In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know.
Recently I had the privilege to head over to New Zealand for their Natcon as the FFANZ delegate, and had an incredible time. I was made to feel so welcome by everyone, and I also had the opportunity to do my first ever reading! One of the people who made me so welcome, and gave an awesome reading at the same event, was the talented Debbie Cowens–who has a very intriguing sounding book out!
I must confess that I am troubled by a gnawing sense of guilt and trepidation when I contemplate the topic of how I make time to write. I fear that you, my insightful reader, will be able to burrow through any assertions I lay out like a truth-seeking honey-badger. In theory I have the most virtuous of habits and I should dearly like to persuade you that I steadfastly adhere to them. I have devised a sensible and well-thought out schedule that allows me to wake at 5:30am and write for an hour and a half before my son wakes up. I then set about the morning routine of making school lunches, preparing breakfast and ensuring everyone has dressed, brushed their teeth and makes it to their respective schools (both my husband and I are high school English and Media Studies teachers) on time. This is a slight exaggeration of my responsibilities–my husband has been responsible for dressing himself and has supervised his own tooth-brushing since before we first met. It’s one of the manifold qualities that first attracted me to him. But I digress. I was convincing you of my scrupulous efforts to attend to all the various facets of my life.
Naturally, I should now relate how at work in between inspiring the nation’s youth, I use my lunchtime to complete any class preparation and marking so that when I go home (usually with just enough time to unload the dishwasher before my son is dropped off) I can focus on doing some speech therapy with my son (he has Autism and has very limited speech – therapy has become an essential and time-consuming part of our lives) or help him with his homework.
OK, I’ll admit. Some days he’s too knackered after a day at school and just wants to play on his iPad or with a puzzle so I let him take it easy. Already the cracks in my well thought-out routine are starting to show under your imagined scrutiny.
The unfortunate necessities of domestic life such as cooking dinner and cleaning tend to occupy the next couple of hours of the day. Admittedly, not as many as they probably should. “Meh, that’ll do,” has become the mantra of my approach to housework. Some evenings I’ll get a break to sneak off and do some more writing. Some evenings I’ll have to do marking on the couch whilst The Wiggles or Kung Fu Panda is playing on the TV. Some evenings my son will decide to embark on a trampoline marathon so I might try to tap out some writing on my phone in the backyard, more likely I’ll just goof off and look on the internet while bouncing.
My commitment to a writing routine is similar to my approach to a healthy lifestyle. I want to eat five plus a day and generally do. And I don’t just mean the yummy vegies like carrots and capsicum, but even the leafy greens like spinach and kale as well. It’s just that sometimes life is tough and I want a Tim Tam. Or two. Or, to heck with it, the whole packet. I suppose I manage to follow about eighty percent of my good healthy eating and exercise intentions about eighty percent of the time. All right, you got me. It’s more like seventy-five percent.
OK, seventy percent. Sixty-five?
Writing is sort of like that for me. I have periods of my life where I’m just so keen and eager about the story or novel that I’m working on that I stay up late writing or wake up two hours before the alarm goes off and trot off to the computer, my head brimming with words and ideas.
It’s just that there are other days like today when I spent the previous night staying up late to watch Game of Thrones and slept through the alarm and had to be forcibly ejected from bed in order to get ready for work.
I can be disciplined for a few months but I lack the ability to sustain it over years. I am, by nature, a fairly lazy and scatterbrained individual. We’re a minority amongst writers. Writers are generally focused and diligent folks. At least the successful ones who dispense advice at the writer’s talks and conventions I’ve attended have been. I’m not particularly wise and I prefer lolling about on a couch with chocolate and a good book to anything resembling hard work. You can ask my mother if you need a testimonial to the fact. When the first novel I wrote at the age of twenty-one was rejected, I resolved to quit writing. I lacked the steadfast nature to even see that resolution to its end. Writing is simply too fun to quit for long.
I suppose if I have any purpose to creating a flimsy tale of a writing routine that I only sometimes manage to follow and to then confess how poorly I do at achieving the expectations I place upon myself, it is this: it doesn’t matter if you’re an indolent, disorganised individual who has found the duties of having a career, mortgage and kid more exhausting than anticipated. Finding writing time in your life may seem impossible; stealing time for writing by neglecting other responsibilities is not only possible, but also appealing.
Ignore the pile of laundry that needs folding – you can just put your clothes straight on from the laundry basket. Neglect the weeds growing in the garden – they’re plants, they have just as much right to grow as the tomatoes. If you’re invited to some social gathering, decline and spend the night at home writing. You can avoid all the social anxiety of interacting with people and you get to wear comfy pants or PJs.
The only thing that can compete with my writing time is life and, frankly, the real world is vastly less interesting and comprised of considerably more laundry than the worlds of my imagination. I’m happy to steal time to write. To sneak away from pesky, mundane responsibilities will always be appealing. As an adult one must pay the bills, feed one’s offspring and do sufficient domestic labour to prevent one’s house from becoming a filth-ridden wasteland fit only for cockroaches, but the stories in one’s head will consistently deliver a welcome reprieve. Real life, regrettably, can only be experienced in the first draft. First drafts are awful things: riddled with mistakes, awkwardness and clunky dialogue. It is only in stories that every detail can be amended to have meaning and be fun.
I steal time to write because writing is fun. Ideas can be fleeting things. If they are not captured and transcribed and honed there’s every chance they will melt away into thin air exactly the way that dirty dishes don’t. I make sacrifices to be able to write, and I’m pleased to reflect that those sacrifices are worth it.
I just wish I could get by on four hours sleep.
Debbie Cowens is a New Zealand writer and teacher living on the Kapiti Coast. She co-wrote Mansfield with Monsters with her husband Matt Cowens. She won the 2012 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent and Best Collected Work. Her horror story Caterpillars won the AHWA Shadow Award for Best Short Story 2013. Her novel Murder and Matchmaking is a mashup of Pride & Prejudice and Sherlock Holmes. It published by Paper Road Press and is available here. You can find out more at her blog or on Twitter: @debbiecowens.