Literature is My Mistress


Photo Credit: Debka Colson

A lot of MFA students dream about writing full-time, but in reality most of us will need to work. We imagine long hours spent at our laptops with mugs of tea or coffee, typing out literary masterpieces that manage to sell well commercially. Of course, when we imagine this, we forget about paying rent or the electric bill, not to mention for Netflix or groceries. Some of my peers are fresh out of college and still adjusting to the fact that food doesn’t appear, fully prepared, in a magical place called the dining hall. Feeding ourselves and keeping a roof over our heads takes time, energy and money. And as I’m sure a lot of freelance writers can attest, this can be hard to do when writing full-time. So most of us have to get a job.

The problem with having a job is that it takes up a lot of time. Time that we might otherwise spend writing. Our creative work gets pushed into pockets of time in the evening or on the weekends. If we’re not careful, it can seem like we have no time to write at all.

However, we’re not alone. Many successful writers have balanced their creative work with full-time jobs: Chekhov and William Carlos Williams were doctors, Kafka worked in insurance, Marilynne Robinson and Amy Hempl teach. These writers didn’t let their jobs stop them from writing. Chekhov once famously wrote: “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity.”

During the school year I work part-time, but during the summer I have the opportunity to work full-time. I’m using this time as a sort of dress rehearsal for when I graduate, to figure out how I can keep my writing practice going with a job. If you are also struggling with balancing your writing with your job, here are a couple of things that work for me.

Set Aside Writing Time and Space

Sunday afternoons are my designated writing time. I keep this time sacred. I don’t allow myself to schedule anything. Instead, I pack a lunch and go to the Writers’ Room to work all afternoon. Having a separate space to write allows me to focus enough to work in-depth. I am removed from the distraction of chores or email or friends. I sink into my work and emerge 5-6 hours later, unsure of how all that time passed.

If you want to set aside time to write every week, I recommend choosing a time when you can work for a couple of hours at a stretch. Once you have chosen your time, guard it zealously. Do not schedule anything during your writing hours unless it is a matter of life or death.

I also recommend finding a writing space. This could be a desk in your home, or your favorite coffee shop, or a library, or a writing space like the Writers’ Room. Space can really affect how your brain approaches work. If you can find a place where you do nothing except write, you’ll be training your brain to block out distractions and start your creativity flowing every time you see a familiar window or smell coffee.

Make the Most of Small Pockets of Time

While a job can seem like it takes up all our time, we often have small pockets of free time we could use to write. For example, most states dictate that during an eight-hour shift at a job you must take a half hour lunch break. Boom! Thirty minutes of writing time. Just pack your lunch, close your office door or put in your headphones, and fall into the work.

Here are more small pockets of potential writing time I’ve found in my life: I write on my hour-long commute in the mornings, and again in the evenings if I can get a seat. I sometimes write after dinner, before bed, when I would usually watch TV. Any time spent waiting for an appointment or friends is potential writing time. I try to always carry a notebook, so I can take advantage of these times.

Join a Motivational Challenge or Group

There’s nothing like competition, whether trying to meet a goal or keep up with others, to help us stay focused on writing. Before I tried National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in college, I had never finished a story. Then after a month of furious writing (and several marathon days in the library), I had a completed 50,000 word novel manuscript. It was a really rough first draft, but I had written every day for a month and for the first time I actually finished something.

Camp NaNoWriMo in July is a great way to try this out. You can set your own word count goal and you can work on projects other than novels. The best part is that you are part of a writing community for a month, and you can look to the other writers for encouragement and motivation. I’m going to give it a try.

Another place I find motivation is in my writing group. Every weekend a group of my peers meets for a couple of hours at someone’s apartment. We write, or we talk about what we are working on, or sometimes we just talk. Checking in with my friends and fellow writers once a week makes me feel accountable for continuing to writing and work on my projects. We’re hoping to also start workshopping in this group, which would give us deadlines to meet. This way, we will encourage each other to keep producing new and revised work for the group to read.

For those of you with day jobs, how do you balance working and writing? What have you tried to keep yourself motivated?

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

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