Writers Need Time to Think!
*SPECIAL PREMIUM MEMBER POST*
One of the most difficult obstructions that writers face is the expectation that we always be doing something. We must stay in motion. Stopping to think is disfavored.
The vast majority of us have jobs, if not careers. Loves, if not families. Goals, if not pie-in-the-sky dreams. Yet, we feel guilty if we consider resting. What about that report that’s due tomorrow? Will we have enough time to help our child with their school assignment? How will I become the writer I wish to be if I never have to time write? To quote Cathy. “Aack!”
Much of our trouble comes from the way people see us. You see, writers are entertainers. But almost no one thinks of us that way. We don’t even think of us that way.
Pick a musician you really like. I don’t care if it’s the Weeknd or Yanni. Let’s pick someone that almost everyone is familiar with and someone most people like: the great Dolly Parton. We would all agree that Ms. Parton is an entertainer. She sings, wears amazing outfits, and obviously wants us to have a good time. No one would ever expect Dolly to show up at an office and stay there from 9 to 5. Pun intended.
Parton has made some of the greatest songs in music. Personal favorites include “Coat of Many Colors,” the aforementioned “9 to 5,” and “Jolene,” which I tried, unsuccessfully, to base a short story on as an undergrad.
Dolly wrote those brilliant songs herself. She sat down and put those words on a page and revised them. That’s writing. Still, I don’t imagine that she goes to a desk and stays there for eight hours. If anything, I imagine that she spends most of her time not writing. Much of her creativity likely came from not being made to punch a clock or cook someone’s dinner seven days a week.
People who write poems, stories, essays, and scripts are entertainers too. Our readers come to our work because they want to feel. They want to leave their mundane worries behind. They want a little diversion, a little distraction. Some catharsis with a dollop of insight. If we’re guided by the muse, then they may fall in love with our creations.
Yet, writers have to eat. We have to support our loved ones. So, we work hard. We do overtime. We work weekends. We raise the kids, care for elders, and support loved ones who have disabilities. Sometimes this becomes the entirety of our lives. We know there’s something inside of us that needs to get out, but we’re too busy doing to release the something.
If anything, writers are an extraordinarily hearty lot. That anyone is able to produce and publish anything at all is nearly miraculous. I always accepted that this was the way things are meant to be. Work hard to get my paycheck. Eek out a few pages of creativity late at night or during the daylight moments when my family was distracted.
As I’ve noted in the past, I was a corporate lawyer. My workweeks varied wildly from 40 hours a week to 80+ during trials. When I look back at my younger self, who wrote a still-unpublished novel, two unfinished novel manuscripts, and untold short stories during that period, I’m proud of that guy. He really wanted to write, despite the massive pressures of just trying to stay upright.
But I’ve had some experiences in recent years that made me understand that what I was doing was neither healthy nor heroic. I was pressed, which led to spikes in my anxiety and anger. I wasn’t near my best self for most of a decade because I was that stereotypical duck in the pond (unflappable upper body; webbed feet flapping manically under the water’s surface).
My first book, We Cast a Shadow, was published in 2019. I saw that time as a transition. Writing became my first priority, no longer a hobby. I declared myself as a writer.
The universe answered almost immediately. I was invited to apply for a teaching position at the university where I work now. It was a tenure-track position with a lower-than-average teaching load. It represented a significant reduction in the amount of time I would be expected to render unto Caesar the tax of my labor.
Later that same year, I was offered a residency in Mississippi. They wanted me to spend a year teaching the same low load. But I would have a villa at my disposal and even more time to focus on my writing.
To my surprise, although it shouldn’t have surprised me, my writing productivity has continuously gone up since I made the shift from practicing lawyer to being primarily a writer. I wrote a good bit in 2019 while on tour and teaching. In 2020 and 2021, I wrote the equivalent of three books or so. And in 2022, it’s possible that I may finish all three of them while kicking off two more books. It’s kind of crazy, to be honest.
I’m admitting to you that I was wrong before. I thought it was noble to be harried and putting my energy into 17 tasks at once every second of the day. But I’ve seen what my life can be like when I’m able to set certain obligations aside and just write for a while.
Indeed, the universe is being sweet again. I learned that I received a grant that will allow me to spend most of my time writing in the coming months. Usually, the grant covers a semester. For some reason, they gave me a year of coverage. I am thankful.
As an aside, I’ve also seen in academia where some graduate and post-graduate students are given teaching assistant positions with very heavy loads in exchange for a small amount of money. But time is money. A writer who spends a year teaching five classes in the fall and five more classes in the spring for $15,000 to $35,000 is not likely to finish their book project. If they spent that year writing a novel, for example, they might sign a publishing contract for $100,000. I’m no mathematician, but the latter sounds much more attractive if the dream is to be someone who writes things that people read and earn a living at the same time.
Now, the story is much more complicated that I stated above. A student who graduates with an English PhD may find a teaching job that pays quite well and is very stable over the long term. And the superstar who publishes a book with a nice advance has to contend with the advance being divided into three or more payments over years. And that writer may find themselves in the same position they thought they had escaped from. The system is complicated. But my original point still stands.
We generally agree that a writer needs a room of her own. But she also needs time. Space and time are the cosmic components that allow the writer’s gift to blossom. Without time, her carefully constructed writer’s nook in the spare bedroom or in the corner of the den will go unused. She will be too tired to make use of that laptop, or too scattered.
I decided a few years ago that my career is about producing words that other people read or, perhaps, watch played out by actors on stages and screens. I’ve experienced a few ups and downs. But I much prefer that I spend as much time as I can either writing or thinking about writing.
Your time is writing time. I spent an hour last spring lying on a chaise lounge as deer ran by in the field before me. That was writing. I spent a week watching obscure French films and anime. That was writing. I cooked new recipes and learned how to reliably shoot a basketball. (It really is all in the wrist.) That was all writing. And sometimes I wrote. That was thinking.
Because I had time, I played and thought and wrote. I’ll never forget that lesson. I hope it’s of some use to you.
PREMIUM MEMBER NOTE
: if you put your questions in the comments, I’ll answer them in the mailbag post. Thanks!