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On Writing, Balance, and Blank Space

Most authors, me included, dream of the day when we can make writing our full-time job. I imagine it so often…being able to wake up, attend to my family and my critters, pour my second cup of coffee, and sit down at my desk to spend several hours spinning my stories, worldbuilding, editing…to write in the timeframes I want to write in, to set my own schedule and meet my deadlines with ease. What a life that would be!



T.J. holding a storyteller mug

 

Whether traditionally published, self-published, or independently published, however, this is not the case for most writers I know through my various groups and friendships. Most of us keep full-time jobs or are full-time students, many of us are parents, and all of us have a long list of responsibilities that maddeningly keep us away from the one thing we love and strive for most: our writing. I cannot count the number of times I have had to give up my writing time for other responsibilities–sometimes because of unscheduled catastrophes, which can come up no matter your situation, but oftentimes for the mind-numbingly mundane things of life. The papers that need grading, the plans that need making, the kitchen that needs cleaning, the room that needs unpacking…all of those things are just as likely to disrupt my writing schedule as, say, a pet that needs an emergency vet visit or a family member who needs my help.

 

When I published Messengers of Ilbeor and threw myself into the ring of published authors, I knew playtime was over. No longer could I set my writing aside if I just wasn’t feeling it. No longer could I indulge in months-long writing blocks where my story sat stagnant in the annals of my Scrivener binders. No longer could I afford to let anything and everything else come before my writing. In the months and years leading up to my debut publication, I read a lot of advice on writing, marketing, publication, and the like…and the advice was as varied as the people who were giving it. The one thing, though, that was common among all the authors, coaches, agents, and publishers out there in the great wide Internet was the admonition that the best thing you can do for your writing career is keep writing and publishing on a regular schedule. Thus, upon releasing my debut, I decided to publish twice a year: one novel, one novella.

 

The biggest question I now get from people I know is how I plan on doing that with everything else happening in my life…mothering, teaching, wifing, daughtering, etc. Throw a move into the ring and suddenly it seems like I am more of a professional juggler than anything else. The answer I give most often is very true, but also leaves out some of the most important parts of managing this while keeping my sanity intact. The answer, in short, is lists and Focus sessions. Every day has a list–scheduled things, daily tasks to keep life running smoothly, reminders, and goals. Each time I check something off the list, I feel a sense of accomplishment and know I am one step closer to successfully completing my day. For writing time, I use an app called Focus, which basically times me and gives me breaks on a set schedule. This app is invaluable, as it reminds me that my task at that time is writing, not anything else. When Focus is running, I am unavailable for anything other than a genuine emergency.

 

This is all fine and good, and the system is working by and large, but one thing I’m finding as I endeavor to write to schedule and meet my personal, professional, and writing goals on a daily basis is that I must take care of myself. Upon setting myself these processes and goals and forcing myself into the discipline I knew I would need to meet them, I foolishly thought I should schedule most moments of every day in the most efficient matter possible. Productive? Yes, absolutely, but I quickly found out I was burning myself out on all levels and not attending to my mental, physical, and emotional well-being with enough care.

 

And so we come to this crossroads: with a full teaching life, a full home life with my husband and daughter (and a move), and writing deadlines at the end of April and July, respectively, how do I make sure I’m still keeping myself well? This, friends, is the conundrum. First, I tried scheduling my personal care with the rest of my life. This didn’t work for the simple reason that making self-care just another “task” to do takes out a lot of the restorative nature from it, at least for me. Scheduling a bubble bath, for example, and giving it its own tick mark on my lists just put it in the process of life and rather than something pleasant and relaxing, it became just something to get done, something to check off.

 

For now, I combat that by simply leaving gaps in my lists and schedules, times when I don’t have to attend to anything in particular. Time to just sit and chat with my family. Time for coffee with my best friend. Time to read. Time to take a bath or drink a cup of tea, time to watch one of my old movies or even get out my Switch Lite and play some good ol’ Super Mario Bros. This has made a tremendous difference, because for me at least, having every minute scheduled and filled with tasks leaves me more stressed than anything else. I love the things I do…I love caring for my family and my home; I love my students and working with them, and of course, I love writing. But sometimes something’s got to give, and the pressure has to be released.

 

Since that realization, I have become much happier, much more fulfilled and, though it seemed counterintuitive at the time, much more productive. Balance in all things leads to greater fulfillment and the better pursuit of goals than single-minded determination, and though my schedules are still demanding and, at times, punishing, everything is much more manageable with “blank space” added in to take care of myself.

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