I have spent years observing other writers who seem to effortlessly have their next book written or their book proposal sent off, their next chapter written – and I think – how on EARTH do they do it? In the same haphazard way that I do? Am I just not privy to their disorganized free-floating anxiety? Am I only seeing the end result and therefore am I idealizing them?
I think of a very compelling quote by Virginia Woolf, who said A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
How I wish, Virginia, that that was still the case. Nowadays our lives have distractions that were unimaginable even twenty years ago. We are exposed to more information in a single day than our ancestors would have been in a lifetime.
As my 2013 gears up to be one of the busiest years of my life, I thought I’d ask four of my best writer friends how they manage to get it all done in this crazy, information age. It was totally selfish, initially – I just emailed each one, or we had coffee and I poked around at what they do differently from myself. Turns out – not a lot. Turns out this being a writer thing is just – well it’s tough!
Loving their thoughtful replies and hilarious asides, I put together a more formal interview and thought I’d share it with you, my dear readers. I know it inspired the hell out of me so I hope it does the same for you.
I’d like to thank these lovely women for taking time out of their busy days to really be honest and thoughtful about how writing fits into their lives. A big, grateful huzzah to each and every one of these accomplished writer ladies that I am blessed to call friends.
So here goes.
My Writer Gal Pals
Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor, Slate Magazine. Dahlia has guested on the Colbert Report and NPR and has written for the Washington Post, The New York Times, Elle and the New Republic. She is currently working on a book about the US Supreme Court. Dahlia is also a wife, mom and a friend and mentor of mine who has provided me with insightful feedback on my Huffington Post articles just when I needed it most.
Margaux Froley is the author of the newly released YA book, Escape Theory (Soho Teen Press/Random House) and is already at work on the second installment for which she received a generous advance. A WGA and PGA member, Margaux is also a graduate of the prestigious WB Writer’s Workshop, and if you doubt her achievement oriented ways yet – is also a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is the author of Pastor’s Wives and Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the American Way of Death (Harper/Collins). A former writer for Time Magazine, Lisa recently sold her tv pilot, Ordained. A wife, a mom and a hilarious martini drinking partner, Lisa is a friend who once did me a favor I will never forget.
Hilary Graham is a screenwriter, director and novelist who also just happens to be the very first grand prize winner of the Just Effing Entertain Me Screenwriting Competition. A member of the WGA, Hilary has written scripts for a number of Hollywood production companies including Inferno Entertainment, Robert Lawrence Productions, Marc Platt Productions, and The Disney Channel. Hilary is the author of YA novel, Reunited (Simon & Shuster) . A wife and mom, Hilary juggles the day-to-day without missing a beat. Or does she?
What is your working style? Organized chaos? Or discrete chunks of time devoted to your writing?
For me, its organized Chaos. And I know a thing or two about both. I write for a job so every morning I send my kids to school and write and write, often skipping lunches and exercise and all else. If I am off covering a story I go, come home and then write, per above. I tend to write all the way up to the edge of the deadline although I am pleased to say my days of all-nighters are down to about one per year. I am a very fast writer (which happened after I had my kids) so mainly I just try to organize my life so that I shut down the computer as the kids walk in the door. I find that with about 6 hours per day plus snacks and cat-care I can get it done.
I’m pretty specific about my writing time. I make a point to turn off my email program by 10am and not check email again until at least 12, preferably 1. Really, what emails do I get that are that urgent? When I’m getting going again after a break from writing, I set shorter bursts of time, ie, 20 min without checking email/internet…then 45 min. then an hour and build up to 2 hours to combat my ADDness. It’s like training a muscle all over again. I generally write from 10-1, and 2-5. After that I’m pretty fried and not much good will come.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
My work hours are necessarily confined by my children’s school hours. I wish I could say I write that whole period. Instead I do lists and laundry and e-mail.
Unlike other areas of my life, I’m a pretty disciplined when it comes to my writing time. I write five days a week, Monday through Friday, from 9:00am to 3:00pm while my son is at school. Sometimes, if I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll write at night and on weekends, too. Which is about as draining as it sounds. I’m fortunate enough to have my very own home office, complete with an elliptical machine for whenever I need to get those endorphins flowing.
Do you fight your particular style or embrace it? Is it a struggle, in other words?
I do wish I were more organized. I wish I journaled every day from 8-10 am like I have been meaning to do for YEARS. I wish I carried around a darling little notebook for big ideas but inavriably it gets filled with shopping lists and telephone numbers. In other words, I wish I lived my life like a Real Writer; that it consumed me and that I thought about the craft of it and went to writers retreats and really wrote as if my life depended on it. I don’t. At least since my sons were born I mainly write like its a job; I write the way I would set out canned goods if I worked at Food Lion. I hate that. I like to think that when my boys are older and my time is more my own I will live a life that maps more completely onto my profession. But for now I think this is how it must be.
Yes, it’s always a struggle..until it isn’t. Basically I fight it, fight it, and then suddenly it’s going and I have no idea what time it is. I try to equate writing like swimming. I just have to get in the water and keep swimming. When I find myself drifting into perezhilton.com territory and checking mindless internet fodder. I remind myself to “keep swimming”. On a good day I’ll meditate for 20 minutes before I start writing. That helps shut down/minimize the “to-do” voices and ground me in my creative mind. My characters won’t talk to me if I’m writing grocery lists in my head. Also, I’ve solved some major story problems through meditation…it works!
Writing fiction is always, always a struggle. And I’m so new to it that I don’t yet have a particular work style. I think the only reason I complete anything is due to my background as a journalist. I report, then I outline, then I write. I try to keep to this, but it’s different when you’re making stuff up.
Embrace, embrace, embrace! Not that this always makes my time at the computer struggle-free. Hands down, the hardest part of writing is breaking plot. The easiest part (and greatest joy) comes when I find myself in the flow of things. Though sadly, I can never control when I’ll be in or out of the flow.
Do you make lists? Do you calendar your time? What tips or tricks help you be more productive?
I do make lists although I lose them with a consistency that is quite terrifying. I have a funny paper day-planner next to my desk. On days when I absolutely MUST be on deadline I turn off Facebook and email. You have to turn it right off. I think that the old writers rule about setting yourself a quota — 3000 words per day or 3 hours — and not allowing yourself to violate it really work. I think writers groups work — shaming one another into producing. For me, the fact is usually that I have more ideas of pieces to write than I have time so productivity is not such a huge problem; finding time is a larger issue.
I’m a list nut. LOVE crossing things off my list. I try to keep my calendar as clear as possible, or if I’ve got lunch meetings, etc..try to put them all in one day so I can keep the rest of the week free. I’ll devote half of a set day to house stuff, bills, errands. Just knowing there is a set time for that stuff keeps it from drifting into my writing time. That said..when I have to write and get my butt in the chair..SUDDENLY I have an intense need to scrub my bathtub or sanitize my garbage cans. Don’t know what that is..it’s not like I have the need to do general house things, only the rarely done, sweat-inducing, gross house projects. Also, the trick I find about productivity is being honest when you’re not productive. When I find myself spinning my wheels, the smartest thing I can do is step away from the computer, go for a hike, get some sunshine. Usually the answer will come to me if I take a step away.
Without absolute deadlines for novels and scripts, I give myself fake ones. Like: three pages a day for novel manuscripts (that’s a goal, not a habit); finished ms by the end of the year.
I like to make to-lists that are organized by priority. So the further things are down the list, the less the likelihood I’ll get to them. But that’s okay. I’d rather overreach, even if that means I eventually need to let go of some of my less realistic plans. But for an anal-retentive type like me, there are few things more satisfying than being able to cross something off my list.
How do you also manage to mother or be in your relationship or do your day job on top of your writing?
This is super tricky and opens all those vile mommy-wars disputes that I try to stay out of; the ones where we shout at one another about work-life balance. For me I just say over and over that my kids need me as a mom more than the world needs my writing. I don’t think that is gender-frieghted because I would say the same thing of the kids dad and his art. I try very hard to make my husband and kids my priority because I feel like I can write like a demon when I am old and crazy. One of my rules after I got married and had kids was that every minute you might spend feeding your ego (by googling your name or fussing over the number of #FF’s you get on Twitter) is a moment better spent feeding your relationships. I try to be true to that. it’s hard because writers need stroking. But I feel like my cats need stroking more.
My boyfriend just moved in with me, but luckily he is a writer too and we are blessed with generous space in our loft. We each have our own desks and rarely touch each other’s desk stuff. We just merged our book collection, which, to a writer, is the equivalent of unprotected sex. We respect each other’s work time. “Headphones in” – generally means, “don’t bother me”. BUT, we also make a point to finish the writing day by 6 or 7, and cook dinner together. Then we’ll probably talk about our work from the day. He has helped me solve so many story issues over dinner, I should pay him a percentage.
Kids. I don’t have kids, I want them in the not-so-distant future, but it’s a huge conundrum in Writerville. How do you become a mother in this environment? I am in awe of writers with children who actually find time to write. A TV writer friend of mine put it well when she said, “I’ll have kids when I can afford help with the kids.” I couldn’t agree more. Hollywood and kids don’t mesh well. The successful writers I know with children have demanding jobs, but are also literally millionaires. The ones who have kids, from my perspective, generally have a hard time staying competitive. I have TV writer girlfriends (we’re all in our 30s) who are putting their eggs on ice. I’ve had it recommended from lots of writers, “don’t have kids until you’re a showrunner”. Jeez. Wait until I’m at the top of the food chain, and THEN have a kid? How long will that take? And when I get there, won’t I want to work harder to stay at the top? I don’t have a solution to this one, but thought it was worth mentioning. While the majority of my non-writing girlfriends are having kids left and right (6 babies from friends this year alone!)…I have no idea when my career will get to a point where that works.
My day job WAS writing (as a longtime staff writer at Time magazine). I found I had to quit to write other stuff. I did write my first book while on staff, while I had my first baby. I have no idea how that happened. My family is much, much happier with me writing from home…and so am I. I constantly wish for more time to myself, to read, to think, to write. When friends boast about their stints at writers’ retreats like Yaddo, I want to stab them with a Tinkerbell wand. But as my musician husband says, you have to trust that life experiences like parenting enrich your work. It forces discipline.
Finding the balance can be difficult, especially when my mind is stuck inside a story and I want to be present and emotionally available to my young son. But most of the time, I love the flexibility of not having a regular “day job,” allowing me to chaperone my son’s field trips if I want to, or volunteer at his school. That being said, today happens to be a snow day, meaning that all my plans to write are out the window, since my sledding buddy’s needs come first.
Do you ever get blowback from your family or relationship because of your writing time? How do you manage that? Is your family supportive, in other words?
Yes they are supportive. And yes I get blowback. And like every working parent missing the first little league game is the worst of the worst parental atrocities possible. My husband is absurdly accomodating, although he tries to be protective when I take on more than I can handle. My kids wish I didnt work but are about equally proud of my work. So I take that as a wash. I want my sons to see this modeled: moms and dads who work but put them first. I suspect it is an experiment that began when the egg met the sperm and will end upon college graduation. But it helps to know there is no work life balance. There is only life.
My family is incredibly supportive. When I don’t pick up the phone, or return emails to family or friends right away the “I’m writing” excuse seems to work for them. I realize they probably have no idea what that really means, and sometimes, I’m not always writing. But “I’m writing, can’t talk” has become a common phrase that seems to work. I think because someone is actually publishing my book this phrase holds more water than it used to. My dad loves to hear about my research and story development, and then he’ll tell me stories he’s read about Hemingway’s process. It’s hilarious/sweet/odd that my dad compares me to Hemingway, but that’s how he relates, so be it.
My husband and I trade off work time. He’ll do the school drop-off, I’ll do pick-up; he’ll take an hour to practice while I make dinner, I’ll take a couple hours to cut down a script while he monitors a playdate (that’s what’s happening this morning). It’s a constant negotiation, but not (usually) fraught. Sometimes I envy my writer friends married to bankers and lawyers because their income isn’t a concern, while mine keeps us off food stamps. But then, my husband takes my work as seriously as I take his.
My husband is incredibly supportive of my career, even when I’m having a lean year when I’m not exactly a major contributor to the household income. And he’s always encouraging when I need to fly off to LA or New York to take meetings, though I think a week of me being away probably feels like a breeze to him since I spent the entire summer of 2007 in LA while on the Mark Burnett/Stephen Spielberg reality show ON THE LOT. (You can read more about that experience here.) His one gripe is that I don’t manage to keep the house clean even though I’m “home all day.”
What would you do differently or alternatively, what really works for you in terms of productivity?
I would like to finish tasks a week ahead of deadlines. I would like to say “no” to projects that don’t really interest me; projects I take on out of fear that they may dry up some day. I would like to be less REACTIVE and more deft at dreaming up my own project, as opposed to waiting for them to be offered. I think women have trouble with that kind of blue-sky dreaming.
Meditate more, social media better. Those are my goals. Getting my butt in the chair isn’t the problem, it’s getting my head in the right space to be creative, and then being more comfortable with the marketing of myself and my books. But, it’s all a journey, isn’t it? Lately I’ve been really appreciating “the craft” of writing. Somehow understanding it as a craft, a discipline, takes the pressure off of being brilliant NOW. The writing is always getting better, I’m always evolving, and as long as I keep writing I have faith that my increased skill and wisdom will show up on the page
If I had my druthers, I’d keep my schedule exactly as it is. But change, it’s a-comin’. If my CBS pilot makes it to series, this happy balance will be turned topsy-turvy. We’ll adjust.
We all know the internet can be a major time suck, but to combat my tendency toward distraction, I’ve purchased a great little software called Freedom that blocks my internet access. Of course, I still have my phone or laptop is I get desperate, but having an internet-free space to write really helps.
A big thank you to some very accomplished writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer these questions and, dear reader, here is a really great Tedx talk about productivity - really – take the 20 minutes to watch and get very inspired about how to better “engage appropriately” and create the “psychic bandwidth” that you need to be your creative best!