Finding "Space" to Write, Refilling the Well, and Cheating: Balancing the Need to Create with Everything Else

writers workshop

This past weekend, despite still recovering from a nasty cold, my husband and I drove six hours across the state to Hill City for a writer’s workshop. I’ve returned more tired than I ought to be after a weekend, but also recommitted to my writing, reassured that I’m on the right track, and grateful for the occasional opportunity to put my writing first in my life — something that I wish I could do every day, but which far too often gets sacrificed at the altar of Earning a Living.

Which is why, when we had a chance to ask all four featured “author-mentors” (Pamela Smith Hill, Kent Meyers, Norma Wilson, and Dan O’Brien) questions in the weekend’s final panel, I asked them how they managed to prioritize their writing against the competing demands of their “other” priorities (teaching, ranching, family, etc.) Although I have always managed to find time for my writing in one way or another, I can never seem to find enough. Next to my writing desk, I’ve kept a quote by Gish Jen for years:

“There is never enough time for writing; it is a parallel universe where the days, inconveniently, are also 24 hours long. Every moment spent in one’s real life is a moment missed in one’s writing life, and vice versa.”

Kent Meyers took the microphone first and said that he no longer gave pointers on how to find time for writing — he said anyone could find time. What is really needed is the space to write — not a physical space, although that is important, too, as Virginia Woolf so eloquently argued. But more a mental space — a way to push away the world’s competing demands for your time and to push aside the guilt for whatever is not getting done so you can write. “You have to acknowledge the guilt so you can forgive yourself and move on and write,” Meyers said.

Dan O’Brien shared advice he had received from a writing mentor: “If you want to write, you’re going to have to cheat. You will be cheating your employer, or cheating your health, or cheating your family. The only way to find time to write is to cheat someone else.”

Pamela Smith Hill mentioned the importance of discipline, but she also acknowledged the reality that, for many of us, whatever jobs we work at to pay the bills “draw from the same well” as our writing energy. Being aware of this can help us to be more forgiving — that well of creativity and will-power and discipline is NOT bottomless, and it needs time to refill. Sometimes, it’s just depleted, and we have to accept that. But she stressed that to do this, we also have to keep our promises to ourselves: “If I acknowledge that one day work has drained me too much to write, then I promise myself I will write for two hours tomorrow. And I keep that promise.”

All of this resonated with me and reminded me how important it is that I continue in this struggle to clear out not only more time for writing but also more space. This is particularly challenging as it relates to my work life. Seven years ago I left traditional, full-time employment to pursue freelance work full-time, with the goal of being able to better fashion my life around my writing. But with the loss of traditional employment comes the loss of financial security, and money worries can take up a lot of brain space. It also drives home more than anything else that old adage that “time is money” — unlike when I went into an office for eight hours every day, I was acutely aware that each moment I spent not working on projects for clients was time that I was not earning any money. It can be very difficult to choose an hour of writing over an hour of paid work, especially at the times in my life when I have been most financially insecure.

I managed to strike an almost perfect balance a couple years ago, with a steady, part-time, “traditional” gig that paid well but did not gobble up very much brain space and had very clearly defined boundaries. This allowed me time to meet commitments for my freelance clients and also left lots of brain space for writing. But this idyllic existence came to an abrupt end when expectations from my “part-time” gig changed and work started oozing into mornings, evenings, and weekends, squeezing my writing time and freelance commitments into corners and leaving me with perpetually tense shoulders and some decisions to make about what would stay in my life and what would have to go. Since then, I have been in a state of perpetual angst about work, time, writing, and the way the first of those three tends to beat the other two into submission.

Because, of course, it has the bully stick of money.

I don’t talk about money much on this blog — or at all — because it isn’t that important to me. But I feel financially secure for the first time in my life, and that is not something to give up lightly (especially since my cat is at the vet for dental procedures as I write this).

Still, for pretty much my entire working life I have fantasized about finding a steady, well-paying, monotonous job that requires very little thought and very little human interaction. Although I would certainly not find such a job nearly as satisfying as the jobs I’ve held that have allowed me to use my talent and my training, it would not encroach so much on the writing “space” I try to keep clear in my mind, nor would it draw so much from the creative “well” that would prefer to runneth over with the joy of creating on its own terms.

There is no easy answer to these questions of balancing life and art, but this past weekend has showed me that all creative people who also need to earn a living or care for family share in this struggle — and that what’s important is that we remain aware of it, look for opportunities to tweak our lives to foster what is most important to us, and continue to “cheat” as need be so that we don’t ultimately cheat ourselves of the work that is most meaningful to us — even when it doesn’t pay the bills.