Writers have it tough. Not only do we have to contend with our (often brutal) inner critics, we have to face criticism when our work does make its way out into the world. Plus, there’s the whole “finding time to write” thing, which for me has taken on a whole new meaning.
After finishing graduate school, I assumed I’d get a job and have all kinds of free time to write. Turns out that’s mostly true, but the complication I wasn’t expecting is that I’d actually spend that free time not wanting to write.
See, I work as a writer – which, for someone who studied writing for six years, is a pretty sweet gig. The flipside of that job is that my job – the thing I spend 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week doing – is writing. For other people. That means when I get home the last thing I want to do is do the same thing I just spent all day doing.
I set out to find what other writers are doing – how they handle balancing their own writing with the writing they do for work, what struggles they’ve faced and how they’ve dealt with them. Unfortunately, not many of the writers I spoke to have answers.
My brilliant friend Emily had this to say:
It’s tricky to maintain any kind of ambition for personal projects, especially when we’re in the groove of writing professionally. Plus, many writers report losing their personal voice to their professional voice or finding it hard to shift gears, even on the weekends.
All of my current projects have stalled out. Several are in their final stages, so I’m particularly disappointed by my lack of writing stamina. How do we prioritize our own writing when there are so many other demands for our words (especially when those demands are tied to making a living)?
I started thinking about some of the ways I have been trying to break through, in addition to some other hopeful ideas I’ve had or have gathered from other writers. This list represents, more than anything, a message to myself about how to still be a writer while also being a professional writer.
Here are my 7 tips for balancing work and writing.
1. Be Okay with Taking a Break
At some point (okay, like yesterday), I moved past my sad feelings and realized my lack of writing is not the end of the world. After all, taking a break of a few months is not the end of the world, right?
Being okay with having time when you’re not writing for yourself is an absolute must. Otherwise, you get caught up in a wicked web of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacies and hopelessness. It’s simply not viable to work full time as a writer (or, I suspect, any career) and devote all your free time to your creative writing or personal projects.
I had to have this last few months to focus on my new life: no longer a student, working in a new field, catching up on stuff that I had zero time for in my last year of grad school. Adding in the pressure of revising and submitting would’ve been too much. I thought that not having to worry about school meant I’d have so much time for other stuff and that the free time would immediately motivate me to do ALL the writing things. What I failed to take into account is that my mind and body needed some time to decompress after a whirlwind master’s program and everything that preceded and followed it.
Sometimes we just need a break. It’s not forever, and I think it will make us better able to handle adding writing back into our lives.
2. Find Other Sources of Inspiration
It’s hard to be inspired when our brains are locked onto professional writing or projects. It can be nearly impossible to shift out of that mindset and find inspiration to start writing creatively again. Lately I’ve discovered that some of the other activities I’ve been doing are fulfilling me in other ways.
I’ve been reading a ton – but mainly quick, easy reads in genre fiction – and binge watching whatever I want. This has helped my brain really relax and quit overthinking things. I’ve also been exploring some and taking plenty of pictures. These activities aren’t necessarily what we mean when we think “inspiration,” but they’ve worked well to help with that decompressing I mentioned. At this point I’m feeling better equipped to tackle some of my writing projects now that I’ve had time and space to not think so hard.
Plenty writers I talked to mention reading for inspiration, so I think, as a whole, we writers are pretty good at that. But I would encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and read books that you normally wouldn’t – especially if you tend toward the cerebral; try reading something fun and ridiculous.
Some of those I questioned also mentioned finding inspiration in what they do – whether that be letting themselves admire their own professional voice or taking some time to fully realize the other hobbies and skills they have. We should all take a moment to pat ourselves on the back for doing our job. Not everyone can write, and you’re getting paid to do it.
3. Carry a Notebook
Writing every day is the goal, sure. But for me, it’s been an impossible task. A few months ago I read a bunch about the tool morning pages from the book The Artist’s Way – basically you just freewrite every single morning for three pages. People swear by it and claim it is a revolutionary, yet simple way to change yourself and reinvigorate your creative side. I was sold.
It lasted all of zero days.
I’ve always been good about keeping a journal – well, until the last year or so – but it has never been a consistent habit. Sometimes I would write every day, or even a few times a day; other times I go weeks between journaling. I think the idea of forcing myself to write every morning immediately brought out my inner rebellious teenager. (You can’t make me, I imagine her saying.)
If morning pages makes sense for you, definitely check it out and give it a try. If it doesn’t, at least carry a notebook with you or keep one handy. I have a notebook at home and a smaller one I keep in my purse. I also use my phone’s Notes app to jot down ideas as they come to me. The point is to actually log the ideas – fleeting as they may be – whenever possible. This has both helped me keep some of my ideas for projects and made me stay optimistic that someday I’ll write again.
4. Make Yourself Write OR
5. Let Yourself Write
Along the same lines as morning pages is the idea that you should make yourself write. This might mean making time every day or every week and using that time to write, no matter what. For some writers, this might be a helpful way to ensure you’re writing, and it might give you time to write through the blocks. If you are the kind of person who can self-discipline pretty well, this might be a good idea for you.
But if you’re like me (with a raging inner rebellious teen), this will backfire. Every time I’ve tried to “make” myself write, I end up playing Candy Crush for two straight hours or something like that. A simple change of mindset has been working a bit better for me: when I get the urge and I have the time, I let myself write.
Of course, it doesn’t always happen, but when I do let myself write, I usually end up with more than I thought I would. Instead of letting the plague of self-doubt or that mean inner critic tell me why I shouldn’t, I allow myself to just write whatever is coming to me. I can get pretty tricksy with myself, so I’ve even just saved documents with names like “Journal” or “Ideas” that I write in – that way it doesn’t feel like I’m trying to write an essay or a story, I’m just saving some ideas for later.
Whether you make yourself write or let yourself write, you have to be kind to yourself. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that. Being a writer is a choice, and it’s actually a pretty agonizing way to spend a lot of your time, so being mean to you isn’t going to get you very far. Which leads me to my next tip.
6. Be Open about Your Struggles, Guilt, and Angst
It’s incredibly important to me to have a network of writers. It’s been so helpful to me to have people who understand how hard it is to write, and who let me talk about doubt and writerly guilt. Each time I’ve been open about what struggles I’m dealing with or how much I’ve been beating myself up about not writing, I’ve felt better. I’ve felt like I maybe I actually can write and that everything is going to be okay.
When you don’t talk about the struggle of writing, or the guilt you have about not writing, or how mean your inner critic is, that stuff festers. It gets worse and it drags you down further. Other writers know what it’s like and they can commiserate, and they can (if you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive group – and if you don’t you need to remedy that immediately) remind you how lovely and smart you are and that you write brilliantly and beautifully.
Writing may be solitary activity, but you’re a better writer when you get outside of yourself and talk about it. Writing networks aren’t just meant for those precious times when the words are pouring out of you and you have drafts upon drafts to share. They are also crucial to the discipline.
7. Let Go of Expectations
As I mentioned earlier, I had some big ideas about what my time would look like once I finished school. Everything is so different than what I expected, so it’s been an adjustment to say the least. I know I’m so fortunate to have a job and to have a job in my field, but I had no idea how that would affect my own creative writing.
Resetting my expectations about everything has been the only way I could contend with being a writer now. It’s not just how I’m spending my time, either. I’ve had to realize that when I do write, I need more time to find my voice. During my master’s program, I wrote all the time. I wrote in different genres and I wrote mostly academic work. But I still had space to write creatively. I had classes that I was required to write creatively for. And, for me, writing in different genres forced me to flex my writing muscles in different ways, which helped me shift back into my other writing personas more easily.
I know it won’t ever be easy to balance being a professional writer with being a writer. I will always have to prioritize writing for others and make space for the kinds of writing I want to do for myself. I love what I do for a living, so I know I am lucky that this is the main writing struggle I’m facing. Here’s hoping that I find the balance and get back in the swing of things. And, here’s hoping you do, too.
How do you find the time and energy to write? I’d love to hear your tips!