The Truth of the Matter: The Give and Take of Writing as a Job

Jan 5, 2017

Here's the truth of the matter: I have not written consistently for well over a year.

This doesn't mean I haven't written. I've written whenever I darn well pleased. Which was sometimes every day for weeks. And sometimes once every other month. At first, I felt guilty. Real writers write every day, they say. They write when they don't feel like it. They don't wait for the muse, they just put the butt in the chair and go, every day, because it's a job.

I call bull****.

Because here's another truth. Yes, if you want to be published-- if you are published-- treating writing like a job is necessary. I'm not going to say you shouldn't follow this advice. I'm saying I shouldn't have followed this advice, at least not to the letter of the law.

While writing my last book, I was dealing with some pretty heavy stuff-- some very serious anxiety and depression. I was still learning to live a new life with an auto-immune disorder diagnosis. I had two kids and a husband in school and working, who was also struggling with depression. I was doing school visits and library visits and conferences to promote my first book.

But I had to get that book written. I HAD TO. It was required of me, I was a professional now, I had to put my butt in the chair. You may have heard me talk about writing that book-- honestly, it was torture. I truly hated writing that book (though I did love the story in the end).

Which may be, in the end, at least one reason why that book didn't sell. (There are many reasons, the same as why thousands of books don't sell to publishers.) It was missing something, and my agent and I both agreed after a year or so on sub that it was time to retire it. I realized later the most important thing missing from that book: heart. Passion. Me.

I was fine that that book didn't sell. Truly. But it also broke me. Not the lack of a sale, but that book itself. I was so burned out on words that I couldn't even read, let alone write, for months. Then I tinkered with a few stories again, starting with a new direction in my writing. I didn't stick with anything. I just tinkered. I played if I wanted to with one story or another, and very, very often I wanted to do everything and anything else. Even when I picked my "next book" and started focusing on it, it couldn't really be called "focus." But I have a desperate need to be creative, and my creative energy got redirected.

I bought a sewing machine and started making my own clothes-- and I loved it. Probably half of what I wear now is made by me. I made a funky dress with planets and stars on it. I made leggings with elephants on them. I made some flowery shirts. I made a purse with a dragon on it. I can express myself in a new way, and it fills me.

I took a calligraphy class. I learned to write letters in different ways, pretty ways. I started mailing handwritten letters to people, telling them what they mean to mean in simple words I can make beautiful by their form. I wrote my children poems on beautiful paper and hung them in their rooms. I can be artistic with a pen in a very visual way, and it fills me.

I had a baby. I had her with no pain medication, because I wanted to be fully present in the final moments of bringing her into the world. It was a moving experience that truly brought home to me the awe and power of creating that most incredible of things-- a human being. She is joyful and into everything and shrieks with delight if her siblings so much as make farting noises at her, and after ten months is finally starting to nap with semi-certainty. I watch her working to create herself in this world I brought her into, and it fills me.

After many, many, many months of this, I woke up one morning, sat down at my computer, and poured out 2,000 words on that "next book." And I was excited about them. I loved writing them. I couldn't wait to write more. Suddenly, I was back, I was writer-Shallee again, eager to pour out words, anxious to tell a story, dreaming up scenes while doing the dishes.

Because here's the truth of the matter: I had let writing drain me, rather than fill me. And it drained me so thoroughly, I had to find other ways to fill me back up and make me human again. Now that I'm full, writing is giving back to me again, and so I'm overflowing.

Whether you're an old pro, a new pro, wanting to be a pro, or anything else, don't let the writing drain you. (I'm talking about the writing, here-- publishing is a whoooooole 'nother story that doesn't give back nearly as much as you'd think it does.) There are times when you have to write every day, maybe even all day, no matter what, for the business end of things. Maybe that's now. There are people who thrive on treating writing like a 9 to 5 job every day for the rest of their life. Maybe that's you. That's great. But if your way of treating it like a job is to write once a week for six hours, once a day for half an hour, or anything else, that's great too. Plan it out. Know what you need and how you function as a writer, know what the job requires of you, and make a plan that fits you and still gets the work done.

The great thing about writing as a job is that it's flexible-- whatever works for you, however you get your words on paper consistently, that's how you treat it like a job. So some days I'm writing 2k+ words. Some days I'm squeezing in 600 because it's all I can manage while the baby screams and tugs my pants because she's a napless demon that day. I am actually writing every day (or almost) right now, because I'm so excited about this story. But I've decided I will never let writing take so much from me again. That's not the kind of career I want, and it's not the kind of stories I want to share.

Writing isn't a typical day job, even if you make it your day job. That's what makes it wonderful and frustrating. It's a completely individual thing, and you will find your completely individual way of doing it. As you figure that out-- or maybe you're far ahead of me and had this figured out long ago--don't lose yourself to it. Whether it be entertainment, peace, questions, challenges, or any number of other things, stories should always give something to people.

Including you.


Brett said...

Sooo well said! You have no idea how much I needed this.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Sometimes it's just not possible to write on a regular basis. I have a full-time job and a part-time job, and there are several days (or weeks) where I don't get write either. I always miss it though, and I wish I could write more often.

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