Category Archives: Work-Life Balance

Without Them, I Wouldn’t Be Writing

There are many advantages to being a writer, especially a self-employed one like me. True, my income is highly variable and no one throws me a staff Christmas party at the end of the year, but I get to wake up late, work in my pyjamas, and take time off whenever I like. I get to go trips, use them as research opportunities and attend writing workshops, and then write off all those flights, hotels, and restaurant dinners on my taxes.

I also get to have fans.

I’ve written before on the Fictorians about the day I first realized that I had a fan club. That was one of the best moments of my life, and certainly one that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t poured so much time and energy into being a writer.

Having fans is incredibly inspiring—but more than that, it comes with a greater sense of responsibility. No longer can I get away with just writing anything I want and hoping it’s good enough. I have people who read carefully and care about the characters and settings I have invented. And if I don’t give it my all, they know. They call me on it.

During a question-and-answer session last year at a reading for my latest novel, an astute reader in the audience stood up to identify a plot hole I had never noticed before. She didn’t do it in a mean-spirited way; she had assumed the seeming inconsistency was intentional, and that it was part of an elaborate setup for a future book. If only that were true. Knowing that people are reading carefully and paying attention means you gotta work twice as hard.

Well, lesson learned.

This week, I went to the doctor’s office for a checkup. While in the waiting room, someone sidled up next to me and asked when my next book was coming out. When I refused to give him a straight answer, he tried to fish some spoilers out of me. This isn’t the first time this has happened, and more than once I’ve pulled a Robert-Jordan-esque “ROFL.” Even two years ago, I never would have imagined something like that happening.

Another reader once asked me if I could write her into the next book. She may have been joking, but when she picks up said book when it comes out she may have a surprise in store.

Perhaps it’s because I’m from a small town, but people seem to know me where I’m from. They recognize me, they turn out in relatively large numbers when I have an event, and they ask me about my upcoming projects while I’m picking up the mail or waiting at the deli counter at the grocery store. This most likely wouldn’t be the case if I lived in a big city, which makes me all the more grateful for the experience. I’m in awe of it.

Like I said, it comes with responsibility.

When I sit down at the beginning of a new writing session, my mind invariably turns to the latest handful of people who asked me when the next book is coming out. I want my writing to be worthy of their interest and attention, and as a result I strive hard to take my craft to the next level.

What makes me love being a writer? Indisputably, the fans. Without readers, there cannot be books. If all these dedicated and persistent readers in my life didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be pushing as hard as I am right now. I wouldn’t be writing. I’d be popping in a DVD, sitting down to watch another episode of Game of Thrones for the tenth time. I’d be playing yet another game of Minesweeper.

So here’s to the fans—who came to my reading despite having to drive fifty kilometres through one of the worst snowstorms of the worst winter since the 1800s, who put me on Winnipeg’s bestseller list two weeks in a row during the Christmas rush, and who pester me constantly when I’m feeling down. They make this whole miserable and glorious experience worthwhile.

Choices of Love and Fear

Though I have respected Jim Carrey as a comedian and performer for many years, I would never have thought him to be a fount of cosmic wisdom. That is why, along with so many others, I was blown away by his commencement address at the MUM graduation. In his address, Carrey spoke of his father, on the importance of following one’s dreams, effecting others positively and choosing love over fear. For the full address, click here. If you don’t have the 26 minutes to spare right now, please click on the embedded video below (but do come back to the full speech later). It’s just a single minute of your time, so please do yourself the favor.

When you seek to be a professional author, the odds are against you to an absurd degree. When I was in high school, trying to figure out who I was going to become for the next phase of my life, I had a choice. Either, I could pursue a career in science and technology, or I could develop my passion for writing and storytelling that had begun to grow on the fertile ground of my passion for reading. In the end and at the encouragement of those who loved me, I went to one of the top technical schools in the country and spent four and a half years earning a degree that has enriched my life. Upon graduating, I began working for an engineering company that is a respected leader and fierce competitor in their field. I had done it. People I knew, people who I cared about, told me how proud of me they were and how obviously successful I was.

And yet, I was unhappy. I was unfulfilled. There was a part of me, part of my talent that was being unexpressed and underutilized. It took me nearly 18 months to realize where the sense of discontent was coming from.

You see, though I was pursing highly technical studies in college, I also fed my creative urges regularly through live performance improvised comedy and table top role-playing. My life was grounded in reality through my studies, but I was still able to live in the fantastic. When I joined the working world, I had left that fantastic behind for many good and practical reasons. But, I still needed it.

It was when I started writing again, started reaching out to the community of writers and blogging regularly, that I began to find my contentment and happiness. This month has been all about goals, finding your own balance and managing your life when the deck seems stacked to overwhelm you.

Please take it from someone who has learned it the hard way. Fulfillment will never come from someone else. Instead, you must explore what you find to be fulfilling, what you love beyond all reason and pursue it. That said, the day job and the dream job do not have to be mutually exclusive.

I am an engineer. I am a writer. I am not one or the other, but rather both, simultaneously and always. Each part of my personality influences and informs the other, making it stronger and richer.

The problem I had, the source of my unhappiness and cognitive dissonance was the false assumption that I had to choose one or the other to be supreme. I was failing to achieve a work-life balance. Was that the fault of my company? After all they gave me a great deal of work to do that was time consuming and challenging. Of course not. I am, after all, employed by them. I was selling my time, knowledge and experience to them in exchange for a salary and benefits. Was the work exhausting and effecting my home life? Yes. But, what I chose to do with that home life was still entirely in my power.

This is the most important thing I’ve learned in my short career as an engineer. Saying you are “too busy” to do this or that is an expression of value, not of time constraints. Busyness is a choice. Time is a commodity, and like any other scarce resource, where we choose to spend our time indicates what we value. What you are actually saying when you are “too busy” to do some task is what you are doing now is more valuable than the proposed activity. Claiming to be too busy to write because of my job was in reality saying that I chose things like working, sleep, watching TV, going out with friends, exercise and other leisure was more valuable than the time I could spend writing.

So, what did I do? I began to choose how I spent my time more wisely and learned to say “no.” Not only to others but to myself. I canceled my television package, Netflix and Hulu+ accounts. I put away my gaming consoles and worked on stream lining the things I felt that I had to do to be more efficient.

And I wrote. A few hours of new words here and there, a half hour of editing and a minutes of plotting and milieu development wherever I could find the time. I put my fingers on the keyboard because that is what I valued.

Life is complex and dynamic, so finding your balance isn’t a matter of setting up all the elements in stasis. Instead, you must constantly be shifting, reevaluating what you want and reallocating your immediate future to line up with your goals. Will you risk “wasting” your time on things that make you unhappy but are safe and easy, or will you instead pursue the less certain path? It takes honesty and self-awareness, but spending time wisely is a choice and a statement of value.

 

“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance at doing what you love.” ~Jim Carrey, 2014 Commencement Address, MUM Graduation.

Solitude – A Lonely Gift

Imagine being alone in a cabin, writing without being disturbed by anyone and without a cell phone or internet. The basics are there – plumbing, electricity and a land-line phone for emergencies. The cabin is as cozy warm as the ability to lake 2010 087remember to stoke the old wood stove. Sitting in the comfiest recliner, laptop propped on the lap, flying fingers blurt out vivid scenes. You write, you sleep, you go for the occasional walk to clear your head or to work out a problem and then you begin again. Word count rises and spirit soars.

This was the greatest gift I ever gave myself – a whole month of writing, thinking and sleeping. Beyond the accomplishment of a story told, it transformed my understanding of what I need to be a writer.

We try to balance our writing life with our everyday lives which includes work, family, friends and fun in our marvelous technological society. These things are important yet equally important is the need for time to think, create and write. So we plan and eek out snippets of writing time – an hour here, an hour there, a workshop here and a two day retreat there – and we write. Yet, as important as those snippets of time are, they are not solitude for solitude is immersion without expectation of interruption or immediate cessation.

Solitude provides the luxury to explore, think and integrate. Sometimes it isn’t the word count that’s required but the ability to think, brainstorm and plot without distraction. The balance now is that I create opportunities for solitude (even if it’s half a day) and the results of being centered, free-flowing creativity and the calm from problems solved spill into those precious snippets of writing time.lake 2010 041

On that month-long journey of solitude, I discovered that in order to achieve solitude I must walk down the path of desperate loneliness where there are no people, no events, no media – nothing exists but me and my thoughts. Junk-noise and junk-thought withdrawal can be a painful albeit rewarding experience. Now I make a conscientious effort to shut out the junk-noise and junk-thought. Yes, people aren’t happy when I don’t respond to texts or phone calls for hours but they aren’t writing my stories and the unplanned interactions dissolve the state of mind I need to be in.

I never wrote so much so quickly and I never slept as much before! The experience made me aware how exhausting the creative process is. After writing for hours, I’d inhale some food and collapse into a stone-dead nine hour sleep and then do it all over again. So sometimes when I’m reluctant to write it’s because I know I don’t have the energy it takes to be fully engaged nor do I have the time to allow the grey cells to warm up to enough to integrate ideas before creating a coherent symphony of words. Now, I’m a little more forgiving of myself in those moments and I work hard to make sure the time and the energy I need are there.

Solitude allows the brain to become more sensitive to the emotional tenor of words, to the rhythms of not only speech but of story pacing – it’s the crescendo and denouement of action and reaction, heightened and relaxed emotion, the interaction of protagonist and antagonist, the prose of world building mingling with characters experiencing the dynamics of the world. Having an extended experience of the rhythm of words, images and scenes, and having done it long enough to integrate it, I go back into that state when I write. For me, it’s meditation through writing.

lake 2010 061I always thought that solitude was the ideal writing state and had dreamed of being sequestered in a cabin writing forever. Not anymore. Surrounding ourselves with family and friends, experiencing life, those are the things that are fodder for our creative selves. We are creatures of the pack and loneliness in the extreme can as easily erode our ability to write as can the distractions. Balancing solitude and writing with family and friends – that’s what I need. I’ll take my month of solitude again and I’ll keep finding small blocks of it in the meantime. But, I’ll also cherish my time with family and friends for solitude works best when we have something to leave and go back to again!

Happy writing!

Sit Down and Shut Up

I admit it. I’m a slacker. I have no discipline in my life. It practically takes an act of Congress to get me to do my dishes. I’d rather sit around and spend my days swimming through a sea of imagination. Whether reading books, watching movies, or daydreaming, I’m not big on the real world, and as I live alone, I don’t have anyone around to tell me I can’t. But, that doesn’t help me get the stories in my head out. It doesn’t help me get to the next level.

Oh, I could just wait for inspiration, or that terrible urgent need that comes along that makes me write because, if I don’t, my head will explode. That happens, but not often enough to produce any complete story with any speed. I have friends who do that. Who complain that they can’t finish anything because they had “writers block” or they’re living with world-builder’s disease.

My particular demons aren’t original. I get knocked down often by periodic depression. I get mired in the difficulties of trying to construct a plot from the myriad wonderful moments I’ve concocted in my head and often like a complete failure. I forget how much I love writing. But I’ve learned the best thing for it is to keep plodding along. Even when I’m not feeling it. Even when I’d rather be reading that new book I bought. Even when I know the scene I’m writing is complete crap and will probably get cut in the next revision. It doesn’t matter. Every crappy line is one step closer to the good stuff. Every cliche is one sentence out of the sludge that keeps me down.

I’ve said it before on this site, and I will probably say it again and again. The only way to truly defeat the nagging doubts, the distracting delays, the fear that the story will never be ready, or whatever the current issue that keeps the story locked away where no one can read it, is to plant my butt in the chair and keep writing.

So, whenever I get a little lost or down or frustrated, I remind myself that no one is making me write. If I’m having trouble, it’s my own damn fault. I might feel as if writing, when I’m especially inspired, is a need rather than a want, but like the doubts that eventually creep in, that’s really just in my head. Thus, it’s up to me to get over whatever is holding me back. It’s a heady and terrifying thing to think about. It’s also easy to forget.

But even when I do forget, eventually, my inner critic slaps me in face and shouts at me to sit down, shut up, and write. This ridiculous story isn’t going to write itself.