seem so simple," I observed. "They do the job," she replied.

That night I began implementing her ideas, and very soon I felt better. My work no longer trampled over me; I'd tamed it. Actually, I'd tamed myself, seen where I was causing my own chaos, and so brought my anxiety — and hence work — under control.

I completed that semester without a single extension or all-nighter. My friends saw me as magical; I could finish papers a week early, remain calm through finals. But it wasn't magic. I'd simply come to discern why time was escaping me. As a result, I understood myself better, and so gained a confidence with my work that I hadn't felt before.

In the next two sections, I review these time and place tips. Then I'll address similar issues that can irk us. By the chapter's end you should understand all about logistics; in other words, how a writer can have a life and still manage to write.

Finding Time To Write

You want to write — perhaps even burn to write a particular story — yet every day flits by, a montage of wage-earning and dish washing and I'm-fine-how-are-you's. At the end of each week, you panic at how yet another seven days have passed and you still haven't gotten around to it. You wish, as if you were a cartoon character, for feet that could see tomorrow approaching and skid you back from the edge, digging you deeply into today. You skim articles on literary stars, hunting for how they manage time. A best selling lawyer divulges that he gets to the office at four a.m. and writes until his secretary shows up. A Pulitzer-winning poet discusses her sixty-minute sonnets when the baby is asleep.

You wonder if you can be so disciplined. Then another week of musts and want-to's passes, and you conclude that you cannot. They must be better people than you — or else — no — you are better, because you clearly have more friends and interests than they.

Productivity or popularity. How can you choose a few hours of brain pain and dictionary delving over family and friends who are waiting, forks erect, anecdotes bursting to be shared? Maybe those who have less can make that choice. But you just can't.

This way of thinking is as silly as mine when I was a freshman. Everyone is as busy as you. But some people want to write so badly that they figure out ways to make time. Not find time. Make it. Perhaps they consult with someone. Or they read a book on time management. All that matters is that they do it.

These people are not geniuses. They just recognize that they want to write. Period. Then they take it from there.

In other words, the only requirement to handling this and other logistical issues is drive. If you want to write badly enough, you will find a way to work out the logistics.

First, reread the section on "Discipline" in Chapter 3. Then find a time management process that works for you. You might want to try this approach, which I learned my freshman year:

Make a chart of every waking hour in your week. It should look something like this:

Time ----- Mon. -- Tues. -- Wed. -- Thurs. -- Fri. -- Sat. -- Sun.
6 a.m.
7 a.m.
8 a.m.
9 a.m.
10 a.m.
11 a.m.
12 p.m.
1 p.m.
2 p.m.
3 p.m.
4 p.m.
5 p.m.
6 p.m.
7 p.m.
8 p.m.
9 p.m.
10 p.m.
11 p.m.
12 a.m.

Don't just do this in your head; put the chart in black and white in front of you. And don't fuss because your day begins at 6 p.m. instead of 6 a.m. Just put all your waking hours into this visual form, whatever your rising hour might be.

Next, blacken the times when you have responsibility for other matters, such as work, child care, school, worship.

Then look at the remaining space, the "free" time when you can possibly write. Obviously, the fewer obligations you have, the more space you will retain, but even with many obligations, you can almost always find a spare hour here or there.

The next step is to commit yourself to a certain number of writing hours per week. I ask apprentice writers to commit to a minimum of seven. Even young mothers with children and careers can usually do this. Perhaps when they examine their charts, they see a free hour every night after the baby is asleep. More likely, they see that three times a week, they can find two and a quarter hours, or twice a week, three and a half. I've worked with someone who could fit her hours in only if she rose at four and wrote until six. Since this was grueling, the seven hour requirement made the chore less onerous, since it meant that she rose before the birds only every other day. I've also worked with people whose business trips eliminated the possibility of sticking to the same seven hours each week. They simply made a new chart every Monday, figuring it out fresh each time.

Juggle it around until you can fit in your seven hours.

When you can manage more, you win the gold star. The ideal amount of writing time is three or four hours a day. Start with seven hours a week and then, down the road, try ten. If you can do that, go up to fourteen. Eventually, see if you can get to an hour count somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-eight.

Yes, this time does add up. Any amount of time adds up. It is said that in the Seventeenth Century, French Chancellor D'Aguesseau, whose wife arrived ten minutes late for dinner every evening, used that time to write. After a year, he had written a book, which then became a best-seller.

You may not write a best-seller with ten-minute writing sessions. But I guarantee you that if you consistently put in seven-hour weeks, you will make tremendous progress with your work. To ensure that you stay on track, keep a log of your hours. (Refer to "Process Journal" in Chapter 6.) Be honest. And include how you felt during each session. This will help you to know yourself better as you learn how to reconceive your options with time.

It sounds elementary, and it is. But it works.

What if, however, you have trouble fitting in your full seven hours? Or what if you want to wedge in more hours a week but can't figure out how? This is where attitude comes in.

For each obligation in your chart, ask yourself if you absolutely must do it. Yes, you need to attend classes and jobs, but must you go to every PTA meeting? Could you watch less TV? Are you required to eat lunch all the time with your coworkers?

Some writers skip their favorite activities for awhile. Or they recognize that, though they love Tuesday dinners with their friend Margaret, or the daily Times crossword puzzle, they love writing more, and so reduce the frequency of those other pleasures.

Examine every obligation and ask yourself if it's as important to you as writing. If it's the same — or if it's truly an obligation and not a desire — try to decrease the time you put in. For instance, weeknight hours can be saved if you prepare your lunches on Sunday. Lifetimes are won if dishes pile up a few times a week. As for meetings — go late, or leave early.

Trim everything you can.

Think about how you get around physically. In the car, we can write only at stop lights and in traffic jams. But on trains, buses, and planes, we can write throughout the trip. Since a lot of our time is spent in transit, see if you can take public transportation more often so you can create an opportunity to write. Or see if you can carpool and write in the back seat.

However, writing during transit works only if you resist talking with fellow passengers. This can be trying since many people look to others for entertainment during their journeys. I've sat beside strangers who, when they couldn't ensnare me in chitchat, spent the entire six-hour train ride staring into space. I find it foolish to squander such time, but that's their choice. Unless they're your own kids, other people's recreation is none of your business. (This includes carpools.) If a talk-famished person sits near you when you've planned on writing, just write. Most people will leave you alone. If they don't, simply keep your eyes on the paper and say, "I can't talk. I have work to do." Say it until they give up.

Also, recognize that when you feel coerced by other people's expectations, you're probably oppressing yourself more than they. One of my students, a woman with grown children, planned to write during a long plane ride. Assigned to an empty row, she boarded in anticipation of writing bliss. But just as the plane was about to take off, two last-minute passengers got on: a young mother and her infant. They were seated beside my student, and my student instantly became unglued: the young mother would want help, of course. She'd want strangers tickling junior's chin and offering to fetch the flight attendant and who knows what else. My student seethed over these demands — but still pulled out her laptop and did her work. When she told me this story, I asked if the young mother had actually made any requests. No. Had she seemed in need of help? No. Had she made a single gesture in your direction? No. So why had my student lavished so much energy on this imaginary conflict? Because she'd projected her own feelings from when she was a young mother. Those feelings were hers, not the woman's beside her. In the end, my student did the right thing, but she needn't have endured such agony to do it. The only interference came from her.

Remember boundaries: where your feelings stop and someone else's start. They are separate. You may need to tell yourself this consciously, over and over. Maintaining boundaries is a terribly important part of taking care of yourself as a writer. (Refer to "Boundaries," Chapter 3.)

See if other people in your life can help. You may well lack time because you do for others what they can do for themselves. This is often true of women, especially those in families. With housework on the left, a job on the right, and kids in between, most women can't see any time, let alone seven hours a week.

But they could — if others in the household helped. This might mean that a couch potato husband must wash the dishes three times a week, or that children take care of their own laundry.

Such requests are not easy to make of one's family, who are accustomed to the status quo. Kids refuse to clean the tub. Spouses won't empty the trash. Moms are expected to do all.

Though you may not realize it, you may have contributed to this situation by your attitude. Many of us believe that others' needs are greater than our own, and that this applies every moment. We never give ourselves the attention we give our spouses or children or friends, forgetting where our own feelings start because we never let others' feelings stop; we feel their blues and their highs to such an extent that we let them wash away our own feelings. (The psychological term for this is codependence, which means valuing other people's feelings more than our own to the point where our sense of worth comes only through others, and we look to others to define us.) The result of this behavior is that others see us as need-free. It becomes as inconceivable to them that we could have needs as it is to us that we might verbalize those needs.

If you need assistance from your family, sit them down, individually or as a group, and tell them you have new needs now. Then state what you need and how they can help, offering to teach. "Lucy, I need you to cook on Monday nights. This is my tuna recipe." "James, I want you to take the bus to your drum lessons. Let's see how to read the schedule together." Try this a week or two, and if it doesn't work, come up with some other solution. "Here's money to get a pizza." "Here's money to take a taxi." Again, if this doesn't work, try a different approach. Your options are only as limited as your creativity.

If you feel uncomfortable making these requests, then examine why. Are you nervous they won't like you? Do you believe they can't take care of themselves? Have you always had trouble communicating your needs? Try to find the cause, and then either reread the relevant sections in this book or go to a store to find books that address it. Maybe you feel you're not assertive enough. Then go to the Self-Help or Psychology sections of your bookstore and leaf through the books on assertiveness. Maybe you feel you won't be able to control their diet. Then you might benefit from reading books on letting go.

Maybe, however, you can't make requests because your family truly needs assistance — you have a spouse with an illness, or you have an active toddler and no spouse. If so, get help. Pay someone to take over while you write, or see if a community group can provide respite care. Call social service agencies to see what they offer. Write while the family member is asleep, even if all you write are haikus.

If all else fails, sneak in a few minutes a day to write about your frustration in a journal. When the frustration gets acute enough, you'll probably find yourself with a turbo-charged resolve to make some changes. Then you'll cram in those hours one way or another, because then you'll so desperately want to.

Accept that sometimes, it hurts. A writer working on her first novel, a mystery set in North Carolina, is constantly steeped in rage. She quit her job to write full-time while her husband supported her, but soon thereafter, her husband injured himself on his own job. Though not debilitating, the resulting impairment forced him into early retirement. So instead of having her days alone, the writer suddenly had a spouse around who didn't know what to do with himself. She moved her desk to the attic for privacy, yet every day her husband found some reason to come up. "I made tea. Let's drink it under the willow." Or, "I'm going to the store. Will you come for company?" The writer would steam over the intrusion — but she would get up and comply, every time! So she got no writing done, and found a lot more gray in her hair.

As Ann Landers says, "No one can take advantage of you without your permission." You have the option of telling people, "Not until I'm done at five." Or, "I can't go shopping now." Or even, "I won't answer your knock when I'm writing. I can't."

The writer knew all this, but couldn't bring herself to implement it, because, "then I'll look selfish." Her friends pointed out that her husband's behavior was selfish. "That doesn't matter. It still makes me feel bad." Her therapist explained that she and her husband are separate beings. Her time is her time; his is his. If he can't find a way to occupy himself during her writing hours, that's not her fault or responsibility. "I know," she told her therapist. "But it still feels bad."

This brings us to the real hard part: sometimes it feels bad. We might know that we're doing the right thing by saying no to someone we love, but we feel like jerks for doing it.

There is only one way to push yourself through this. Accept that you feel bad, but press on. Tell yourself — a thousand times a day, if necessary — that your time is your time, and your desire to write is important. Tell yourself that you do not blend into anyone else and that, while they might treat you as extensions of themselves, you do not have to go along with that. Reread the sections in Chapter 3 on boundaries and commitment. Retrain how you think about yourself. After all, your self-image is shifting from non-writer to writer. So it's not that great a leap for it to change in other ways as well.

The writer has still not completed her mystery, but she has acquired an ulcer.

Recognize that, if you can't make time now, you have two choices. Either you do not have a strong enough yearning to be a writer, or this is not the time for you to write. If it's the former, put this book down now and get on with your life. If it's the latter, do any extra-writing activities you can: read books, befriend writers, attend readings, and, most importantly, write letters or keep a journal. It's helpful just to be in a state where you dream onto the page; then, when your life gets less hectic, your writing muscles will be in fairly good shape.

If, however, you feel for years that this is not the time to write, ask yourself if that is really true, or if you are using it as an excuse for writer's block, insecurity, laziness, etc. Then refer to those sections in this book.

Finding Where To Write

I once read a fascinating study on romance novelists. It said that most romance authors are homemakers who come to writing from a background of Band-Aids and bouillon and a pure love of romance novels. When they begin to write, their families, so used to seeing them as "Just Mom," chuckle at the absurdity of her needing any private space. So most of the romance writers in this study penned their first novel on pads they carried around in their aprons. Passionate kisses in moonlit gardens were scribbled in the kitchen as gravy simmered on the stove; heartbreaking confessions in sumptuous restaurants were jotted down in the bathroom as the kids splashed in the tub; effusive proposals on galloping stallions were scrawled at the table as the family ate dinner. Not until these women published their first novel did they gain their family's respect — and hence "win" their own privacy: a countertop, or maybe a desk.

The study presented me with stories of unshrinking determination. These women wanted to write their book, and write it they would, despite having no place of their own.

Not all writers need to improvise so dramatically. Some are lucky enough to have a desk or even a private room. When I was a teenager trying my first novel, I worked out a system. I washed my hair every night, because then I could sit in the kitchen beneath my mother's salon-style hair dryer, the kind with the big heated head-bowl. It took half an hour to dry my hair, so every night I had that time to write. Since I couldn't hear anyone, no one could bother me. I wrote a whole novel this way.

To be honest, I didn't have to sit under the dryer to get privacy. I had my own room, so theoretically I could have written there. But I had learned that my writing space had to pass two requirements: absolute quiet, which I couldn't get in a room so close to my sister's Three Dog Night albums; and dedicated purpose, which I couldn't get in a room that served as my study hall, and a hangout for my friends. Under the hair dryer, I had utter silence, and a location where all I did was write. These two requirements still determine my work space. Some years ago I moved out of a noisy city so I could find a quiet house in the suburbs. Then, I angled my desk so I split the room in two — the writing part, and the dress/sleep/socialize part.

If you try different ways of handling space, you'll eventually learn what's right for you. A friend of mine needs noise to write, so she works in cafes. A widely published essayist keeps a bed in his office, because he likes to write lying down. Benjamin Franklin is said to have done much of his writing in his bathtub. John Cheever is well-known for making a daily ritual of descending the elevator of his apartment building to a windowless room in the basement, where he then hung up his jacket and did his writing. A graduate of a prestigious M.F.A. program wrote a good chunk of his masters thesis at two in the morning while scrunched up in the phone booth at the end of his dormitory hallway. In college, I found I did calculus best in the Pizza Hut, anthropology best in the geology study, and everything else best in the basement of the library, which the gabby masses avoided because of the absence of windows and the abundance of boxes. I also learned that, while I had to write my first drafts away from my room, I could easily type and revise them when I returned.

Be creative. Experiment to discover what works for you.

Here are a few tips I have learned:

Public Spaces — Free

- Libraries

I live in libraries when I'm writing first drafts. Except to eat and answer the call of nature, I can sit for days. But by "library," I don't just mean the local public variety (newer public libraries are generally one large room — one large noisy room where sound travels well). I also mean nearby college, law, and medical school libraries, which often allow outsiders to use carrels. Call the Circulation Department and ask about the policy. Also, I use private libraries. These are sometimes affiliated with museums; historical, philosophical, and ethical societies; architectural collections; and professional schools. Some ask for an entrance fee, some require an annual membership. You can find these by looking through the American Library Directory, which lists every library in the U.S., including hours. Also, see Lee Ash & William G. Miller's Subject Collections, which arranges all U.S. public, private, and government libraries in terms of subject collections. Both of these resources are available at most public libraries.

- Your office

Some employers do not want employees on the premises off-hours. Others are accommodating. (Sometimes saying you're doing homework, rather than writing, wins you the permission you require.) A word of caution: if you work on a company computer, save your work on a disk that you keep at home.

- Bookstores

Many large bookstores have both random seating and espresso bars. In either you can write for hours without staff intrusion. The disadvantage to bookstores is that, like the next three categories, they usually pipe in music.

- Hotel Lobbies

Most hotels leave you alone if you sit quietly. I don't use them on a daily basis, but if I have time between appointments, hotel lobbies are almost as nice as a library.

- Train & Bus Stations

Good people-watching. Usually heated and air-conditioned.

- Shopping Malls

Often, you can find an empty seat in the public areas.

- Parks

Useful only in nice weather, though some have indoor spaces.

Public Spaces — Some Charge

- Cafes & Coffee shops

Great for atmosphere, and most provide free refills.

- Restaurants/Diners

One year I did all my writing at a diner near my job. I took a late lunch at 3:00 p.m., sat out of the way, ordered a roll and coffee, and wrote. Because that is a dead time for waiters, the staff left me alone without getting grumpy.

- Trains & Buses

A teacher of mine bought writing space by paying her bus fare, then riding to the far end of the line and back. Some transit systems demand additional fare; others don't.

Private Spaces

- Your own apartment/house

This works only if you can concentrate there. Possible complications are that you lack room; your family refuses to cooperate; you can't find any place where you feel comfortable.

If you lack room, consider using one of the public spaces listed above, or seeing if anything can be rearranged in your home. Do you need the sewing machine out all the time or just when you sew? Or use the furniture differently. If the desk is covered with bills, use the dining room table, or washing machine. Be creative.

If your family won't cooperate — barges into your room, plays loud music, monopolizes the computer — again, move to a public space, or experiment. If doors don't keep them out, try a lock, or a shopper's cardboard clock: "Don't interrupt until 10:00." If they blast the stereo, trade two hours of silence for a ride to the mall, or tune your radio to a spot between stations where you hear nothing but a white noise hiss, or wear ear plugs. If they won't share the computer, pay them for the time, or rent your own computer. Keep your boundaries clear, and try everything.

If, though, after all this, you still don't feel comfortable in your own home, you have two options. One is — yes, again — go to a public space. The other is to examine why you are blocked. See Chapter 8 for more insight on this.

- Other people's houses

During the summers, a novelist I know house-sits for a friend. Though the friend is indeed out of town at that time, she doesn't need a housesitter, nor does the novelist need a place to live. But he does need a study away from home, as he has small children at home. So, during the summers, Daddy has a job: he packs his lunch, commutes by rail to "housesit," writes all day, and at 5:00 p.m. he heads home.

Sometimes friends or relatives can provide similar assistance. Maybe they work days and you don't, so you can use their place then. Or they travel on weekends, or have a spare bedroom in which you can work any time. However you arrange things, when others are involved, it is important to keep them happy. Offer money, or barter for cleaning/ cooking services. You might also want to suggest that you put the agreement in writing. Then they can be sure that you would make good if anything should happen to their property.

Finding An Acceptable Balance

Between Writing And Extra-Writing Activities

Forget all these time and place logistics. You've got them worked out. Indeed, you are so on your way that you have immersed yourself in the writing world. You attend readings and participate in a writing group. And lately you've discovered a whole wealth of extra-writing activities — activities you can't bring yourself to say no to: writing reviews, tutoring for a literacy program, reading for a magazine, editing an anthology —

And suddenly you see that you don't have a moment to write.

This squashing out of writing by extra-writing activities happens when our excitement for the latter overtakes our enthusiasm for the former. After all, it's rewarding to feel part of a community, to nurture writers, to feel valuable. It seems much more stimulating than other social interactions, and is certainly more fun than flailing through our own literary logjams. And behind-the-scenes activities can make us feel like writers — even when they keep us from getting any writing done.

Few writers avoid this pickle. It's almost inevitable; writing is so solitary that, ultimately, everyone who does it tries to find others of like mind. This leads to groups, classes, organizations, meetings, conferences; to finding gratification in extra-writing deeds. At some point or another, almost every writer gets sucked into doing too many of them, or too much of one, at the expense of his or her own writing.

Sometimes we are able to maintain a comfortable balance. Maybe we were happily writing three hours a day, and then, to broaden our literary windshield, we volunteered to teach writing in the state prison, edit a newsletter for our food co-op, judge a library poetry contest. The balance seems acceptable if we can keep up our three hours a day with ease, or if we reduce our writing time but find we are writing much better.

Sometimes, however, the balance becomes unacceptable. A friend of mine, while struggling to finish a collection of stories, started a reading series. In between my first two books, I critiqued any manuscript that friends and fans sent me, which was a considerable amount. My friend and I both plunged into our new responsibilities with gusto, delighted to be of service to other writers in need. In time, however, we saw that we couldn't get our work done. With its PR duties and continuous quests for original voices, the reading series yanked my friend up from her desk whenever she sat down. As for me, I found myself with stacks of novels spilling like oil slicks across my days. My friend and I grew surly and snappy, blocked and impatient, resentful and self-loathing — all because we neglected to balance our writing and our extra-writing. That is, we forgot that we had the power to tell ourselves no.

Often, the inability to say no to ourselves is another version of the inability to say no to others. Part of why I kept reading those manuscripts was that people asked me to — you could even say expected me to. I told myself it was good for me, but in truth, it was usually good for them and a pain in the ass for me. My friend with the reading series told herself that it was as important to help other writers as it was to write. But in truth, she was giving others more importance than herself.

To say no to yourself, first discern if you need to say no to others. (See sections on "Boundaries" in Chapter 3, and "Finding Time to Write" in this chapter.)

Next, recognize that the process of saying no to yourself breaks down into two developments: you have to not-want whatever you are refusing, and you have to implement that not-want.

How do you decide if you should want or not-want? I don't feel, as you might assume, that writing should always take priority. As Ecclesiastes says: to every thing there is a season. At certain times, we're more able to feed our souls if we're writing. At other times, we benefit more from being out in the world.

When I look back to the time of the torrent of manuscripts, I know that, while part of my problem was that I couldn't say no to others, the other part was that I was despondent. My romantic life was ailing; my book sales hadn't met my most meager expectations; I hated where I lived. I needed a break from being with my work, since all I did while at work was sulk. My friend began her writing series at a less vulnerable time, but she was trying to come up with new stories, and her head had come to feel opaque whenever she'd faced a blank page.

Sometimes, when our personal lives are getting shaken up — we're acquiring a new love, we're suffering from lost love, we're recovering from the joys and disappointments of grad school, we're recovering from the joys and disappointments of publication, we're giving birth to our children, we're comforting someone who's ill or dying — we find we cannot keep our writing concentration. When that happens, we might need to tip the scales in favor of being away from the desk and instead being completely immersed in our lives. We might even feel we have no choice.

Similar measures might also be called for when our creative imaginations seem to be growing rickety and predictable — that is, when we can't come up with ideas which are any different from those we've already written, let alone ideas which are more developed. This sometimes occurs when we have written a story which was so well received by our friends and/or the public that we cannot see past the successful plot, structure, style, etc. It blocks our vision, and clogs our process. We collapse when we try to move beyond it, fearful of taking a risk. (See "Writing — The Tough Stuff," in Chapter 10.) Again, we might find that we need to take a break from writing.

In both these cases — major life transitions, and writing after a success has stamped an imprint on us — we probably want to maintain some connection to our love of writing, but want to do so without actually producing. So we invite our new lover to accompany us to literary readings instead of asking her to sit beside our computer while we write, or we accept an editing job while our newborn sleeps in his crib instead of trying to cozy up to our own revisions. Almost by definition, we then get into an imbalance between writing and extra-writing. But it is not a harmful imbalance; this imbalance, coming out of necessity as it does, is temporarily acceptable.

Unacceptable balances are the trouble. They occur when we have regained our concentration, or re-galvanized our imaginations, but find we now have all these new extra-writing obligations and no longer wish to fulfill them. Eventually my depression subsided, but by then I was drowning in my self-inflicted slush pile. My friend's reading series sent her ideas soaring, but enmeshed her free hours so thoroughly that she could not weave those ideas into words.

However we first introduce extra-writing activities into our lives, balance is rarely a problem at first. If it becomes unacceptable at all, that occurs over time, the result of our own growth and/or the demands on us increasing.

My friend and I went through months of frustration before we realized we needed to make a change. By then our new commitments were deeply etched into our lives. We were lucky, though: we recognized that in writing, as in most of life, it is rarely "too late" to change something that has ceased to work well for us; it is only our own fears and codependent tendencies which prevent us from taking the necessary, positive steps.

So how did my friend and I remedy our respective tilts?

First, we re-established our sense of boundaries, which we both learned about through a combination of therapy and trial and error. Second, we bribed ourselves. My friend cut the chains of the reading series by finding and splitting the duties with a partner — and then working only during the summer, when her writing gets sluggish anyway. (The bribe: the relief of no more guilt over not writing during her most difficult time of the year.) I thinned the pile of manuscripts by giving myself the rule that I would no longer look at work unless it belonged to a close writing friend — or, if from strangers, I charged money. (The bribe: actual moolah which then paid my rent.)

If you find yourself suffering from an unacceptable balance between writing and extra-writing (or other social) activities, ask yourself the basic question of whether you really want to write. If the answer is yes, then trace the history of your actions. How long have they felt unbalanced? How did this start? How have you grown since then? Have the duties multiplied? Do you still need the therapeutic effects of the extra-writing activities? Then go through the process I discussed above and juggle, bribe, cut back, or cut loose.

But let's say that, when you ask yourself if you really want to write, you answer "Sort of," and admit that you generally prefer extra-writing activities to writing. If so, then relish your position. The world needs organizers, editors, tutors, and all kinds of extra-writer characters. They need just as much skill and tenacity as writers, and are just as essential for the survival of literature.

So when you are feeling stuck in an unacceptable balance, ask yourself which side of the see-saw you feel yourself to be on. If it's writer, then unload the necessary pounds from the other side. If it's extra-writer, then don't worry about the horizontal; a crazy angle will do just fine.

Because the goal isn't fame, or wealth, or realized dreams. The goal is learning who you are, and adjusting the balance so you can let that self be.

Finding Money

You love writing so much that your fingers feel incomplete when away from the keyboard. Every minute you dream of new sentences. Time is words; words are your life. You wish you could hoard time, buy time — own time — so you could scribble up and down and across it as much as you goddamn pleased.

But you can't; you've got no trust fund or benefactor. It's the greatest tragedy of fate that you've got to work to eat. You hope that you sell a book for six figures, but you also recognize that most first books of fiction get advances of $10,000 or less. So how are you going to fill your plate on a regular basis and still get in your time for writing?

Writers have agonized over this for centuries. In our time, a minuscule number of authors lives in affluence, but the huge majority of writers earns almost nothing from their craft. (A recent survey by the Princeton Survey Research Associates on behalf of the Author's League Fund found that fiction, nonfiction, and drama authors earned a median income of $3,058 per year, based on an average of twenty-six hours of writing a week.) In my own writing career, I've had years when I fell into pots of gold, and years when I earned less than $3,500 (and one year less than $600!). For a long time I managed to live on this, but I had no mortgage, no children, no savings, no vacations, no car, no new shoes, no orchestra tickets, no sprees or splurges, no retirement fund.

Living on money earned from writing means living for the short run. You cannot make comfortable, long-term financial plans if you obtain your money exclusively from writing.

"Wait," you say. "I just read about some young author who got $500,000 for her first book!"

Fine, but first, notice that the advance was deemed worthy of reporting. That's because it's rare. Second, do your math. After her agent takes a cut (usually 15%), and the government takes its, the young author will have lost at least a third to a half of her advance — if not more. And, though a few hundred thousand dollars still sounds good, there are no guarantees that this success will repeat itself. The author might be unable to write again (writer's block, used up her material, etc.), or this book, despite its advance, might flop, possibly deterring an editor from offering such a generous advance in the future.

So unless you're writing something remarkably trendy, which nets a dazzling advance, and is well-hyped, and lightning strikes, you won't live prosperously on a writer's salary.

I still have trouble accepting this. But since I must eat, I have found ways to cope.

Most importantly, I write as much as I can, trying always to have manuscripts around for eager editors.

I write in as many forms as I can. I began my publishing career with short stories, then a novel. I am now working on a memoir and some personal essays. I have recently begun writing commentary for a city newspaper. And I have worked with movie producers on film treatments, television producers on scripts, and composers on musical adaptations of my work. This way, I keep as many doors open as possible.

I apply for grants. When I win them, they keep me going for six months or a year.

I live inexpensively. I buy clothes in thrift shops, cook rather than dine out, rent a room rather than an apartment, and barter whenever I can (I type my hair dresser's school papers and do my accountant's emergency filing).

In the past, when times got tight, I did temporary secretarial work. The pay is pretty good, and I always felt a great deal of respect from my employers because I could word process quickly and correct the grammar as I did so.

Now I teach private writing classes out of libraries, cafes, my dining room, friends' houses (waiving their tuition for the space), etc. The advantage to private teaching over institutional teaching is freedom: I decide when the class begins and ends, who to include, how to teach. Once, when I was teaching at a university, I realized halfway through the semester that I needed to turn the class of ten into ten tutorials. But I couldn't, since the students would then lack their credit hours. With my own classes, I can make any changes that the students and I agree are helpful. Plus, I don't have to give grades.

Sometimes I supplement my private teaching by teaching at universities. The advantage to this is that I don't have to scramble to find students — in fact, this is one of the main ways I hook up with students who later hire me for private teaching — and the salary is guaranteed. It is also fun to have colleagues around to whom I can turn for advice and camaraderie, and to have library facilities at my disposal.

But if you are thinking of pursuing full-time university teaching to support yourself as a writer, be aware that, although they are emotionally rewarding, creative writing positions are not particularly easy to find, even with teaching experience and publications. Also, know that most schools cut their costs by limiting new hires to adjunct teaching, which pays by the course (in community colleges and state schools, this usually seems to be between $1,500 and $2,500 per course, no benefits. Ivy League schools might pay closer to $4,000 or $5,000 per course.). Universities also stay within their budget by often limiting new teachers to one-year appointments, which, for you, the teacher, means an itinerant lifestyle. The upshot of all this is that, until you land in a full-time position, you may have less time to write than you would have expected, or less stability than you might require.

What about other kinds of day (or night) jobs?

Recently, I lucked into a great day job. I am the events coordinator at a large bookstore, which means that I seek out authors, musicians, artists, dancers, and knowledgeable speakers to appear in the store; publicize the events by sending material to and speaking with media people; and host the events, ensuring that the author, et al, has a good (and, god willing, financially rewarding) time. Many large bookstores in the country have this position, which is technically called the Community Relations Manager. I have found being a CRM extremely beneficial to my writing career, as it has allowed me to befriend many writers and people in publishing, to make solid connections with the media, to discover the in's and out's of book sales and marketing, and to acquire information about a slew of subjects I would not have otherwise known. (Just this last month, I learned about posture from a chiropractor, Old English dancing from a dance troupe, Vaclav Havel's plays from a theater company, Native American circle talks from a Cherokee chief, the world of chess from participants in a chess tournament, and what it's like to be an author from writers much further along in their careers than I.) In addition, since I host the events, and the events are mostly at night, I don't need to get to work until two or three o'clock in the afternoon, leaving my mornings free so I can write.

Other pay-the-rent day and night jobs which my friends have done include restaurant work, overnight shifts (copy centers, convenience stores, typing pools, security detail), emergency rooms (only for people with medical training), phone operation, proofreading, copy editing. Henry Miller dug graves. Carl Sandburg was a janitor. A marvelous young novelist named Susan Jedren used to drive a delivery truck for a baking goods company. Basically, if you have the training and/or are willing to work at hours or perform tasks which other people find undesirable, you can find employment which will allow you the time to write. With luck that can even occur while you are on the job: a friend monitors R.E.M. machines at a sleep lab, which means that for thirty-eight of his forty hours he can write; I certainly got a lot of writing done while I was temping, filling those hours between memos by typing mounds of new stories.

As with the other logistic issues, when it comes to earning money, you need to be creative and try different approaches. Keep your eyes open to possibility. Look at what your friends do and see if it might work for you. I wouldn't have even known about CRM work if I hadn't had a friend in that position. Make calls to learn more. Let people know you're interested in hearing their employment ideas. Network (see Chapter 9). Skim not just the classified ads in your paper, but the business section as well, because there you can read about a wide range of mavericks and entrepreneurs, gleaning inspiration and direction. And take risks. I am currently investigating the possibility of syndicating my commentaries, which would mean more money — and national exposure — for the same amount of time that I am already putting in. I don't know that I'll succeed, but it won't hurt me to try. I am also speaking with people I know at radio stations about running an interview program for writers, which would mean meeting more authors and learning more about publishing. Again, I don't know that I'll land such a show, but I might as well give it a try.

Writers are creators. As such, we can be as inventive with our ideas about income as we are with theme, narrative, or characterization. We can limit our writing to the page, or we can write both our writing and our lives.

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