Writers on Writing: Writers and Time

Writer X is working slowly on an extremely good book. It’s extremely good partly because the writer is taking the care to research everything, and though that is no guarantee of a good book, other writers in X’s circle are in admiration of the excellence of structure and prose. X’s goal was to get a certain portion of the book to their agent by the end of winter, and felt especially driven because there are several fine books that kinda of relate to their project recently hitting the mainstream in a big way  (I say “they” to avoid gender, because this is not a gender issue, but a human issue, and though I know it’s grammatically wrong, Jane Austen did it). The is the beginning of the subject’s wave, and Writer X quite naturally would like to net a decent advance to buy some peace of mind for a time, as they are the stay-at-home parent in this particular family.

But Writer X’s dear spouse, and I say that without any sarcasm as they are a friend, too, has been fretting about the garage looking worn and tacky, and what will the neighbors think if it’s not repaired and repainted? Now, this is not as frivolous as it may seem—they lucked into a better neighborhood than they could normally have afforded, and all the surrounding houses are kept shipshape due to the owners being a few notches higher on the economic charts. Writer X’s spouse is therefore apprehensive of neighbors driving by said garage and murmuring and sending wry looks…and maybe even complaining to the homeowners’ association, which could net them a fine–or get them thrown out.

Writer X: if I can finish my project, my agent can maybe get a decent advance, and we can pay professionals to attend to the garage repairs.

Writer X’s spouse: When? When will that be? How much? You know I can’t do it, as I go in at seven five days a week, and come home at six, and weekends I try to spend with the kids.

Communication stops there because the implication lies so heavily between them: You’re the one home, therefore you’ve got the time.

Too often non-writers, even the ones who are closest to our hearts, simply cannot understand that writing takes time–just as work does. And we’re not even going to go into the agony of editorial and production and payment waits that bleed away our lives because that’s after manuscript leaves our hands. No, the subject here is making that manuscript in the first place. To non-writers, writing just does not seem to equate with work–it looks like we’re just sitting around, staring at the screen, or waggling a foot, or wandering around in a circle, occasionally diving for the chair and clattering out a sentence or two. That can’t be work! Therefore writing time is time that easily can be postponed for those important chores that must get done now, and “you can write when you’re done.”

This conflict can also exist inside of us, especially those of us who have dependents. We want to be with them, we have to see to their needs, we try to wrest time for family activities outside of the demands of the household . . . what we are trying to do, really, is live two lives. The writing life—the watcher at the window–and the life of a human in this world.

But that’s strategic thinking. Tactical thinking keeps our anxious eye on the clock, our anxious mind running at two a.m. against the inevitable short, sharp shocks that life deals out, that wrench time away from us. Sometimes forever. So, yeah, my rational mind extended due regard to Writer X’s spouse who worries about the neighbors, because that’s what people do. But my real sympathy lies squarely with Writer X, and I, too, would argue passionately (and probably equally futilely) that the garage can look weatherworn one more year, the front yard can wait to be redone, the bathroom floor can wait to be fixed, and the car to be washed, because I desperately need to finish this now.



Writers on Writing: Writers and Time — 28 Comments

  1. The flip side of this is that a writer always has excuses not to write. The garage, the laundry, the blog, the newspaper — a whole day passes doing these things, all necessary! And you haven’t written a word.

  2. The garage guilt is bad enough. What’s worse, though, is when the writer-at-home is also the one who provides ElderCare (80-year-olds shouting from the back room have interrupted more than one raging scene in Word documents), housework such as cooking/cleaning/laundry that can’t be neglected forever, and emergency services to another household (an elderly aunt who has occasional problems and a neighbor who has a baby but has no clue how to take care of it or cope with normal living). Consider also that this writer-at-home doesn’t have an agent, has nothing published by a “real” house, and is not thought of by the family as having any reason to be typing anything. You can’t really blame the family, as the writer has been at it for over twenty years now, and has had several opportunities that were seemingly snatched away from her at the last moment–so she’s obviously got no talent, is a hopeless loser, and is wasting her life with this delusional BS when she should be working on something REAL that would benefit the FAMILY and other people. It’s hideously selfish to spend time on stupid junk when you should be exercising, improving yourself, improving your home (garages included), doing something for others, cooking meals to be put into the freezer, and so forth.

    I’m not so sure that we need all these books or all these writers, anyway. Look at the stuffed shelves in every bookstore. Who scribbled all that? It would take forever to read just what’s already out there. Why scribble more?!

    These days, I don’t have a ready answer.

  3. Shalanna: I know, I’ve been there. The glass ceiling is different for everyone. Some writers sell the first thing they do, and money is enough justification for those who don’t burn with the fire. Others don’t break that ceiling until their fifties, or they sell tiny, like Patrick O’Brian, then something takes off at age 55 and even that was slow. Fame and fortune didn’t hit him until his late sixties.

    For the longest time, my only defense was, “But that’s who I am.” Not that it mattered a foof to anyone else, but it was important to me to say it, and to know it. I am a writer, and I write. And to believe with every cell in my body: one of these days, it will pay off. My job was to learn how to get that text to do for the reader what it did in my head. (And yep, that is still very much a learning process.)

  4. This works for me, as I don’t yet have a driver’s license nor any kids or a partner — this by no means indicates I lack family, as I live with 2 parents, 1.5 brothers (the half for the one who’s currently in military service) and then there’s the Asian extended family to boot.

    I just tell people I’m really tired and need to rest, or something along those lines. Or I say ‘oh, I’m going shopping’ and take my laptop with me — I’m known in my family for being unusually attached to my electronics so that works too.

    Sometimes I just say I’m reading — it’s often true as I am working on my novel at the same time as I’m commenting on blogs and things — and people will leave me alone.

    Having said all that, my version of protecting the work involves not telling anybody in my Real Life, so to speak, that I write. Which has other issues that are rapidly mounting.

  5. Emily: yes, I did that as a kid. If I said “I’m doing homework,” that was legitimate. Writing was not legitimate, it was weird and a waste of time that should be spent either helping around the house, or else going out and being social, because how else would I catch a husband?

  6. Sad to say, it sometimes makes a difference which gender(s) the writer and spouse are, too. It’s better than it used to be, but that issue is still there, too.

  7. Jean: yes, there is a lot of work still to be done. Yet when I read the posts of people like Charles Finlay and Jim Hines–both family men–I can see the younger generation of men struggling with these issues as well. And not just the younger, those they are rarer. Lawrence Watt-Evans has talked on his blog for years about being the main householder while his wife worked, and balancing writing and kidcare and housedreck.

    As far as household duties are concerned, I am convinced that what we all need is minions.

  8. For the first time I’m having this trouble with myself–my mother hasn’t been well, and I’ve been helping out more with the housekeeping. Something I’ve been meaning to do, since I’m mostly a leech.

    Sometimes, though, I have to remember, “WAIT, it is not more *proper* work to do her chores!”

    They’re both work. And maybe I should mention that when she’s out of bed and catching up on her work, I’m actually catching up on mine, by sitting at my desk and watching soccer while the gears go round on my manuscript.

    So her catch-up flurries don’t have to include my help, every time.

  9. Bethany: Time management with kids, they gradually become more self-sufficient and then fly the coop. With elders who have health issues, there can be the prospect of protracted and increasing care. This is a tough balancing act for anyone, not just writers. That soccer time might be the ‘defusing’ time your brain needs before you can dive back into that manuscript. At least, most writers I know can’t switch gears, like driving a car. It’s more like air locks, where one needs to take the time to get oxygen and air pressure to match before proceeding on.

  10. I’ve been in both the Writer X role and the Spouse role; I hate being in either position.

    It really is hard to figure out how to balance work and other stuff (imagining, for this discussion, that we’re considering writing as work–it’s not work for all people, but it is for Writer X), especially when work, as you say, seems to involve wandering around the study or staring into space. But even when work has all the trappings of Real Work(TM), like a dependable wage, set hours, and so on, it can still be a problem. Should a person try to get a few more hours at the supermarket? They’d help pay for the new clothes for the kids… but then s/he won’t be able to mow the lawn or help the kids with the homework.

    I think, with jobs that seem to the outer world less job-like, the first step is believing in them, yourself. If you believe in the importance of the job, and of the necessity that you do it, then you can begin to make other people believe it.

  11. Asakiyume: very true, though the hard disconnect can be when one believes in the job, but the others will not believe in it until it “proves its worth” by bringing in actual cash. This is the tough challenge faced by many who are trying to get a career started.

  12. Back when I had two kids, a full-time job, and a book under contract, my husband was the one who first suggested that I get out of the house with my laptop and away from the kids (and himself, but he didn’t say that) for a few hours a couple of hours a week. It was brilliant. But it was also in the days before we all had cellphones. These days, part of the trade-off of my not having a salaried job is that I am responsible for most of the household stuff, for getting the dog to the park, and for fielding calls from the girls. I do this by allowing myself three hours every morning to work at the library or coffee shop, before I return home to the dog, the house, and whatever chaos the world has planned for me (lately it’s been readying the younger girl’s duffles for summer camp).

    I still have to defend against mid-morning cell calls, however. I keep the phone with me in case of emergencies (“Hello? This is the Middle School. Your daughter just erupted into flames. Yes, blue flames. Do we have your permission to use the fire extinguisher? Thanks so much!”). My kids don’t seem to understand what “emergencies” means in this case. “Hi, Mama. Just wanted to say hello. Whatcha doin?” “WRITING” “Oh. Bye.”

    They mean well. But there are also the people who need just a little volunteer work on the part of a parent or local citizen, and since I’m not doing anything I can’t do some other time, could I maybe come in and spend three hours tomorrow morning stuffing envelopes? Those are the ones who drive me purely crazy.

  13. Oh dear God, do I ever recognize myself in this situation. Well, I don’t have the agent and my writing isn’t as stellar as Agent X’s–but yeah. Absolutely, to the rest of it. And with a killer Day Job on top of it all–teaching these days is absolutely not writer-friendly, and since I got my hours cut I’m fretting about the loss of that income to the household.


  14. My kids are the exact reverse. Fly far away, don’t return to the nest!
    But remember Roseanne Rosannadanna: It’s always something. If your kids are not impeding the muse, nor your parents, then it’s the dog, vomiting. Or brown pelicans needing shampoo in Louisiana. Or the water heater exploding, or the car throwing a camshaft, or the maddening machinations of [political party here]. At some point you just draw the line in the sand and say, “The hell with it all — I have books to write!”

  15. I think couples need to decide together what things in their lives get the priority, and then they both have to live with that. (Easy to say, difficult to do– I know.)

    I sympathize with the writer, naturally. On the other hand I wonder how much Writer X had a hand in the choice of house, saying “we can manage the house– after all, I’ll be at home”. I struggle with how often my husband takes more than his fair share of household tasks because I’m trying to balance being a writer on top of the day job on top of the house.

    But the main point is fair & good for everyone to remember: Writing takes time. Just like any other kind of work.

  16. All this talk about balancing family life with one’s writing career makes me very happy I’m single. But the downside of being single is that unless your writing takes off commercially, you’ve got to have some kind of day job. And when the time pressure hits, the day job takes precedence because it puts the roof over your head and the food on the table.

  17. Nancy Jane: I think that works for families larger than one as well; I know very few writers, whether single, partnered, or partnered with offspring, who can afford to just write.

  18. “Dad, I–”


    “. . . no.”


    ” . . . no.”


    ” . . . no.”


    This solves 90% of my writing interruptions.

  19. Steven: Some other writer once told me about her “Is there blood?” litmus test for the importance of interruptions. Though everyone in the room was cracking up, I noticed about half the writers there were nodding like dashboard dolls.

  20. My phrase is “Is your hair on fire?”

    Works pretty well. The thing that kills me is that they still keep interrupting. Once I remind them that I’m by-God WORKING, they generally make a noise like a hoop and roll away. But until that moment, still with the interriptions.

  21. The air lock metaphor makes a lot of sense.

    And yep about it being a challenge to justify the time, even to yourself. After a year where my writing had dried up to the point that even though I was spending butt-in-chair time, I wasn’t ending up with any stories to show for it, I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and that I should take a break. Six years of break later, I’m out of the habit, I still have trouble producing anything when I do sit down, and it’s hard to convince myself that it’s worth the trouble — I could spend that time knitting and actually end up with something to show for it instead.

    (And I *like* rereading the things I wrote ten years ago, even though they aren’t publishable. But I can’t convince my brain that “writing so I’ll have something fun to read five years from now” is a good enough reason to spend the time.)

  22. Castiron: some people’s refill needs are longer than others. Though every process is different, I wonder if your subconscious is waiting for an idea that just has to be rewritten. You can’t not write it. At which time you can get right back into the butt-in-chair habit.

  23. Time..

    Funny thing that.
    Time for work, time for play, time to while the time away.
    -Where to find the time for me? To write…
    –Write, why would you want to do that?
    -It makes me feel good.
    –Having a clean house makes you feel good.
    -No… that makes you feel good, I only do it so you’re not upset about it and mucking up my Chi.
    –So I’m not… harumph! Fine!
    -(crap, another night gone)

    So writing after they go to bed is tricky (who knows when they’ll fall asleep)
    Writing before they wake up is dicey as well, they’re toddlers who might sleep until noon or be up at dawn.
    Writing in the middle of the day? umm nope. can’t flip grilled cheese and type at the same time. Same goes for diapers, baths, cats, tying shoes, and any of the other million little things that fill up a regular day, oh and I can’t afford to not pay full attention to them at any point, or they’ll do something that costs money or time or both to fix. (commonly requiring medical attention as well).

    So why do I keep trying to do something that doesn’t earn me money, takes time away from the family, etc. etc?

    Two choices here for an answer, one is gratuitous (self-serving twaddle that I never believe in anyhow) and the other is

  24. Dan: is . . . .?

    Yeah, I can’t count how many writers I know who have those dark nights with the whispering voice, Why are you doing this?

    I finally had to make peace (or a demilitarized treaty) with the fact that I can’t not.

  25. Ahh, yes, I am always “stealing time” to write. I put the dinner on and then get 1/2 hr to write. The compromise is that the family cleans up so that I get more time to write. Having your partner and family support your writing is great if you can get it, but it is still really difficult for non-writers to understand that writing is an art and takes time. No-one would question the time it would take to finish a painting would they?

  26. Bangalow: Exactly. Part of the problem is that a painting, or a sculpture, or building a house, gives visible evidence. Writing is so very internal; even if you print it all out, especially when you are revising, it can look so small and insignificant for the time put in.

  27. “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” David McCullough, the biographer.