Sunday, April 26, 2009
Hi, welcome to another episode of "As the Writers Juggle," in which we ask writers to share their tips on keeping balance in their writing lives. Our guest today is Karen M. Rider, a freelance writer of both nonfiction and fiction. In addition to contract and promotional writing, she's a columnist for Inner Tapestry Holistic Journal, Natural Nutmeg, and The Door Opener. She tells us, "... my dream is still in the launch phase—off the ground with all engines working at maximum thrust…. What I am experiencing might be inspiration for others who are uncertain how to begin living their writing dream."
Q: Welcome, Karen! Tell us about the other responsibilities that you juggle along with your writing.
Karen: I have two daughters; the eldest is almost three, and the youngest is six months. My children are the reason I write. Writing was a dream trapped by fears for a long time. When I became a mother, I realized the only way I could truly encourage my daughter to follow HER dreams was if I let her see how I was living my dream. So, in the Fall of 2006 I began to do just that. However, my husband and I felt it best to have a stay-at-home parent, so family life is my full-time work. Since I don’t have family that lives in-state, I don’t have the benefit of easy access to a babysitting grandparent—my girls go with me just about everywhere, weather permitting.
My schedule shifts as their activities and developmental needs shift. I also write in balance with what they need from the family, but I try to structure blocks of time based on freelance assignments and fiction writing goals that I have for myself. I am a contract writer for an educational association and a write promotional copy for an event management company and small businesses. I also write a column six times a year for a regional holistic health magazine (that does not pay, but great experience) and I landed a four-issue column with a wellness magazine that currently publishes in three states. This, I hope will grow into something more. I’ve written profiles, features, essays, and interviews and promotional copy of all kinds. Income is not always consistent; over time it adds to the piggy bank and keeps my clips file fresh.
As far as fiction writing- I also write short stories and have a novel under construction. Last summer, I launched and facilitate a writing group that has spawned a spin-off group a few towns over. THE WRITER’S CIRCLE is innovative in its group structure, intention and offerings. Non-dues paying membership is capped at 12, groups decide to cater to men or women or both sexes. Each monthly meeting focuses on an activity: writing practice, guest writer/speaker leading a mini-workshop, Critique JAM Sessions, Writer’s Grand Rounds, resource sharing, a holiday gathering and a mid-year retreat in July. I will be marketing the Circle format so that others in need of a true writing group don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’m active in the CT Authors and Publishers Association, too.
Did I mention, I have husband, too. And, a big Siberian Husky.
If I had to calculate time – then there is not enough time in the day for all that I hope to do with my writing, my family, and my recreational time.
My husband’s support of my writing has waxed and waned, especially in the beginning. As he witnessed my commitment to my passion, he realized this was something to be taken seriously. He also likes the months when extra money comes in!
Q: That's great that you're providing support to other writers. It's so important to have colleagues to share your journey with.
When you're done chasing down the kids, about how many hours a day does that leave you for writing?
Karen: I almost always get two hours a day, four days a week—that’s nap time for the kiddies. Two days a week, my older child goes to a preschool program, so I can usually get four hours on those days. The more energy I have, the more I am actually sitting down to write. Don’t misunderstand… my mind is always working on something. As I drift off to sleep I am asking questions about my fiction project and usually waking up with notes to make.
And when a child is ill or not cooperating on my terms, I have to reschedule my time. That might entail a 4 a.m. wake-up call. Depends on how much energy I need for the day that looms ahead.
Q: Yeah, keeping up with two little kids can take a ton of energy. If only they'd give us some of theirs! How do you organize it all?
Karen: I try to plan a day or two out—beyond that, with kids, is a waste of energy.
I’m trying to get up earlier, but I hate winter and that makes it tough for me. Not to mention “earlier” in this household means 3:30 or 4:30 a.m., as my daughters are up and ready to take on the world by 6:00. If something is really driving me, then I do get up extra early, for one hour and go back to sleep so I’m not totally shot for a day with toddlers and crawlers.
So, I structure my morning based on my kids' activities, the weather, household chores (which I will slack on until I can’t take the sight of things!), and if I want to exercise that day (usually a requirement for sustaining my sanity).
Q: You might be pleased to know that most of our previous interviewees highly recommend slacking off when it comes to housekeeping. So you're in good company!
You mentioned that when the toddlers and crawlers rest, that's when you get busy.
Karen: Nap time comes and I am working on something. If naptime doesn’t come when I expect it (or at all) then I have a mandatory quiet play time in which I take care of the most important work item, then return to caring for my kids. Now, I know I have to write that night, no matter what.
Every day is different—if I had to get up with one of the girls overnight, and I’m mentally or physically tired—I’ve learned to let go and take the path of least resistance that day. (as long as a client isn’t waiting on me, which is rare, because I excel at planning for deadlines)
When all else fails—and there is extra m
oney--I call a babysitter.
Q: Do you have a favorite writing place?
Karen: My sunroom.
Q: Oh, gee, I'd lo-o-o-ve a sunroom!!
How do you keep from losing your momentum?
Karen: I never lose sight of WHY I’m doing this: to inspire my daughters to live true to their passion and
follow their dreams.
Q: What a lovely source of inspiration!
What do you do when you get blocked?
Karen: Play with my kids; do yoga; go for a walk; window shop; read; email mentor; email members of The Writer’s Circle; cry J
Q: Oh, yeah, I can definitely relate to the crying part.
Do you find it difficult to make the transition between your family responsibilities and writing? How do you handle it?
Karen: My family and writing responsibilities are seamless….but when I sit to write, especially fiction, I am in the zone, as they say.
Q: What helps motivate you and keep you on track? Are you self-motivated or do you need outside naggers to help?
Karen: Combination. My children, my writing group, my inner drive.
Q: How do you deal with distractions—either outside or inner procrastinatorial/avoidance issues?
Karen: Usually, if a distraction is in the form of my three-year-old saying “you did enough working today, mommy.” Or her behavior is getting out of hand, then I know it is time for ME to stop what I’m doing and focus on her. I ignore the phone and sometimes forget that I put clothes in the washer….. I give my inner critic space to vent and counter everything it has to say to keep it from stopping me from writing (took me a year to master that!)
Q: Do you feel you have enough time for fun/relaxation/non-writing hobbies or activities you’d like to pursue?
Karen I used to do two-a-day workouts—one with the dog, and one at the fitness center. Bad weather, nap schedules, sick kids (or parent), kids classes… all this has to be balanced. I do less volunteer work unless it involves giving back through writing, like with The Writer’s Circle, or the Mom’s Network.
Q: What advice would you give to others struggling with writing/job/time management issues?
Karen: MY 4-Ps: Know your Priorities and Focal Areas. Keep an honest Perspective. Develop a Process that works for you. Stay grounded in the Present-moment. And always, allow your Passion to be your guide.
Get a personal coach if you’re really struggling. By the way… an article on this very topic will be published in the next few months.
Q: Are there any other issues/ideas you’d like to mention?
Karen: Get your spouse on board.. it may not happen overnight, but that support is critical. Well, for me it is. It tickles my writer’s funny bone when my spouse is as interested in my professional pursuits as I am in his. A simple "how’s the novel going?” or “Do you need some time this afternoon for that project you mentioned?”--that’s all it takes.
I’m starting to realize that there are more ideas in my head than the time in the day to flesh everything out on paper. Until my kids are school-age, I have to choose more carefully what kinds of paid work I look for and accept—especially if I want to get my novel out from under construction and standing in its own binding in a Barnes & Noble!
OH… create a professional image. Before I started querying local and national magazines, I designed a logo… came up with a tag line that reflects my core values… which are also symbolized in the logo along with my “writer’s mission”…
Karen's nifty logo is at the top of the page. For the story behind the logo, go to: http://www.abacabdesigns.com/karenmrider.html
Thanks, Karen! Hope to see you in Barnes & Noble soon!
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Hi, welcome to another episode of "As the Writers Juggle," in which we ask writers to share their tips on the writing life. Today's guest is Anne Broyles, the author of PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS (Charlesbridge, 2008) and SHY MAMA’S HALLOWEEN (Tilbury House, 2000) and author, co-author or contributor of twenty books for youth and adults in the religious field. Anne also writes high school curriculum for youth groups and Sunday schools and is a regular contributor to MERRIMACK VALLEY MAGAZINE. Two traumatic incidents in Anne's life inspired her to make a leap of faith into a career as a full-time writer, combining fiction and non-fiction writing to feed both body and soul.
Q: Anne, you came to writing full-time after a career in the ministry. Can you tell us a little about that transition?
Anne: After college, I attended seminary with a desire to write books and produce films for my denomination, but that wasn’t a viable career option. So I threw myself into local church ministry and loved it. From the first year of my professional life as a United Methodist minister, I wrote magazine articles and high school curricula in addition to my 60-hour a week ministry. I couldn’t NOT write.
In 1996, as I madly typed away on an impending deadline assignment, I received a call that a beautiful 21 year-old woman from our church had accidentally overdosed on alcohol and heroin. I left my computer, drove to the hospital, and spent the next twelve days going back and forth to Bridgette’s hospital bed until we decided to take her off of life support. Those were stressful days as I tried to do my other church work, interact with my family and complete the writing assignment. I felt an anguished push and pull between responsibilities, and didn’t get much sleep.
In 1997, an emergency surgery saved my life and kept me in the hospital for eight days. Having almost died brought clarity. I realized that while someone else could do my job as a church pastor, no one else could write the stories in my head. Five months later I took early retirement from ministry and began to write full-time. I’ve never regretted the decision.
Q: So this was definitely both a spiritual and professional journey for you. How did your family react to your decision?
Anne: My husband and kids have always been supportive. (They know how grumpy I get if I don’t get to write regularly!) That first year I made myself available to every editor I knew, and earned almost as much money as I had in ministry. But I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write (fiction); I was writing to pay bills. At the end of that year I chose to use part of an inheritance to “pay myself to write” for one year. My mother always encouraged my writing and I figured she would’ve wanted to be my patron.
When my children were young, I sometimes went away on writing retreat for a few days or a week to immerse myself in a longer book project so that I could come home and better use the bits and pieces of time I found. It was easier to leave for a while than to get on track with little uninterrupted time (my husband is a wonderful father, obviously). Each family or situation is different, so writers can make adjustments according to what works for them.
Now, my kids are independent young adults, so it’s just my husband and pets at home. I am also a Big Sister to a thirteen-year-old girl. I still count on the support and encouragement of all my family members, especially for those moments I am discouraged and I think I should give up this writing career and “get a real (better paying) job.”
Q: What sacrifices did you have to make to take the plunge?
Anne: I often had and still have to choose writing nonfiction over fiction because that’s what pays the bills, but those assignments give me the luxury of working from home, being my own boss, scheduling my time, and squeezing in children’s fiction writing and visits. I work fifteen hours a week at Habitat for Humanity. The rest of my jobs are writing-related.
Q: About how many hours a day/week can you spend writing?
Anne: I work on writing 4- 10 hours a day, six days a week but that includes research, business, correspondence, preparing for school visits and other presentations, traveling to give presentations, promotion (see below) and encouraging other writers. Because of my magazine and curriculum assignments there are days I don’t get to write or revise fiction at all. I try to focus on and clear all of the other tasks off my “to do list” so I can take several days in a row to do nothing but work on a novel or picture book, but it’s hard to balance everything. I don’t work for a page count per day, but tend to write fast when I am focused.
Q: About much of that time is spent on book promotion?
Anne: I spend an average of at least an hour each day preparing promotional materials, networking, contacting schools and enrichment councils, updating my blog and GoodReads. In the months before and after a book comes out, I sometimes feel swamped by the marketing demands. For instance, with PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS, I sent emails and postcards about the book to everyone I knew around the United States and traveled to several states to publicize the book. Each time I do a bookstore event, I send info to the pertinent geographic database. I try to supplement the efforts of the publisher’s PR department. For instance, when I discovered the New York Botanical Gardens carried PRISCILLA, I did research and sent cards to all the botanical gardens in the U.S. to encourage them to carry the book in their garden shop.
Q: You're writing and marketing dozens of books plus nonfiction articles. How do you organize it all?
Anne: On my office closet door I have index cards with the names of my 30 children’s books that are either 1) out to editors, 2) my current focus, or 3) need more revision and work. I don’t expect to get all those books completed and sold before I die, but I will keep trying!
Q: So what does a Day in the Life of Anne Broyles look like?
Anne: A typical day starts with an hour of Pilates, yoga, or cardio at 8 a.m. Then breakfast, after which I check email and respond to ‘writing business.” I usually have a to-do list for the day. Next, I spend several hours of focused time on that day’s project, which depends on whether I must work to an editor’s deadline or can choose my fiction project. With 20 minutes off for lunch and a 30-minute exercise break somewhere in the afternoon, I work until dinner, after which I often work some more. I go to bed around 11 p.m.This describes a day without social and family commitments.
Q: Very busy! But I notice you take time out too keep in shape--a must when you sit at a desk most of the day! What are your best places and times for writing?
Anne: I spend most of my writing time in my office with a view of woods and fields and occasional wild creatures.
Q: What a great view! And her office is pretty nifty, too!
Anne: For longer, complicated projects, I like to sit on my bed with papers scattered around me: a queen-sized work space. And comfy! Because I travel a lot, I write in airports and on planes, but that’s not nearly as comfortable.
Q: How do you keep from losing your momentum?
Anne: I remind myself that no one else can tell the stories in my head.Q: What do you do when you get blocked? (Or do you get blocked?)
Anne: I don’t think of it as getting blocked as much as needing a change. I’m always working on multiple projects (magazine articles, curricula, a couple of picture books, a YA novel), so when I feel fatigued with a project or no sparks are flying, I switch and work on something else.
Q: Do you find it difficult to make the transition between your non-writing responsibilities and writing? How do you handle it?
Anne: I actually like working at home because when I need a mental break, I walk the dogs or put a load of laundry in or kayak when it’s warm. Short breaks (usually 15-30 minutes) refresh my head and I feel ready to work again. I try not to do housework or yard work or family business in my designated writing time. I do get frustrated when my not-writing-fiction jobs intrude on my “real writing” (as they often do). I sometimes wish for a patron to fund me to write fiction full-time. Or an office assistant to take care of all the writing business would be wonderful, but that’s probably never going to happen. I’ve learned to live knowing I may never feel like I have everything done in my writing career or around the house.
Q: I think you've covered most writers' first three wishes: 1) a sugar-daddy (or mommy); 2) a personal assistant; 3) a house elf.
What helps motivate you and keep you on track? Are you self-motivated or do you need outside naggers to help?
Anne: I am totally self-motivated by the desire to write and get more work published. I set my own deadlines even if no editor is waiting for my work. My agent has a monthly “reading week,” so I often try to have something new to her so I test out my ideas before I am too immersed in a project.
Q: How do you deal with distractions—either outside or inner procrastinatorial/avoidance issues?
Anne: I’m resolved this year to more clearly separate out “writing” from “writing business/tasks,” and to designate certain times for Internet use. Otherwise, Facebook and email could eat up an hour or two. I just read Cory Doctorow’s blog on this topic (http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writing-in-age-of.html) and it inspired me to make necessary changes.
Q: Yes, Facebook and all that other social networking stuff can be a HUGE time sink!
Do you feel you have enough time for non-writing hobbies or activities you’d like to pursue?
Anne: Yes, I spend long hours writing, but that is balanced out with lots of physical exercise (yoga, Pilates, cardio, hiking, kayaking or snowshoeing, depending on the season), reading (numerous books a week, since I am a fast reader), going to movies and plays with my husband, mentoring my Little Sister, getting together with friends, studying Spanish, travel. I need to balance my mental and physical and emotional energies. I also am a high-energy person with no young children who need me at this stage in my life.Q: What advice would you give to others struggling with writing and time management issues?
Anne: Don’t squander your gifts. You’ve got this one life, however long, so choose how you want to live it within the confines of your reality. That said, be gentle with yourself. It may be that other things are more important at this stage than your writing, and that’s okay, too.
Q: Well-said, indeed! Are there any other issues or ideas you’d like to mention?
Anne: I think it’s crucial to participate in a critique group. I count on my two groups for challenge, support and resource-sharing. Writing doesn’t have to be a lonely profession; there’s a great writing community in children’s lit and SCBWI.
Thanks, Anne! Your story is an inspiration in so many ways.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Hi, welcome to another episode of "As the Writers Juggle," in which we ask writers to share their tips on the writing life. While many of our previous guests have written about juggling full- or part-time jobs with their writing careers, this week's guest, Jessica Burkhart, jumped into her full-time writing career right out of college--a brave move indeed! Now 22, she says she started freelancing at 14 to feed her lip gloss addiction. (And if you know how well fiction-writing pays, you'll know that earning enough to buy lip gloss is pretty impressive!) Her first two middle grade novels, TAKE THE REINS and CHASING BLUE (CANTERWOOD CREST), are available now and are the first installments in a series of eight. Visit Jess online at her Website or the Canterwood Crest series Website .
Q: When did you decide to take the plunge? Was there a deciding moment that convinced you it was time to strike out as a full-time writer?
Jessica: I went right from college to writing full-time. I'd wavered between being a full-time writer and going to grad school, but ultimately decided to take the big step and be a full-time writer. The intense pub schedule that I'm on with books coming out bi-monthly would have made it a little difficult to juggle both. :)
Q: A book every two months--now that's impressive, especially to someone like me who writes excrutiatingly slowly. What hurdles have you had to overcome?
Jessica: Since I got the book deal, I've had to deal with a few negative comments about my age. I've had a couple of people say that I haven't worked hard enough or long enough to "earn" a book deal. They have the misconception that I sat down, wrote a book and got an agent in a week. Um, no! I freelanced for five years before I wrote Take the Reins. My rejection pile is ENORMOUS and that doesn't even count the e-mailed rejections or editors who never responded. It didn't happen overnight. Trust me.
Q: (Looking at own rejection pile...) Oh, I trust you on that--been there, done that (though at a much, much older and more decrepit point in my life...)!
Tell us a little about your writing routine. You must be pretty disciplined to work under such tight deadlines.
Jessica: When I'm working on a draft, I try to hit at least 2000 words a day. When that's done, I can move onto something else, but I must hit that goal. So, if I want to play around on the Internet and work, it'll take me that much longer to meet my word count. The mind games of, "Oooh! When I reach my word count, I'm technically done for the day" works well for me and it keeps me from procrastinating too much. On my best days, I can average 3500-4000 words a day. I usually write seven to eight hours a day when I'm in crazy-draft mode to meet my deadline.
Q: That's something like 15 pages a day. I'm impressed! And then you have to go out and sell those books, too. About how many hours a week do you spend on book promotion?
Jessica: Wow. I honestly don't even know. If I had to ballpark it, maybe 12-16 hours a week. I count blogging, vlogging, doing interviews, visiting local stores, responding to e-mail, seeking horse blogs, etc. I try to keep up a steady stream of promotion and not do everything in a week and then disappear.
Q: Okay, so what's the secret to staying so organized? Can you describe an average day for us?
Average day: 6:30-7am-Up and I stumble to my laptop and turn it on. I check Facebook, read e-mails and browse LiveJournal. I start typing by eight and work until The View comes on. That's my cue to get away from the desk, move around and have that second cup of coffee and/or soda depending on the day.
I take a break for lunch and catch up on blogs. After lunch, it's back to writing, editing, checking copyedits or doing promo.
I take my next break around 3pm and shut down my now overheated laptop. I usually watch General Hospital (hello, it's awesome!), look at my calendar, make a list of things to do and work on editing any printed drafts that I have.
I'm back on my computer at four (with Oprah on in the background) and work 'til dinner. I'll take a couple of hours to chill and read or go outside.
After that, I keep going until ten or eleven depending on where I am with my deadline. If I'm being super-obsessed with work, I'll take printed pages to bed and work on them 'til midnight. If I'm feeling good about my pace, I'll read until eleven-thirty or so and then pass out.
Q: Yeah, I'd pass out, too--that's a pretty full day! But it's good to see that you schedule regular breaks. Do you have a favorite time or place for writing?
Jessica: I do my best writing in early afternoon. I'm too fuzzy in the morning, so I really get going around 10am. I love writing in my room, but I get sleepy on my bed. So, I'm usually in the living room--either on the floor or on the couch.
Q: How do you keep from losing your momentum?
Jessica: It's just in me not to stop. I want to be a writer for the rest of my life and I'm only just getting started. I use the goals and dreams I have for myself to propel my writing. It motivates me to sit at my desk for hours.
Q: Do you ever get blocked? What do you do to get unstuck?
Jessica: I've never had writer's block (thankfully!), but I have had times when I've been too excited or distracted with something going on in my life that I just can't write. So, I don't try to force it. I take a day off to address whatever is going on with me and then I'm back at it. I don't want to waste all day sitting at my laptop if I just can't work.
Q: Is there anything that comes between you and your writing?
Jessica: I don't have kids or another job, so I write full-time. Perhaps the biggest hang up is dealing with family drama and I'm slowly learning how to pull back from that.
Q: Ah, family drama! I don't think any of us can escape that.
What helps motivate you and keep you on track? Are you self-motivated or do you need outside naggers to help?
Jessica: No naggers necessary! *grin* I've always been pretty good with motivating myself. I love being my own boss and I don't need someone telling me to write.. And I've said before that a couple of people from NYC would show up at my doorstep and threaten to take away my favorite thing-my lip gloss collection--if I didn't meet my deadline. So that keeps me typing away! ;)
Q: (Filing note to self on Jessica's lip-gloss addiction for possible blackmail use at a later date...)
How do you deal with distractions?
Jessica: E-mail is definitely my biggest distraction. Instead of refreshing my inbox every five minutes, I log into MSN and read the new message alerts as they come in. When I do that, I can either choose to go read the new email or ignore it and check later. That seems to work for me.
Q: You sound pretty driven. Do you feel you have enough time for non-writing hobbies or activities?
Jessica: I do have enough time, but I'm being a neurotic workaholic writer and I'm not giving myself much time for outside hobbies. I will soon, but right now I'm trying to focus fully on my career. I'm just getting started and I want to do the best job I can.
Q: What advice would you give to others struggling with writing and time management issues?
Jessica: Treat your writing as a job and not a hobby. Make it that important and encourage your family/friends to realize how serious you are about writing. Whatever it takes to make time to write, do it.
Hmmmm....that might be a tough one for me, since I have a hard time treating my JOB like a JOB, never mind my writing ;) (Only kidding, boss, agent & publisher!!)
Thanks so much Jessica. Oh, and about that lip gloss addiction? Check out Lip Balm Anonymous. They even have a 12-step program. And I don't think they're joking...
Saturday, March 28, 2009
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Sunday, March 8, 2009
Hi, welcome to another episode of "As the Writers Juggle," in which we ask writers to share their tips on balancing work, family, and the writing life. This week's guest is Ellen Jensen Abbott, author of the soon-to-be-released fantasy novel Watersmeet and member of the Class of 2k9.
Here's what Ellen has to say about how she juggles her roles as high-school teacher, mom, and writer:
Ellen: I feel like I have at least three full-time jobs. For pay, I teach high school English at a boarding school. I have a full-time teaching load (four sections of English, two preparations), but I do not do dorm-duty, coaching or weekend duty—required of full-time faculty—which means that I am technically 80% employed. Anyone who grades English essays knows that there is rarely such thing as "part time."
Then I am the mother of two children, 9 and 12. My husband works full-time, so since I am "part-time" and have a slightly more flexible schedule, doctors' appointments, hair cuts, snow-days or sick days with the kids all fall to me. Then there's car pool, sports, piano lessons, church choir, etc. It may not sound like it, but our children are actually LESS scheduled than many of today's children. We also have a family dinner every night and try to do real hands-on parenting. Full-time job #2.
Full-time job #3: book promotion/writing. (Wait—I think that's two jobs!) My debut YA fantasy novel, Watersmeet, comes out in April 2009 (Marshall Cavendish). Of course, this is a dream come true. I started writing YA fantasy about ten years ago, submitted one MS and received a positive rejection (a term only writers seem to get!) and then wrote this one. I knew that writers were largely responsible for their own publicity, but I didn't know that in any real way. Major learning curve. I can finagle my way around the web but I really didn’t know much about blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc—which is of course where so much book promotion now occurs. And being new to book promotion in general, I don't know which of ninety-seven directions to put my energy in.
And then there's writing. That's why I got into this, right? Because I love writing? It is a true struggle to find the time for this. The promotion stuff seems so immediately necessary. Grading papers, prepping my classes for tomorrow—also necessary. Feeding, bathing the children—pretty damn necessary. That leaves writing where? (Let's not even get into couple time! Thank goodness I'm married to a saint!)
I was hopelessly floundering in the "finding time to write" department, and even though it was killing my soul, I couldn't seem to snap out of it. Then I got a deadline. Deadlines are magic. My editor strongly suggested I get the first three chapters of my option book to her by June 1—and suddenly, I am finding more time. And—oh, God—I love it! I don't need much time. When my kids were little, I trained myself to grab what time I could. The fact is, I will never have a span of several hours on a daily basis to write—or at least not in the foreseeable future. I knew that unless I learned to write in 45-minute chunks, I would be scuttling my dreams before they got going. Don't get me wrong—I love those long chunks! But I can survive on an hour a day—or even every other day. Giving myself that bite-sized time-span is key. It doesn't work for me to say I need to write one page or 1000 words. I prefer time parameters. So when I see some time coming and feel all the different projects vying for that time, I say, "Ellen, you are just going to write for an hour. You can afford an hour." And often I do have to stop after an hour, but at least I put it in.
I know it's a cliché, but for me, writing is a lot like exercise—hard to get going and so fabulous once you get started. After a few days of writing regularly, I sit down at my computer and feel a grin spreading across my face. When my hour is up, I leave myself a note in the text to remind me where I was headed so I can jump right back in. With only an hour, I don't have time to gaze into space and try to recapture my train of thought, or reread. In fact, that's why regular writing is so important for me. It takes too much time to go back and remember who had just said what to whom. It's critical to be able to get swept into the stream of the narrative again. To go back to the exercise analogy, leaving myself those notes is like beginning a run at the top of a hill. It gives me an easy start so I'm warmed up when I start in on new ideas. I also resist revision of what I just wrote. I love revising—it's the inventing that's work—so given the choice, I'll revise—and my hour will be gone and I won't have moved forward. In first drafts, I can circle back to the first chapters twenty to thirty times trying to get them just right when what I really need to do is find out what happens to my characters later, who they become, what their challenges will be.
Finding a place to write is another problem. While my family understands that one of my jobs is writing, it is very confusing for them to see me at home. If I'm there, why can't I help with math homework? Oooh and aaah over a new drawing? Throw in that load of laundry or empty the dishwasher? I used to write on the dining room table, thinking that it would help to be in the midst of things. I'm not sure why I thought that was a good idea—it was just frustrating for all of us. It helps somewhat when I go behind a closed door, but really its better when I leave the house. I love Panera: good food, good background music, free Wifi, English breakfast tea, fireplace—so I usually head there. I also live across the street from a university library which works for me, too, but tea is critical and the librarians frown at that!
In terms of housework, my family has a cleaning session every weekend. My husband and I both like things relatively neat and clean so unfortunately "letting the housework go" does not really work for us. (I once heard Donna Jo Napoli say the following: "You can eat off my kitchen floor…(pause, pause)…for weeks and weeks without going hungry!" I aspire to this but it seems a constitutional impossibility.) We had to let our housekeeper go to save money so we instituted the family cleaning. One week, we do the upstairs, next week the downstairs. We each pick a room to do and go to it. If someone finishes their room first, they go help someone else. We can stop after two hours, even if we're not done, but we usually finish all we set out to do in an hour and a half. The kids grumble far less than you might think. They feel good about pitching in for the family well-being, and they have learned how to clean. We do need to rotate rooms so that the nine-year old doesn't do the same room week after week (!), but my twelve-year-old out-cleans me most of the time. And my husband should open a service.
In exchange for keeping up with the cleaning, I've given up exercise. I love exercise—as you can tell from above, I was an avid runner—but as so many authors on your site have said, something has to give! A hip injury took me out of running and I never found another sport that I feel the same way about. Still, I know how important exercise is. I have not given it up forever. I just realized that beating myself up daily for not exercising was not good either. So, for now, I don't exercise. And I'm okay with that.
I have two hobbies: I knit and I ski. I knit during faculty meeting or on car rides (to skiing!) so I don't knit much, but I love working with yarn. I seem to knit baby gifts almost exclusively these days. (I'm 43! When will my friends stop having babies?) Skiing is something we do as a family—every weekend that we can. (And as we live in PA, this is no mean feat!) The skiing is a struggle; almost every Friday night I decide there is no way I can do it. Too much work! But we've made this commitment and it is so good for the family, that I grit my teeth and go—and love it. I'm away from my computer, my desk, my ungraded papers. I'm in the fresh air with my kids and in a beautiful setting. I come back refreshed and ready to face the next week. And the ski season only lasts for thee and a half months, so it works.
So that's how I am currently making it work—only it doesn't work that well. My epiphany about this came one weekend when my daughter and I were walking out of square dance at her school. I had been loathe to go—I could have been writing!—but she was so excited about it, I agreed. And it was really fun. I'm a pretty extroverted person so I can throw myself into those kinds of things. As we were walking out, she said, "Mommy, you're so much fun when you're not working—but you have to work all the time!" Knife in the belly. The next morning, my husband stormed out of the house to pick up our son at some event. As he left, I asked him what was wrong and he said, "I hate our schedule!" As I stood in the shower—where I get all my best epiphanies—I thought over my options. It had always seemed so muddy before, but suddenly, with perfect clarity I said: "I have to quit my job." In the end, we decided it was best to cut my teaching responsibilities in half—but this will still require some significant lifestyle changes, the most significant being that my children will have to change schools. The switch will be challenging for them, but it's clear to me that we will all gain by having me available for the family in a real way. (I'm not going back to cleaning the house by myself, though!) Thankfully, no one ever suggested that I should give up my writing.
Now the challenge is to get to June—when I can cut back—and then to September when the kids face the reality of a new school. They'll be some bumps, but I continue to feel that this is the right thing to do—for my family, for my marriage and for my books.
Thanks, Ellen! Readers, be sure to check out Ellen's blog, especially this great post about the power of living in the story world of our favorite books.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
I picked up a copy of Stacy's book, a story about a teenage girl who's accused of kidnapping when she takes charge of an abandoned toddler while on a train trip to New York. It's a book I just couldn't put down--and when I was done, all I could say was, "WOW!" The suspense is great, and the bond that quickly forms between Victoria, the heroine, and the little boy she rescues is beautifully told. Without giving too much away, I'll just say there are no easy answers for either character, but I found the ending satisfying nonetheless. So if you're looking for a great new book to read, ask your bookstore or library to order it up for you!
Later this week, I'll be hearting Hitchcock Academy Community Center in Brimfield, MA with 20 other authors for their Local Authors Night fundraiser. 10% of book sales will go to benefit the community center, and there's a silent auction that includes artwork, books, and more! Class of 2k8fans can bid on a basket of a dozen books by Class of 2k8 authors donated by yours truly. The lucky bidder also gets a complimentary "Meet the Author" event with me for the organization of your choice. Call the Hitchcock Academy at (413) 245-9977 for more information about auction items, bidding procedures, and the evening's event. The event runs from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 24 at the Hitchcock Academy, 2 Brookfield Road (Route 20), Brimfield, MA
I have a couple events coming up in March as well--if you're in central or western Massachusetts, stop by and say hi!
Wednesday, 4 March 2009, 6:30 p.m.
"Fireside Authors" discussion series
Fobes Memorial Library
4 Maple Street
Oakham, MA 01068
Tuesday, 10 March 2009, 7:00 p.m.
Wilbraham Public Library
25 Crane Park Drive
Wilbraham, MA 01095