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.
I’ve been overwhelmed by the reception that this series has received–and all credit goes to the people who provided me with such wonderful and deeply honest posts–and the way people have signal boosted and supported it. One person who has given some great feedback and support is the very talented Leife Shallcross, so I am especially happy to have her here today.
I’ve always had a bit of a love affair with the written word. I read voraciously as a kid. I managed to wrangle my Arts degree so it was about 85 per cent English Literature subjects. And, as long as I can remember, I’ve always made up stories – sometimes even writing them down. But in 2011 I decided I was going to take my writing seriously (although I will admit I had no idea at the time what that actually even meant.) My kids were at a manageable age (7 and 9), no longer needing quite the level of hands-on parenting that they had done; I was still working part-time, and I’d finally worked out that writing twisty fairy tales wasn’t a phase I was ever going to grow out of. Plus I had finally produced a short story that I thought might be kind of OK.
I joined my local writers centre, did a few workshops, and started receiving their weekly newsletter. Reading this one day, I saw a submission call for an anthology being put together by a local group, a strange and arcane sounding organisation called the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. Heh.
I agonised. I obsessively checked my manuscript for errant apostrophes. I tried to work out what the best font to use was. Double spacing, or 1.5? How many returns between the title and the first paragraph? Who knew? I hit send.
It got accepted.
I got my first publication credit and made $30 out of that story, but more importantly, it was a catalyst for getting involved in an incredibly knowledgeable and generous community of writers who today are my most invaluable support as a writer. And that, boys and girls, was when I started learning about what it took to be a “real” writer.
I figured out pretty quickly that, for me, getting a level of discipline around my writing practice was going to be a struggle. And this is always going to be my Achilles Heel. Unless the muse is running hot, the temptation to just check FB, or just play one round of Plants vs Zombies is always going to be there. Like most of us, I’ve learned that there’s a better chance of my muse showing up if I make proper time for her, and then act like she’s there, even when she isn’t. So I decided to treat this writing thing like a second job; a small business I am trying to get off the ground (which, essentially, it is.)
So what did I give up to do this? The obvious things: time with my family, TV, other creative hobbies. I still work not-quite-full-time, so a small chunk of income. But for me, the main thing has been sleep. This sacrifice has been both voluntary and involuntary. I am naturally a night owl. Until 2013 I mostly did my writing at night, after the kids were in bed, with a precious weekly Sunday morning session in bed with my laptop and a cup of tea. The consequence of my night time writing was twofold: firstly, it meant that unless I was really disciplined about it (ugh, there’s that discipline word again), I’d inevitably sit down at 11pm at night and be tired and uninspired and anxious about getting my wordage done and getting to bed at a time that didn’t threaten to derail my paid job and my relationship with my increasingly tired partner.
Secondly, it meant I regularly suffered from horrible insomnia. Every few weeks, and sometimes more often, I’d have a string of three or four or five nights where I’d get to bed and my brain would just buzz and I would not sleep. If the muse had arrived ready to party and a coherent story was fermenting, I’d pretty much have no choice but to get up again and write it out of my head, which meant not getting back into bed until 3 am at least. More often, however, my brain would just be on and racing, and I would toss and turn and eventually get up again and have to go and play something mind-numbing (mah-jong is good) and have a glass of red wine to turn it off again. If I was lucky I’d be back in bed by 2am, but this would mean that I was pretty wrecked for work the next day, and my writing session the next night. And, as anyone who has experienced it probably knows, paradoxically insomnia gets worse when you’re tired.
Then in 2013 a friend of mine put out a call for guinea pigs. She was studying creative coaching, and wanted some bods to practice on. I was trying to finish a novel draft by a set (and immoveable) date, so I put my hand up. It was incredibly useful, but the most valuable thing I got out of it was that she asked me when my most productive writing time was. Easy. That would be the Sunday morning session. The one where I wake up after a small sleep-in, and ensconce myself in solitude for a good couple of hours. “Why don’t you try changing your routine?” she asked. “Get up early. Write before work.” My reaction to this suggestion was horrified disbelief. Me and 5am only ever encountered each other under extreme duress, usually because I had to be on a plane for work. But. Professional. (And desperate.) So I gave it a go.
It was a revelation. It opened the door to one of the most productive periods of my life. I am still not very good at getting to bed at a reasonable hour. But, now, at 11pm I am usually dragging my relaxed and sleepy self to bed, instead of my anxious and sleepy self to my writing date. Now, I get up before 6am most work days. If the muse is on fire, we might even make it to the computer by 5am. It’s bloody cold in winter, but there is something lovely and even luxurious about that early part of the day when all the rest of my family are slumbering sweetly away and it is just me. I still need at least one other daytime/afternoon/early evening writing session during the week, but what is interesting is that having kick-started the day with writing, I find it much easier to slip back into writing mode at any point during the day. I’m even spending more of my lunchtimes at work writing. And the insomnia is almost gone. I still get it every now and then, but we are talking maybe three whole one-off nights over the last year, as opposed to three a month, minimum.
I get by on about 6-6 ½ hours sleep most nights, with a catch-up sleep in on the weekend. But this is better than the old insomniac days, and I have a pretty regular (I won’t say “disciplined”) daily writing routine that works weirdly well for me. There are definitely days when I get up, and nothing much happens. Or I don’t get up. I skip it. But these are generally the exception to the rule, and having a structured approach to my writing time means I have more confidence in my ability to make up a skipped session, or at least get back on track.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a long way from living the dream of full- or even half-time writing, but I’ve got a mortgage to pay and a family who I really love spending time with, and this is a good compromise that works well for me. And, writing wise I have never been more productive or more (deep breath: I’m gonna say it) disciplined.
Leife Shallcross lives with her family at the bottom of Mount Ainslie in Canberra, in a house she painted turquoise. Her first published story, ‘The Tether of Time’, appeared in the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild’s Winds of Change anthology, edited by Elizabeth Fitzgerald, in 2011. Her work has appeared in Aurealis and a number of other Australian and international anthologies. Her latest, ‘Wandering Star’ is in The End Has Come edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howie. She is currently the President of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. When writing is not consuming her spare time and energy, she plays the fiddle (badly). She can be found online at leifeshallcross.com and on Twitter @leioss.