When you are in flow, writing is so satisfying and rewarding an experience that finding the right balance in your writing life may be the last thing on your mind. You simply write on. Yet, most writers have to make compromises with time. Even those lucky enough to spend each day writing for a living become embroiled with the necessities of life. It’s difficult, isn’t it, writing in the limited time most of us have available? You get hooked for hours, and everything goes into meltdown. Washing, cooking, shopping, feeding the fish, teasing the cat, having a shower, sleeping – these essential activities get in the way. How do we overcome this riddle? Life must go on, right? We can’t spend every waking-hour writing. How easy it is to get pigeonholed in front of our laptop or computer, oblivious to what’s going on around. But realistically, this can be harmful to our health, wealth and happiness. Those who have less satisfying but necessary day jobs know the frustration of work that diminishes creativity. Often, writers struggle to get back to the so-called real world, having spent hours alone in their imagination.
So, what’s the secret to balancing our ‘real’ lives with our writing lives?
Here are some simple tools that could help you along the road to becoming more balanced.
We all have stuff we need to do day-to-day. As a writer, it’s important to be able to sift through one’s priorities. How do you decide which activities take priority? Is there something you can let go? Do you need to attend that sizzling all night party? Walk the dog? Eat out? Go shopping? Of course. But you also need to decide which activities are nonnegotiable. Where might you have space for manoeuvre? Can you sacrifice your fave TV show? If you’re a parent, then yes, family will come first. Even so, there may be some wiggle room. Can you and your partner take turns making dinner? Putting the kids to bed? Doing housework?
Combining parenthood with writing is tricky. Ted Hughes famously wrote in the narrow hallway of the flat he shared with Sylvia Plath at 3 Chalcot Square in Primrose Hill. He and Plath had their first child, and he was busy adapting to fatherhood while composing his formidable lines in the midst of the hustle and bustle. But setting aside a mental space in which to write is paramount.
Writer Don DeLillo says, ‘A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.’
(Ain’t that the truth!)
Which of us always writes to schedule, or decides when and where to stop? Do some yoga? Take a run? Read some nourishing prose? We simply grab what time we have available and tap away! To more disciplined authors, this would suggest a marked imbalance. But each writer finds his or her rhythm. It’s perhaps best not to feel you must write in a particular pattern. Nevertheless, prioritising and scheduling your daily activities might address that problem of fitting writing in around the needs of your life.
Some people find that making lists help. Or do you think this is a tedious and unnecessary chore? Whichever, there is no denying the helpfulness of this approach. Benjamin Franklin wrote a very prescriptive outline of his day. Between the hours of 5am and 1am Franklin adhered to a set of activities that included – study, self-reflection, conversation, writing and dining. At the beginning of each day, he asked himself ‘what good will I do today?’ At the end of the day, he asked, ‘what good have I done today?’
It’s not necessary to be as strict as Franklin but listing is a habit worth exploring. Buy a diary or planner and start by listing the activities that are nonnegotiable, such as work, childcare, certain family or social duties. Then figure out what time you have left to write. Schedule accordingly.
We think of meditation as the practice whereby you train your mind to release all noisy content and find pure consciousness. Thoughtful intent is less rigorous but it may be just as helpful. Thoughtful intent can be as simple as contemplating a topic until you have absorbed that question fully. Or it may mean, stepping out into the garden to look at nature, saying a short prayer, visiting a park or just taking a stroll to free your mind of anxiety. The chances are that you become more relaxed and ready to tackle the writing problem, or the life problem, or the balance problem. By practising this simple art every day, you will find that you automatically begin adjusting your writing life around your needs and wants.
Lastly, a word from Ernest Hemingway, who often wrote standing up.
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you, and it is cool or cold, and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.