Thursday, January 7, 2010

Time and the Writer; Time and the Writing Project: Slicing the slices of the pie

"How much time do you spend writing?"

It seemed such an innocent question, posed by a well-meaning relative who had no idea the worms she'd just unleashed. Whenever I hear it I cringe because I always think it's a trick question. A non-writer usually wants to puzzle out if writing really is work at all, and if the question comes from another writer, I worry that whatever I say will be wrong.

But lately I've been asking it of myself, in a slightly different form:

How much time should I spend writing X vs. Y?

I've been wondering whether I’m spending the right amount of time on each part of my writing life (and this doesn't even include time spent teaching, editing, coaching or consulting). That is, am I apportioning the proper amounts of writing time to: personal essays and freelance articles for well-paying commercial media vs. memoir pieces and essays for (non- or low-paying) literary outlets vs. the memoir-in-progress manuscript vs. book reviews vs. paid blog posts vs. a nonfiction book proposal.….and more to the point, do I drop one or more of the above in order to focus more keenly on one of the others, or…well, you can see how this kind of ruminating can quickly lead to a desire to pitch it all for a job at Payless (no, not Starbucks even with their part-timer benefits; I love shoes, not coffee).

I'm not one for firm resolutions when it comes to creative endeavors, although I do try to set annual goals and projections in terms of income, education, growth. This year, I did make one resolution in terms of writing however, and that was to write more of what I truly want to write, especially (and maybe exactly) the things I'm often worried others will find off-putting, unusual, out-of-character. I want to shake things up a bit, not be so pleasing and acceptable and reliable on the page. Accomplishing that – overturning the nice, steady, not-at-all-provocative stance I gravitate towards, in favor of – what? – probably will take more time. Time taken from where?

I haven't got this figured out, of course, and I don't expect to have one of those neat epiphanies some writers experience, which transforms their writing life in one quick swoop, after which they know exactly how to dice up their time writing, and do.

I keep working through this daily and although I tend to glibly say, "Oh I just keep juggling!" what this really amounts to is that on many days what I prioritize is more intuitive than planned. But lately that sort of juggle/feel-my-way-through approach feels like shaky ground. I find myself wanting a more deliberate game plan (or should that be game clock?).

Mind you, I never miss deadlines and this isn't about discipline; I've been working at home for 19 years and can kick my own butt quite well; the question is kick it toward what? As an editor and writing coach, I'm skilled at outlining for others just what needs to be done and why. But note: …for others.

I'd love to know how different writers work out slicing up their writing pie. I don't mean how to fit in and prioritize writing within a fuller working life, but how, within the slice that already says "writing," do you make distinctions between which writing projects to push ahead with, and which to put aside for a while? Choose one major project (the book manuscript) and get it done above all else? Keep going on all fronts because the unpredictable economy suggests maintaining flexibility? Write what you love and hope everything else follows?

Readers, thoughts?


Mummy mania said...

oh goodness, I'm exhausted just reading your list of writing - and you;re not the only one i suspect to be mulling over this. my dilemma is more how i fit my writing around my full time childcare - but when i read your blog i also realise i also haggle with myself over what i write in the small amounts of time i have - paid articles to build up career when kids go to school, blog which keep me sane, my diary which is my life record and my therapy or my novel which is my life's dream and the hardest part to do. when you find the answers - please tell me!

drew said...

I'm facing the same question: how to bring harmony to my scattered writing/teaching/marketing life. I love it all, but how to balance & manage?

I, too, have been doing this for years (12!) and do not yet have firm answers. Recently, I read (in AWP's Writers Chronicle) an interview with Pam Houston who calls herself a 'bulimic' writer -- she writes in binges. I love that! It made me feel less guilty for my fits and starts.

Anonymous said...

Great to hear all your experiences! It seems like in this day and age it pays to be diversified as a writer, and many writers branch out to editing, speaking, blogging, etc. While it can be tough to organize it all - at least you know you don't have all your eggs in one basket :)

Middle-aged Diva said...

I so get this.

When I had to work either in corporate or as a consultant, plus do the teaching I love, writing was limited to my blog (the past 2 yrs) and a few essays here and there (the past 35 yrs). Most of them never submitted, just written for the love of it.

There just weren't enough hours in a day to do everything and supporting myself came first.

Now, though, I don't have to work. I am remarried, retired and as soon as my big move is over in Feb, I can start my memoir.

This was an unexpected gift, one of those things God drops down on you just to show off...

So to focus myself, I joined Jacqui Lofthouse's Completion Club and to kick start the process of writing a proposal, getting an agent, etc. am going to a writers' conference in San Francisco early Feb.

For me, it's going to be a challenge to not fill up what looks like vast empty spaces of time with junk that is meant to prepare me for writing, but might keep me from actually sitting down to do it.

This is an easy problem to have, since I spent 35 years of my work life not having enough time to write.

Bottom line: for writers, it's always something.

Re: divvying it up---I guess it all depends on the end point you have in mind. The goal. Where you want to be.

WriteonLiz said...

My book writing is inspired so I work in spurts. I get lost in my writing so I don't clock watch. I write for a magazine and when I'm on a deadline, I gather the information and think a long time before I write. Then I write the whole article, set it aside, and finish it later. Hours or a day.

I write columns and they are on no deadline so I write when an idea comes to me.

I spend more time mulling over ideas and thinking than I do actually writing. Ideas stir for a long time and then I write. This works for me!

When I was a reporter, I had weekly deadlines. It's a different mindset but I still spent a lot of my time thinking of lead ins and facts.

Sometimes I wish I could turn off my writing brain. But I love it too much to really want that.


2KoP said...

Well, my DH wants me to set one priority for my writing — make money. Thus the new Website. I am all over the map with my writing, but I think that's what I love most. Maybe I'll settle down into a few big projects and some client work, but right now I'm so energized with each new endeavor.

With my writing, the time question is always how much is enough? When is it good enough? When is it time to let the baby leave the nest? My editor brain wants to tweak and tweak and tweak. So, I'm working on that.