Chapter 38: I Have a Story. But I Don’t Have Time.
The writing life does not lend itself to work/life balance. Writers define themselves by what they do, and if they don’t they should, even if it means having to deal with people who say, “really, a writer. Have I ever read anything you’ve written?” You are writers. They are not. They envy you. Trust me.
Norman Mailer was once asked about the writing life and replied, “You can’t beat the hours.” I suppose this is what you get to say when your time away from writing is spent with a drink in one hand while the other hand balled into a fist waiting for someone to punch. It also suggests that Mailer was that rare writer who did not need a day job. There are, I think, maybe seven or eight writers who do not need day jobs and among them are people with familiar last names like King and Steele and Grisham.
All the rest of us need to make a living and that generally means that at a minimum, eight hours of your day is spent doing something other than writing what you want and, yes, need to write. Factor in time to commute -- less of an issue now with so much remote work, but still it does happen -- and time to eat and maybe breathe and even exercise and somehow at the end of the day what time you promised yourself to write is gone.
It is easier, of course, if you have an assignment with a contract that promises you payment upon acceptance, and at the very least a kill fee if what you’ve written doesn’t quite work. At least then you are answering to a higher power, an editor you dare not disappoint.
But what about the writing that has not been commissioned, writing that you want to do, a story you feel compelled to tell with no assurance that anyone will want to buy it? Fiction writers do this all the time, and do so with the understanding that rejection after rejection after rejection is part of the job.
There is so much standing between writers and writing: fear of failure, fear of not finding a home for your story; fear that you have nothing to show for the time spent reporting and writing. None of these fears are irrational. What does feel irrational is the mindset of those other writers you know who somehow find time at the end of their equally long and unfulfilling day jobs to report and write, and yes get published. You watch them and think that he or she is nuts and works all the time and is consumed with ambition and is a goddamn machine and maybe went to a better school than I did and so has all these connections with mentors and such and no one knows me and so it is so much harder to get noticed and it is just not fair. Okay, so you envy them, even as you think, why can’t I do that, too?
Maybe you can.
I did not say maybe you should. Should is the worst possible way to approach thinking about finding the time to write. Should implies obligations, like doing the dishes and calling your aunt on her birthday. Should carries with it a sense of joylessness, the task that must be fulfilled. You are not obligated to write. You are obligated to show up at work and earn a living and if that job does not offer professional and creative satisfaction, that is unfortunate but not uncommon. It is, as they say, why they call it work.
Writing is work, too, often excruciatingly hard work. Your day job may not be a daily existential test of your worth as a human being, but writing can feel that way. Yet we still do it. We want to do it. We need to do it. But when?
When I started work as a reporter at a small daily in New Jersey, I assumed that that work would answer all my professional needs. For a while it did. But the longer I did it, the longer I spent covering the suburbs there and later near Chicago, the less fulfilling work felt, and the more I found myself needing more. My days were long and I had interminable drives back and forth and by the end of the day I had little energy to do more.
As it happened, I was rooming with my brother who was then getting his doctorate at the University of Chicago. The demands on his time were brutal and because they were, because after our quick and starchy dinners he would retreat to his room to resume work on yet another paper on Marlowe or Ben Jonson or Shakespeare, I found it difficult to lounge in the living room watching “The Dukes of Hazzard” or “Three’s Company.”
My brother had always worked harder than I did, and had the grades and parental approval to show for it. I say this not as an act of self-criticism but rather because living with my brother was a gift beyond his terrific company: it provided me with what I believe every writer needs -- a neurotic fifth gear.
If he was working how could I not work? How would that look, and worse still, feel? I needn’t lay out all the dark and self-flagellating thoughts that followed, because I think you can well imagine. Suffice it to say that TV was not an option. In fact, there was only one option and that was work.
I did not make a deliberate decision to begin writing outside of work. A decision would have suggested a rational choice, and this was not, strictly speaking, rational. I was acting upon an irrational impulse. I was not going to be the less industrious brother anymore. There. Said it. Childhood was intruding on my adult life. Always does.
What we writers do is not rational. Just ask a lawyer or accountant. My accountant specializes in doing the taxes of creative people and I have long suspected she looks at her clients as charming, off-kilter souls who cannot add. The little dears. How could it be otherwise when every time we sit down to write we risk failure in so many ways. What we do feels akin to children coming home from kindergarten with yet another drawing of a cat or a house or a friend and eagerly await the moment when it gets added to all the other drawings on the fridge. Did you like it mom? Dad? Is it good?
So if the decision to embark on the writing life is in itself crazy, how better to motivate yourself when you are tired and worn out and trying to make time for a story with no promise of publication or payment than to find your neurotic fifth gear. Or perhaps re-discover it because chances are it was already there, badgering you, telling you that you should be writing because while you’re not, someone else -- someone you know and kind of hate for their relentless drive -- is doing so this very minute.
The neurotic fifth gear is a powerful and essential spur; because in the face of crippling irrationality a rational response seldom works. Irrationality is best fought with irrationality.
But here is the good part. Over time the neurotic, irrational drive abates. Having gotten you started, it recedes. It spurred you to start. Like a booster rocket it propelled you upwards before being jettisoned and falling away even as you surged forward. Once you have started the writing becomes like exercise: you need it, even crave it, and its absence makes you feel a little emptier, a little less yourself.
In time, you will find yourself needing to write. And when you do, the excuses for not doing so, the rational reasons not to -- failure, pay, time, balance in your life -- subside. And as that happens, the time spent thinking and fretting and agonizing about not writing is spent instead doing the work itself.
I will always be the kid who didn’t push himself in school. Boo hoo. I write because that is what I need to do. I wish I could tell you that this revelation will come to you as an epiphany. It won’t. Only later, after you have found ways to work your writing into your life, will it feel like the most natural thing in the world. But first, you have to let yourself go a little nuts.