For the last few weeks, our focus here at the blog has been on maintaining your health (physical, mental and emotional) while writing. Expanding on that, there’s one other thing you probably want to keep healthy: your relationships.
Between deadlines and the many voices of fictional people in your head, it’s not always easy to balance the real people in your life. There’s a fine line between making your loved ones respect the sanctity of your writing time and alienating them entirely. A few years ago, I was struck by the irony of someone who writes romance novels for a living (me) telling her husband “I know it’s our anniversary, but I have to get this book turned in. Raincheck!” Yeah. Super romantic, Tanya.
In my defense, my husband frequently travels for his job. He’s spent an anniversary, a Valentine’s Day and quite a few of my birthdays in Europe. Without me. Not that I’m bitter.
The trick is to communicate these scheduling conflicts ahead of time as much as possible and make it up to each other later. Luckily, my husband is pretty supportive about my writing. (He sincerely hopes that one day, I’ll be a zillionaire best seller and he can retire to a leisurely life of golf and woodwork.) But people react to an author’s demanding schedule differently—some observers have trouble seeing it as a job, just because there are erratic hours, no commute and, occasionally, no pants. So how do you train those in your life to respect your eccentric career without making them feel neglected?
Based on daily arguments I have with my teenagers, I am not a perfect mom. But I did sell my first book two and a half weeks after my first child was born, so I’ve been juggling this family/writing thing for a while. (Shown below, me and my extended family, the epitome of happy, healthy, and harmonious.)
My thoughts on the people vs. pages balancing act:
1. Family comes first. If your spouse is going through medical procedures or a grueling time at work or you’re in the middle of a move (or have a baby who needs you), don’t expect to be able to focus on writing. Inevitable family obligations will cut into your time. If possible, schedule accordingly. But always keep a notebook or iPhone/Dictaphone nearby so that when inspiration strikes somewhere unexpected, like a pediatrician’s waiting room, you can jot it down for later.
2. Family comes first UP TO A POINT. After that, you have my permission to be heartless. If your child has chicken pox and is feverish/miserable/itchy, it’s understandable that the kid is gonna pester you. But it is not acceptable for your offspring to bug you because he/she “is bored.” Do not succumb to parental guilt for turning them away. I’ve seen this be particularly difficult for women, especially if they haven’t yet sold and aren’t making money. We beat ourselves up with thoughts like, “Why am I wasting my time on this when I should be baking brownies for junior’s soccer team?” Hold up. Dedicated pursuit of a goal is not wasting time. You are teaching your children perseverance, which is an important life skill. Meanwhile, I encourage you to rock the store-bought brownies.
3. Involve your family in celebrating goals and milestones. These can be tiny celebrations. “When Mommy finishes this chapter, we’ll go see Finding Dory.” Or play a family board game. Or go out for frozen yogurt. (For spouses and significant others, it could be a straightforward, “Let me write until 10 pm so I can get this scene down, then we’ll watch something on Netflix.” Or, you know, whatever the two of you are in the mood for.) Offering this kind of deal serves two purposes—assuring your family that spending time with them is also a priority and encouraging them to leave you the hell alone so you can actually reach your goal and get to that fun event faster. Sometimes, celebrations are more noteworthy. Once the manuscript is finished, get glammed up for a date night; you’ve earned it, and it will be a nice change from the bedraggled ponytail and yoga pants of deadline. A historical romance author bought her daughters a horse when she sold her first book; I took my family to Disney after the best royalty check of my life. But those were rare circumstances.
4. Come up with a schedule.
5. Stick to the schedule. Numbers 4 & 5 probably sound redundant, but they aren’t. You are going to encounter people who threaten your writing time—from relatives who subtly sabotage your efforts to well-meaning neighbors who want to have you over for coffee to that relentless PTA zealot who is determined to make you run the book-fair. Not only do I encourage you to tell these people no, I suggest you adopt a schedule that covers you like armor. If you write in the morning, don’t pick up the phone before noon. Turn off the ringer. Worst case scenario, you can ignore the whiny cousin who calls to complain about her life. Best case scenario, she gets the message and quits calling entirely during that time-slot.
While you don’t owe anyone explanations/defense about your time, you can soften refusals to friends and neighbors with counter offers that highlight your schedule. “As much as I would love to have coffee, I’m swamped until I finish this book at the end of August. How about September?” This sets a clear boundary (don’t bother me again until September!) but also demonstrates that your friends matter to you. (Because, once the damn book is actually turned in, you don’t want to look around and realize you’ve run off all your buddies. Although, frankly, I think there’s a reason so many of my best friends are fellow writers. They GET it.)
6. Don’t underestimate the importance of people—not just to your emotional health but to your ability to write great characters. I had a friend who doggedly invited me to social events (movies, Pampered Chef parties, book club meetings, holiday parades, wine tastings) even though I routinely turned her down. I was struggling to catch up on belated deadlines after my daughter had been sick. My friend was pretty good-natured about it, but she asked me once, “If you never get out of the house and interact with people, how can you expect to write about believable, fully developed people in your books?” I decided she was right and said, “screw it, I’m going to lunch.” After all, even on deadline, a writer’s gotta eat. And you know what? I returned to the computer refreshed and with some funny new ideas for dialogue.
7. Be careful about bitching to civilians. There’s a lot to drive us nuts about writing—low contest scores, rejections, lousy reviews. You are fully entitled to vent about these disappointments. But it’s usually best to commiserate with other authors who’ve been there and who can inspire you to keep going. If you routinely tell your mother, boyfriend, and former college roommate about how hard writing is—especially if you’re not under contract—they may suggest you quit. This can make you feel like they don’t believe in you and lead to arguments and hurt feelings. You can reduce the odds of this by having mimosas with a trusted critique partner.
In summary, writing can make us bonkers. Our loved ones can make us bonkers. But with strategy and effort, you can probably keep the bonkers manageable. While you want to make sure the people around you understand how seriously you take writing, you don’t want to drive them all away—at least, not permanently. Celebrating when you hit that first bestseller list will be a lot more fun when you’re surrounded by loved ones to cheer you on.