AUTHORS TALK SHOP: CARRIE CUINN ON THE BALANCING ACT OF THE WRITER CARRIE CUINN
Circus performers don’t know how to walk a tightrope the first time they step onto the line. It takes years of trial and error, stepping clumsily onto wooden beams, and then taught ropes a foot off the ground, before graduating to a practice line hung over safety nets which they only traverse while wearing a harness. It’s a difficult thing to do, this balancing act, and everyone falls down the first several times they try.
“In real life, the gators would eat you up!” Rope Walk Artist by Heinrich Kley circa 1910-1920
Managing a career as a writer with anything else in your life is just as difficult. Have a day job? You have to go to that, you have to make money to pay your bills, but at the same time, that’s hours out of your day that you can’t write. Maybe you have a child you care for, instead of working, or as well as working outside of the home, and his needs take up your time. Sleeping, eating, reading, watching television, traveling to and from work or anywhere else, socializing, having sex … all of these things, as good and valuable as they are, taking time away from writing. Once you lose that time, you’re never getting it back, right?
Well, actually, you kind of do, because those other things make it so you can write at all. The parts of your life that aren’t writing give you something to write about. They entertain and relax you so that you can focus on the words. They make your life comfortable so you can focus on other areas (like your writing), and they distract your fore-brain so your back-brain can ruminate on your latest work. We need relationships too, people to share our successes with … because otherwise our stories become secrets told into a vacuum, and then what’s the point? Writing is so hard and so lonely that we need someone to love us who understands.
Those jobs, friends, and lovers provide us with that safety net for the days writing makes us feel like we’re falling from a great height. But if we linger too long with our distractions, we don’t get any writing done at all. Then we’re miserable and unfulfilled. The light of all that is good in our lives starts to fade. We can’t see what’s beautiful outside of us when we hate what’s inside of us, and it’s easy to hate yourself when you’re failing to produce the one thing you think you’re mean to create. So what do you do? Do you quit writing, and regret that the rest of your life? Do you quit your job?
Most people can’t afford that. What about letting go of your relationships to focus on words instead? You’ll have more time, but you won’t have recognition of your work by someone who saw what you put into it.
The only way to have a life you can look back on without regret is to find a way to balance it all. You have to sit down and think about what you need, and what makes you happy (I promise that you will need happiness, too). It helps to take a look at how much time you spend on those things now. Some of that isn’t going to be negotiable – your job probably has set hours, or your child is only in school during a certain part of the day. That’s the frame that you have to build your writing schedule around.
Next is the part where you have to make decisions about how little time you can spend on things that aren’t writing. Maybe you can cut down on your television watching time. A movie a week plus your two favorite shows will total about four hours of time, that, spread out over three days isn’t too much time to spend unwinding, especially if your day job is stressful. Talk to the people in your life about supporting you by letting you spend less (but not none!) time with them each week. Ask your boyfriend nicely and he might agree to one weekly dinner and one weekend night together for a few months, instead of every night. Instead of going out with friends every Friday, alternate a fun night out with a night alone with your notes.
There is another way to save time: multitasking. Schedule blocks of time where you can easily get two things done at once, and that frees up time to write. You can take the bus to work instead of driving, and use that time to read instead. You can cook dinner and pack the next day’s lunch at the same time. Listen to a writing-related podcast during your morning run instead of your usual mix. Eat lunch at your desk so that your lunch break can be spent scribbling down ideas. Date a fellow writer, so that your time together can be spent snuggled up, writing – or reading – together.
The last way to free up time to write is to let the other people in your life help you. Ask your girlfriend do the laundry or go grocery shopping so you have another hour to write. Let your dad take your daughter to her after school activity once a week. Asking for assistance doesn’t mean you can’t do it by yourself, it means you’re smart enough to know you don’t have to.
It isn’t easy. It takes time to find a schedule that works for you. You’ll push too hard in one direction or the other, going back and forth, before you find your center. You’ll have times where you don’t write at all because the rest of your life seems overwhelming, and other times where you’ll push out the world to get some peace and time to write, which ends up with you doing all the work of keeping your life going alone. Neither of those things is the right answer in the long run, but as long as you keep trying to find your balance, keep getting back up on that high wire, you’ll make it across into a life you’re proud to be living.