A reader reached out to me last month and asked, “How do you balance all the writing-work with work-work? I get nervous about that a little.”
As someone who works a full-time job, I think about this question all the time and completely relate to the unsettling feelings that go along with it. Am I ever doing enough in either my job or my writing? Am I compromising my well-being at the expense of doing both? Am I using self-care as a veiled excuse to not write? Can I muster up enough surge capacity or is that capacity already depleted?
Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m writing this issue while I’m in the middle of a weeklong “virtual offsite,” an oxymoron which means very involved all-day Zoom calls with coworkers. (I swear, human beings were not meant to look at tiny thumbnails of themselves for hours at a time!!) I feel very fortunate to have a job that, on the whole, leaves me with enough time and mental energy at the end of the day to write. But this week, I’ve been so tired that I found myself once again pondering, to write or not to write?
While I definitely encourage folks to listen to their bodies and not overexert themselves to the point of exhaustion or burnout, structure and discipline are crucial parts of balancing a full-time job with a writing practice. There are only so many hours in a day and reprioritizing how you spend them is inevitable. Words like “structure” and “discipline” sound very rigid, but the ways in which you apply them don’t have to be.
I try to use external deadlines as opportunities to either create new work or revise existing pieces. (Like this newsletter!) Even if the opportunity is a long shot or feels low-stakes, the exercise is still valuable. Pre-COVID, I met with several writing groups and I always tried to either write or revise something for those meetings. It was also useful to hear other people’s feedback and I’d always leave whatever coffee shop we’d convened at renewed and invigorated to write more. I often used the group’s feedback when cobbling together an editing process for myself as I prepared a piece for submission.
As someone who loves making lists and checking things off, I find it helpful to break things down. (Ahh Jira brain!) I have to-do list items for things like “brainstorm idea for [publication],” “rework this character’s storyline,” “revise [short story name] v3,” and “write cover letter for submission.” Even if I’m just setting up these silly little tasks for myself, they keep things manageable and make me feel like the work is moving forward meaningfully.
I’m also someone who responds well to ambient pressure. Writing challenges like The 100 Day Project (100 days, obviously) and #1000wordsofsummer (2 weeks) are discrete periods of time and have motivating social sharing components. Lately, I’ve been loving Zoom writing sessions where people just hop on a Zoom call, turn their cameras off for 45 minutes, and write. Even though we’re not obligated to share what we’re working on or even turn on our cameras, the protected space and time is a gift.
Of course, what works for me may not work for you. I also do not do all of these things all the time. But I think it’s worth spending some time thinking about what kinds of habits, people, and processes can help you turn something nebulous like “I want to write more” into something you can actually carry out. Take shortcuts. Reward yourself often. Lower the bar. Your idea of work-writing balance doesn’t have to be inflexible or punitive, but it has to be approached with intention.
So put on your silly little outfit and do your silly little tasks, however you define them. Who cares if your system is weird if it works?
- Apply for A Public Space’s editorial fellowships or writing fellowships by January 31.
- “Ten of My Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” by Lydia Davis
- After my previous dispatch, Jack Cheng introduced me to The Slow Novel Lab by Nina LaCour, a six week course “designed as a counterpoint to programs that emphasize speed and word count over process and exploration.”
- Register for the Flash Fiction Festival’s events and workshops which run from February 21-27.
- “I am aghast at the degree to which we all expect ourselves to keep working through catastrophe.” — I appreciated this Twitter thread from Melissa Febos about our obsession with working through pain and the toll this “inhumane dissociation” takes on our bodies.
Recent reads & other media
I read They Called Us Enemy, George Takei’s graphic memoir of his childhood and his family’s imprisonment in an internment camp during World War II. I received an advanced reader copy of Kink: Stories, a short story collection edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell where literary fiction explores desire, intimacy, trust, and power across different identities and relationships. As the foreword says, "Instead of pathologizing kink, the stories in this anthology treat it as a complex, psychologically rich act of communication."
I loved the message of Pixar’s Soul — that “a spark isn’t a soul’s purpose” and to embrace “regular old living.” I also learned a lot reading this New Yorker essay and Polygon review about Soul’s problematic depiction of Blackness and interpreting the film in the context of “passing narratives” and the history of racialized body swapping movies.
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~ meme myself and i ~
I am guilty of revenge bedtime procrastination. A duck walking on ice. Social media discourse. The final braincell. I dare you not to laugh at this animated scene from Titanic. The importance of feeling good, not being good.