Monday, November 11, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part IV (Managing the Day Job)

Today, in Part IV of our series about how to be a writer, we're going to discuss one of the most hated aspects of being a creative of any type: The day job. I know, we've all been fed the image of the professional writer who flies off to make movies of his work and has a huge mansion and a private plane and gobs of money that would make Scrooge McDuck envious, but that's now how it actually works for the vast majority of us.

Of the thousands of writers in the world today, according to many sources, only about 300 of them can actually make a living at it. Think about that for a moment. Judging by the numbers of attendees at writers conventions that I go to, that's like one out of every thousand or so. Or more. So what chance to do you have? Same as anyone else, I imagine. And, while it's noble to say "I will be the exception!" and go whole-hog into it without a net, most folks have to do things like pay rent (and the electricity bill for your laptop from part one of this series) and like to do silly things like eat. So what does that mean? You need the dreaded day job.

I've been fortunate my entire working life in that I've worked (with very minor breaks) in university settings. Currently, I work for Texas State University and Seton Hill University. Why? Because they give the predictability of a steady schedule, health insurance, paid vacation, a retirement plan, etc. But working for a university is just not an option for some folks (trust me, I know how lucky I am). So how do you navigate both careers at the same time? The key, of course, is planning.

If you work hourly, let's say retail, without a fixed schedule, you need to make sure you take time for your writing career. It may not be every day, but you need to make it a priority in your life. For example, let's say you work the morning shift (8am - 5pm) M-W-F. That means that on M-W-F, you need to carve out a block of time when you get home to do your writing. T-TH, you have all day. Does that mean you can just write whenever? Theoretically, yes, but I find it better when I have a set schedule. That's me, though. What if you work mornings one day, evenings the next? Besides trying to find a new job, the same thing applies. You need to carve out a time when you can work. Wake up early to get it done. I don't recommend staying up until all hours because that becomes a vicious cycle of self-abuse. Since I work from 7:30am to 4:30pm every weekday, my writing schedule is easy. I get home at around 5 or 5:15pm every day, and I decompress for about thirty minutes (pet my dogs, sit on my porch), then I eat dinner. After dinner, I go into my office and bang away until I get 1000 words written (more on that in a future blog).  On weekends, I actually still do work, but I also take time out to be with friends and family, pet my dogs and ride my motorcycle.

The point is, I know it seems impossible, but it isn't. With planning, you can accomplish juggling the two careers. It's difficult, and it sucks, but only until you get used to it as your "new normal." Once you figure out the whole scheduling thing, it becomes a question of discipline and drive. Think of it like this: If you want to lose weight, there's a very simple calculus for doing so - Eat right and exercise. Every now and again, you have a "cheat day" where you can eat carbs or pizza or whatever, but then you have to have the drive to get back in the gym and hit it hard. Writing is the same way. You want to write that novel? You have to put in the time. You have to set a routine. It's okay to take a day off every now and again, but once that day off is done, get back into your writing gym and hit it hard.

A few other tips:

  • Do not write at work on work-owned equipment - Check your contract, if you have one. Chances are, anything written on company-owned equipment becomes owned by the company, and that includes your novel.  Dropbox is a great thing, but if you put it on your work computer to access your work, then guess what. Everything in your dropbox could be argued to become company property as well. Want to take the guesswork out? Just don't do it 
  • Do keep a notebook at work - You don't need to write the whole plot line, but keep a notebook and a pen handy and make notes when you get ideas. I keep a pocket-sized composition book in my pocket when I'm at work, and it's full of random little notes that wind up in my books later. 
  • Read on breaks - Part of being a writer is reading. It's a thing that we all do, and it's a way to continually stay sharp in our genre and take ideas from other genres. On your lunch break, have a seat, eat your lunch, and read a chapter in a book. It's good for a brain break. 
  • Post your schedule - I don't just mean your work schedule, but also your work schedule. Put it on your refrigerator. 8am - 5pm, work. 7pm - 9pm, writing. Post it so you and everyone else you live with can see it. 
  • Don't talk about the book you're writing to just everyone at work - Sure, if you have a friend at work, that's great. But people don't want to hear about what book you're writing. Especially ad-nausium if you're just now writing it. From experience, depending on where you work, mentioning that you're a hopeful writer will get you a combination of snide comments, pithy nicknames, and outright jeers. 
  • Do tell folks when it gets picked up - Folks love to pick up books by people they know. Just be ready to educate people on what it's really like to be a writer (i.e. my first book got picked up and, no, I'm not a bazillionaire yet).
  • Join a writers organization - Seriously, whatever genre you write in, there's an org for it. Horror? Join the HWA. Romance, RWA. Sci-Fi/Fantasy? Join SFWA. Why? Because these organizations are there to help their members succeed. Some even offer health insurance discounts. No kidding. 
Being a writer with a day-job (full or part time) is manageable. It's a pain, but manageable. The hardest part is to never let your day-job-self crush the ambition of the writer-self. With discipline, determination, and planning, you can do this.

And one more thing... This image made me think of this entry.
Amen.


Next time, we talk about making routines and setting goals.

Until then, write on!

SAJ



Monday, November 4, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part III (Self Care)

This is a very sensitive subject, and one that is very close to my heart. I talk about mental health and physical well-being all of the time, but I think there are aspects of being this weird "writer" creature that many people do not take into account. Someone has to talk about it, so it may as well be your old Uncle Scott.

First thing's first: This whole "writing" thing? It's hard. Really hard. There's no stability, no retirement plan (unless you make one), no healthcare (unless you buy it), and no steady paycheck. Sure, you're your own boss, you set your own hours, etc. But there's a downside to that: It's all on you. And that leads a great many of us creative-types (not just writers...) to have a particular mental outlook on the world. Yes, I'm talking about depression. Serious, severe depression. Studies have shown (links below) that writers and creative types (musicians, artists, comedians) are more prone to depression than the so-called "normal" folks, and while theories abound as to why, no one really has clue one about the solid concrete cause. Of course, I have my own theories. Shall I share them?

To my mind, part of what leads the humble writer to depression is that we are constantly bombarded with rejection. Literally, our worth in our chosen field is determined by a group of strangers who don't know us, the random masses who may or may not read our work, and even people that may or may not "get" what we were going for in a story. And those things are not objective at all. They're all determined by taste, upbringing, what they had for lunch today (you try being nice with heartburn...), or even how their day is going. So you, the writer, spend months writing what you think is the greatest story you've ever written, then you send it out to agents and editors, and the response you get is "no." Or worse, "meh." And suddenly, the invasive thought appear. "I suck." "I'll never be good at this." "Why do I bother?" "I should've been a veterinarian." We fall into a hole of self-doubt and beat ourselves up until one of two things happens: We either quit, or we get stubborn about it and keep moving on.

Another reason for this issue in our lives is that writing is largely a solitary endeavor. As social creatures, we crave human contact. Even if you say you hate people and want to live as a hermit, for the most part, there will come a point where, if you don't have human contact, it's unhealthy. So we want people in our lives, friends, spouses, significant others, but we want them to leave us the hell alone when we're working.

We impose deadlines on ourselves and feel guilty when we don't meet them. We set impossible expectations for our work and fall into despair when it comes up short. We all have dreams of being the next big thing, and those dreams are constantly being smacked with a hammer.

So what can we do? Give up? Nope. I'm stubborn. I've got some things that I do when I'm on a downward swing that may help you.

Give yourself permission to suck. Look, not every word you write is going to be gold. Every first draft sucks, and that's the truth. So when you read through something, try to see your intent when you wrote it as opposed to how many times you wrote "there" instead of "they're." If you find something that sucks, mark it, revisit it, and ponder on what you could do to make a stronger choice. But don't beat yourself up over little mistakes or first-draft fuckery. It's fine. Everyone does this, from King to someone you've never heard of. Every first draft sucks.

Give yourself permission to step away from the keyboard. You know what happens when you're at your keyboard and the words won't come, but you're still sitting there determined to force them to appear? Nothing. The words still won't come. And you begin to feel depression jumping on you because you're obviously not a real writer because you can't just summon the muse from the ether and  make her shit out a few dozen pages at will. It doesn't work like that. Never has, never will. Yes, set a daily word count goal, and hit that goal, but also recognize when you need to step away for a few minutes. Realize that, at some point, you're going to get blocked and you may need to take a lap to get that creative magic back in your fingers.

Take a walk. When I'm having difficulty, I like to do things that I don't have to particularly "think" about. Typically, that means taking a walk through the neighborhood. See, if I sit and watch a TV show, I get involved in the plot. Hell, I wind up binge-watching the whole thing, and that's just a giant time-suck. Same thing for movies, though I love watching movies in the theater. Instead, I go for a walk through my neighborhood. I don't have to think about where I'm going so long as I follow the sidewalk, and that gives my brain a chance to kickstart itself back into working.

Exercise. One of the other pitfalls of this lifestyle is that it requires large amounts of time with butt in chair, which isn't conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Realize that the amount of time we spend in the chair for each novel is directly proportional to what I like to call "ass-spread." At least, it's that way for me. When I graduated from high school, long before I realized I wanted to be a writer, I weighed 142 pounds soaking wet and had 6% body fat. After more than a decade of being a writer, I saw my weight soar to the heaviest I've ever been, which is 240 pounds. Every joint I had hurt, and I got winded going upstairs in my own house. Since then, I've been on an exercise program, and at the time of this blog entry, I'm at 211. Exercise is a great way to turn off your brain and let it do the processing for you.

Read. How did we first learn to tell stories? By reading the works of the masters of our craft. How can we recharge when we feel that our batteries are low? By reading the works that inspired us to start with.

Connect. As I said, we are social creatures, whether we want to be or not. It's biology. So you do occasionally have to get out and (*gasp*) hang out with your friends. Reconnect with the people in your life that care about you and want to know where the hell you've been. Remind yourself that you do have people who love you. And if you don't think you do, I'm betting you're wrong. And if you want a more "writerly" way of connecting, have I got a solution for you: Writers' Workshops. I regularly attend In Your Write Mind, a writer's retreat created by alumni of Seton Hill University, at which I work. There are writers' retreats, workshops, and conventions in every state all year through. There are organizations for your genre as well. I'm a member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Association. Why? Because it's nice to not feel alone in this endeavor, and it's nice to have other people to talk to, to ask questions, and to basically bullshit around with.

Get help. There is no shame in the realization that you need help. Everyone needs help. Invasive thoughts, feelings of depression, hopelessness... These are signs of a larger problem, and one that a qualified, trained professional can help with. Please, before it's too late, get help.

These are the things that work for me. And you may need to find more that work for you. I was diagnosed with what was at the time known as severe manic depression years ago. I also have a touch of PTSD, the reasons for which I won't go into now. I have been on that ledge, on that chair, at the proverbial tipping point where my life could've ended. One thing that helped me walk away from it with my life still intact was this:  YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people who can help you. And here's one other little thing that I do when I'm having a mental health crisis... I write about it. The books that I wrote after a major trauma in my life feature some very heart-crushing themes, and they were my way of getting them out of my soul and healing. I'm not saying it's a magical panacea for everything what ails you, but I'm saying that, for me, it helped. I have lost too many friends to suicide, and I've had a couple of friends come awfully damned close. I don't want to lose any more, and I don't want to be the cause of anyone else's misery if I be the one taking my own life.

The point of this entry is very simple: You can't be a writer if you're not around to write. Make your goals, set your deadlines, whatever, but you have to make time to take care of yourself. Read that again. You have to make time to take care of yourself. Take a hot bath, take a nap, go grab a coffee, reconnect with friends... Do something that makes you feel good about who you are as a person. Take care of yourself.  And don't you dare let anyone shame you for it. If anyone says "well, you're not a real writer unless..." Kick that person squarely in the junk. Tell them I told you to. I gave you permission. G'head. Send 'em my way.

Remember, your story will not get written if you aren't around to write it. You are valid. You have worth. And there is an audience for your work.

Next time, we'll talk about that pesky day job.

Until then, write on!

SAJ

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