Friday, September 7, 2012

The Busy or The Bored: Who Makes A Better Writer?

I started a new job this week. I'm the new head preschool teacher at a private preschool. I'll drop my kids off at their school on my way to work three days a week, and I'll beat them home by about 45 minutes. The other two days a week, I plan to write.

Ever since I interviewed for the job, I've had a nice daydream running through my head. In that daydream, the kids put their breakfast dishes in the dishwasher and wipe the counters before we leave for school, so I come home to a nice, neat house. I get the laundry done or start dinner, or something immensely useful before they get home. Because they sense the need to be more responsible, they will stop leaving all their junk in the bathrooms, living room and foyer, and the house will stay clean. Thursdays and Fridays will be entirely devoted to writing, so my writing output will increase dramatically. (As you can imagine, that was a huge selling point as I contemplated taking a job.)

Last year, I sent my son to school full time, and I was determined that I was going to stay home and write every single day. There are dozens of excuses why I didn't, and some of them sound very good on paper. The truth of the matter though, is that all those hours stretched before me like an overwhelmingly blank canvas. I felt responsible for:
 keeping the house clean, the laundry done, frugal gourmet meals on the table, bestsellers written AND marketed successfully, exercising accomplished when it wouldn't get in anyone else's way, service rendered, friendships nourished, lawns mowed, gardens planted AND weeded, blog posts posted, bills paid, checkbooks balanced, coupons clipped, groceries shopped... you get the picture
Self-motivation has never been my strong suit unfortunately, so what it turned into was a year of me mentally berating myself for not getting more done everyday, and a bit more than my fair share of television viewing. I wasn't any more productive than I had been when I had young kids at home, and it was a lot less fun.

Getting a job fixed all that. All those other responsibilities can be accomplished while the kids are home, so I won't feel so lonely. It will be an opportunity to teach them some much needed responsibility. Exercising WITH my kids is better than exercising alone. Having a finite number of hours dedicated to writing will ensure that I keep myself planted in this chair, right?

Those of you with jobs outside the home might be wondering how that's going for me...

Tuesday was my first day, and I don't remember anything about it. Wednesday found me panicking because I needed to leave work, and there was SO much left to do before the open house on Thursday night. I had to leave though, because there were orthodontist appointments, soccer, drama, and three different important church activities for three different kids with preparations necessary for all of them. By Thursday, my house was already a disaster, and I spent half the morning getting it back into some semblance of order and putting away laundry. I had a zillion things to do before the open house, but the kids had soccer, drama, scouts and a zillion things of their own. Sophomore homework has already reached a level on insanity I would have thought impossible a few short days ago, and my husband had to cover for me at Sports Night at the junior high while I was at the Open House. We all dropped into bed exhausted at 10:30, though I am proud that all of my children went to school clean today.

So, it's Friday. Definitely my first writing day, right? Yep. You can see it here, on my list of things to do:

1. Walk
2. Write this post.
3. Grocery shop
4. Go to the bread store
5. Write lesson plans for next week, and buy supplies
6. Finish shopping for son's birthday party
7. Clean the house for the party
8. Wrap presents
9. Bake cake
11. Pick up kids
12. Return phone calls I've put off all week
13. Call Ike!!!
14. Order *** from LL Bean and *** from amazon

I read this fascinating post  by Tim Kreider about how we Americans adore being busy and how we're wasting our lives on our to-do lists. I don't want to be one of those people. I want my children's lives to have lots of free time. I want lots of free time to be with them. This summer, every single idea I've had for the book I'm writing has come while I've been sitting on a boulder, staring out at the ripples on a lake, or at the blue moon, or at the sunset.

Boredom begets creativity. (See Sheena's post about this here.) On the other hand, I'm not the only one whose writing has suffered from having loads of time. Chris Baty (one of my writing heroes!) writes, 
"If you want to get something done, you should ask a busy person to do it. I've discovered this is acutely true when it comes to novel writing. Because here's the thing: However attractive the idea of a writer's retreat may sound, having all day to poke around on a novel actually hampers productivity." 
He goes on to talk about his experience with quitting his day job to write a novel. 
"This went awry almost immediately. With nothing to do all day but write, I found myself doing everything but writing. Essential errands were run. Laundry was done. The bathroom was cleaned. Less essential errands were run. The bathroom was re-cleaned. A complex rooftop Habitrail system designed to make tree-to-tree transitioning easier for the neighborhood squirrels was built and nearly installed before the county's animal services unit intervened. And so on...The experiment in nonstop writing was a total disaster. For me the moral of the story is this: A rough draft is best written in the steam-cooker of an already busy life. If you have a million things to do, adding item nummer 1,000,001 is not such a big deal. When, on the other hand, you have nothing to do, getting out of bed and washing yourself before 2:00 p.m. feels like too much work to even contemplate." (from No Plot: No Problem.)
Is there a way to have the best of both worlds? Busy enough to get things done, but empty enough to leave room for creativity and joy? What are your thoughts?


  1. I definitely agree. On the days when I have a lot of time, writing gets done--but I'm so slow to do it, and it takes me a lot longer to get it done. When I just have an hour in the morning, and I *have* to get 1,000 words written, I write quickly and efficiently almost every time. Once I had a book contract and a deadline to make, suddenly writing time became much more like work time, and I can't help but wonder now and then: if I'd always taken that attitude (writing is my work), would I have gotten published much sooner? Not sure . . .

    I enjoyed this post!

    1. Hi Bryce! It's nice to see you here. I've never had the added stress of a book contract, and I have no idea how I might handle it. I'm glad you are handling it well, especially because I'm excited for your next book! I notice that if I take things a chapter at a time, I can be incredibly prolific. It's when I look at the whole book that I freeze.

  2. Yeah, I'm with you too, Melanie. At the beginning of summer, I thought about how nice it'll be to be able to not have to drive the kids everywhere, and just stay home and write while the kids joyfully run through the sprinklers, and eat a Popsicle outside, but those pesky buggers kept saying that if I got to be inside they wanted to be inside too, and sprinklers and Popscicles inside aren't as much fun to clean up after as you might think.

    The fact is, there is always time for the things you make a point to do, and there is simply too much on our plates to pencil any time in for berating ourselves for not doing everything we imagine we should be doing.

    Life is about living, and who you are as a human being is more important than how many words you've put on screen. Just remember that writing is your dream, and you're allowed to put your needs on your own to do list.

    Great post!

    1. Sprinklers inside the house? This is a story I want to hear. Thanks Sheena!

  3. For me, it's the same. Way too many things to do and not enough hours in the day. The best way for me to get writing done is to schedule it. Oftentimes, the creative rush gives me energy to get other stuff. But not always. Hence, my garden is looking like it's been abandoned. :) Oh, well, there's always next spring.

    I'm hoping you find time to write.

    1. My garden looks the same way. Please don't remind me about next spring. My husband wishes he had married a gardener, but he didn't.

  4. I'm thinking it probably depends on the person. When I get really busy, my writing time suffers. But if I have too much time, I do waste it. Like everything else in life there is a perfect balance of being busy, but not too busy.

  5. I always wondered how I managed to write before I had kids. I worked two jobs and my free time was non-existent, but I always seemed to be writing something. After I read your post, I went to the shoebox where I keep my older stories and I realized everything dated from that time period is just notes. Ideas scribbled on napkins or on the back of my work schedule. I never actually finished anything. Now I average about 2 finished projects per year (finished as in has a beginning, middle and end. Not finished enough to query. Or at least that's what I keep saying.) So I think for me, I just value my time more when I'm busy.


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