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Balancing life and writing
sometimes they just don't go together
I once went on a sunset sail. As part of the sail, the boat anchored in the middle of the ocean and we could jump off and go swimming, if we were so inclined. The water was an inviting aquamarine, so I jumped in, sans life jacket.
The moment I hit the water, the waves started carrying me farther away from the boat. Panic seized me. I started swimming frantically, but it felt like all I was doing was staying in place. I gulped some saltwater and paddled harder. When I gripped the ladder up to the boat, I was so relieved, but nobody on the boat even noticed. Everyone was completely unaware that I had almost been swept away. My mom said, “you looked so cool out there!” Apparently, she interpreted my swim for survival as my audition for Baywatch.
This is exactly how I felt for the month of February. Like if I stopped for even a moment, I would get carried away, never to be seen again. And that everyone watching me drown would be thinking, “Wow, look at Sophie. She’s doing great!”
The reality is that I was balancing classes, social activities, and a flurry of edits that consumed every spare hour of my days. Whenever I was home, I was on Word, crawling from page to page. I no longer had time to read or watch TV, which don’t sound very important, but I believe it’s important to have time when I’m not actively using my brain. I did manage to sleep 8 hours a night though, so that was a small win (though I function at 100% if I get 9).
Anyway, I shipped my second round of edits off a week ago, right before I went off the grid on a trip to Patagonia. At this point, I feel so close to the text that I’m unsure if I’m making my book better, but I trust that I am. And, obviously, my editor knows what she’s doing. There are probably going to be more edits after that, but I think my book is well on its way to becoming a real, live book that will soon be on shelves!
Today’s post is about juggling two different lives and how to make the time for writing, when it inevitably becomes the thing that makes sense to deprioritize. Right now, my regular life is one where success is defined by meeting a lot of people and being seen, and my other life as a writer, where I’m supposed to be holed up in my room and channeling all my creative juices towards a story that’s halfway decent. There are a lot of ways I can distribute my attention, and often, I find myself busy without much to show for it. That’s what I call the “productivity trap.”
The productivity trap is when I’m doing so many things that I begin to forget why I began to do them in the first place. I do things for the sake of staying busy. The moments of respite are so brief that I spend them squirming in guilt, worrying I’m wasting my time because I’m not actively working on something. This, I have learned, is terrible for creativity. The pursuit of productivity has sucked away the empty spaces that typically allow for boredom and creativity. It’s in those spaces that my thoughts stretch themselves out and fill with “What ifs” and wonder.
I need space to write, especially to draft. Editing is different; editing, I see as more of a job. I put myself in front of my laptop with words that are already on the page, and all I need to do is refine them. There isn’t as much unhindered creativity involved. As I move away from revisions for WOMEN OF GOOD FORTUNE and into the drafting for my next book, I’m beginning to plan for how to create that time for myself. I think some of the tactics I’m going to use will be applicable for anyone who is trying to finish something, whether it is the first draft or a revision. If there’s one thing that I believe is crucial to creating a book that you’re proud of, it’s the discipline to sit down and get it finished.
Take whatever time you can get, and don’t feel bad if life gets in the way: Writing is not meant to be our whole lives. At least, not unless we make enough money from it to justify turning it into a full-time career, but we can save the financials for a later discussion. So that means we inevitably have other life things we need to take care of. A job. Cooking meals. Spending time with a partner. Taking care of kids. There’ll always be tension between those responsibilities and writing, especially when writing is something that outsiders will regard as your fun little hobby. But if it’s fifteen minutes in the morning, thirty minutes using Google Docs on a morning commute, or an hour before the kids get home from school, take it. Recognize the opportunity and get the most that you can out of it instead of worrying about how little time you have.
No distractions (or put a time limit on your distractions): My secret for finishing WOMEN OF GOOD FORTUNE’s first draft in 2 months? Word sprints. They’re time intervals where you’re supposed to put your head down and just write. Then you reward yourself with a break, maybe highlight a snippet that you particularly liked, and go again. Every night for two months, I did 20-minute word sprints with my critique partner. Those 20 minutes were for focusing on my writing. Even if I didn’t know what came next, I was not allowed to tab out to Twitter or Instagram. I would make something up, knowing I’d come back to change it, and keep trucking. If I’m focused, I can typically write 400-500 words per sprint. In 2 hours, I could do around 4-5 sprints, so I usually racked up ~2k words each session. Those word sprints pushed me to keep going at the difficult parts and write things down even if I knew they were trash. They forced me to ignore the “is this good???” anxiety and continue, even if I knew I’d have to come back and fix things later.
Create a consistent schedule you can stick to: I’ve gotten carried away sometimes thinking that I can write thousands of words every night, and that I’ll be able to end a month with a finished draft. It’s good to have those goals, but unless I specifically lay out what it’ll take to achieve it, it won’t happen, and it will act more as a discouragement than a motivator if you fail to hit that goal. For example, if I want to write a full-fledged novel of ~80k words, and I want to complete that in 2 months, that breaks down into approximately 1.5k words per day. On a given day, I might write a little more or a little less, but that’s the north star that I move towards. Even if I deviate slightly, I know that by the end of those 2 months, I’ll have something close to a finished product. You can even say that you want to finish outlining in a week, or be halfway through a draft in a month. Once you have a schedule and commit to a certain consistency, you can almost trust that by the end of the designated time you’ve given yourself, you’ll have achieved your goal, or at least be incredibly close.
I think there’s a distinction between beating yourself up for not having the mental energy to devote to writing and making excuses because you don’t want to sit down and actually write. I am still doing my best to recognize these moments and not get too in my own head. What’s helped for me is not pressuring myself towards some big, lofty goal of a finished book, or a full-fledged query package, or something impossibly polished. Instead, I focus on what’s directly in front of me. Every extra 100 words or 10 minutes put towards thinking about the book? That will add up, and slowly but surely, you’ll get to where you need to be.
Something I wrote today:
“Leave that open for Vic,” Peng Ayi calls from much farther down the table, probably catching Rina’s question with her bat-like hearing. Harv is one seat down from her, consulting the extensive wine menu with a server, the chair between them ostensibly reserved for Lulu.
Rina groans quietly. Not him. Anyone but him.