Writing With A Day Job

How do you make time to write when you’ve got a day job?

I think it’s something every working writer struggles with. Most of my friends write, some of them full-time, and others on the side of a full or part-time job, and it looks really different for everyone. Here’s how I found the best way for my current life:

Radical Honesty

First of all, I had to face that I have many more ideas and dreams than I can feasibly turn into reality. But rather than being sad about all the ideas that won’t get written, I try to be excited that I’m in such a position of opportunity. I have the desire and ability to write academic articles, non-fiction trade books, encyclopedia articles, think-pieces, creative non-fiction essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, blog posts, and more. I have ideas for all of these things, and most of them are exciting to me and allow me to examine something I am interested in or passionate about.

That said, my other goals in life- personal, financial, career- mean that most of my time is spoken for, and there’s not really much I can move around or give up. Every piece I chose to write takes time away from a career development opportunity, time with family and friends, or time I could have spent earning money. Radical honesty means being honest about my shifting collection of needs and how they conflict: my needs for creative expression, versus my needs to feel like I’m doing a good job at work, versus my need to pay bills, versus my need to connect with the people I love.  So realistically, I can only give up about an hour a day to writing projects that are not connected to finances or career.

Knowing that means that I have to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I have to be honest about how many hours something will take to complete and how many weeks that will take at the rate of one hour per day. Or actually, less than an hour per day, because most days I use part of that hour to write morning pages.

Morning Pages

And by “writing morning pages,” I mean, I scrawl some stuff longhand into a notebook, just to dump all the miscellaneous thoughts that are taking up valuable brain space. Morning pages (the idea comes from Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and is discussed on this blog) are a way for me to stay connected to the page and explore how I feel about my writing and the things that get in the way of my writing. I don’t fully understand why they work, or how exactly, but I do know that when I write them, my writing goes more smoothly and I produce more of it, and when I get away from that habit, I start to  be more blocked and writing feels like squeezing blood from a stone, so I avoid it. I’ve lived long enough to know that when something works (and doesn’t hurt anyone), you don’t question it, you just do it.

Routine (maybe)

In order for me to wrest that daily hour away for myself and my writing, it helps me, sometimes, to have a routine. I’m definitely not religious about it, and I don’t always need it, but I find that during the semester especially when my to-do list is a mile long, having a routine helps. I take my writing time as seriously as I take my savings- I pay myself first. First thing in the morning, I don’t get online to check emails, I get straight to the morning pages and then transition into my writing project of choice. After an hour, I feel connected to it, and am much less begrudging of the other tasks I have to do for the day.

Squish Expectations

Since I only have that daily hour to write, I don’t have time to waste on projects that I don’t love. If I’m being paid for a project, I don’t do it in that hour- I count it toward my career and do it during the workday. That daily hour is for my passion project. These projects may never see the light of day or result in a paycheck. I write them for sake of doing it- for the sake of being involved in a creative pursuit, for investigating something that is important to me, and for keeping me tethered to my interests on days when my job or personal life don’t do that as much. It’s a creative, artistic, and spiritual pursuit that I do completely independently of expectations. No matter how successful a writer I become, no matter how many publications I rack up, no matter how much money I get for my writing, I want to always set aside this hour to just do what I feel like doing. If it later ends up becoming a viable project that sells, that’s great, but it’s also ok if it never amounts to anything more than my own enjoyment. Ironically, since I’ve been squishing expectations, a lot of my writing-hour projects have seen publication.

Now it’s disclaimer time- I have the type of job (a postdoc) where writing is built into it. I have set tasks I do in exchange for my salary, and then I have more abstract expectations of what I should be doing with the rest of my work week. This gives me tremendous flexibility in terms of my writing projects. It means that once a project I’m working on in that morning hour becomes a viable project that either will further my career or get me paid, I have the flexibility to incorporate it into my work hours and then use that personal hour of writing time for something else. The way I structure my day makes sense for my day job right now, but this won’t always be my job. Writing, on the other hand, will. I think setting up a habit for daily writing outside of my job hours sets me up for continuing this habit regardless of my day job.

Nature as Self-Care

We have a tradition of going on an outdoor adventure every Mother’s Day weekend. This year we ended up at the plateau known as Rowena Crest, located about 1.5 hours away from Portland in the Columbia River Gorge. There, on the drier side of Mt Hood, we took a short hike among the bright yellow balsamroots and purple lupines that were then in full bloom, before then heading to a nearby winery. Every spring is a little different, which is part of what makes these mid-May trips outdoors so fun. Last Mother’s Day we were able to hike on Mt Hood while this year that trail is still partially covered with snow.

This trips are one of many I take to the outdoors throughout the seasons – off to the mountains or to a nearby forest for a short hike in the woods.  I have been going on hikes at least once a month since  I was an undergrad in the midwest.

I used to be more secretive about these regular excursions into nature. I’d surreptitiously spend a Saturday afternoon out on a trail before returning to Sunday spent reading and writing on my dissertation. Academic culture conditioned me to feel ashamed about taking breaks from my work. So strong is the culture of constant-work that I worried that I’d be seen as lazy or unfocused if someone discovered my secret retreats outdoors. I came to associate the peace that I felt outside with a taboo pleasure.

Not now. Now I advocate for families to get outdoors as much as they can because I know that my time outdoors is an vital form of self care.

Since starting my business, Super Nature Adventures, I’ve been spending time researching nature’s therapeutic value.

How does nature help with stress? Here are few ways it can work as a form of self-care.

Nature offers perspective. When you are out among the flowers or the forests or the rocks, you are among something larger than yourself. The bees care nothing of you, and why should they? They are busy doing their own important work. This is a remarkable thing when you think about it – that mere fact that there’s a lot going on outside of ourselves.

Nature is humbling when, for example, we stop think about how the bees’ work connects to us. Their work gathering nectar plays a role in a bigger chain of events that ultimately has an effect on the air we breathe and the food we eat. This can also be comforting – to think about ourselves as connected to a world outside of us.

Nature also commands our full sensory attention – the sights, the smells of the earth and plants, the sun or the wind against our skin, or the strain of our bodies as we walk among the rocks. This is important because we live in a world of technology that tends that has been connected dulled sensations, and to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Getting outdoors can be restorative because it re-fires our senses (not just sight, but also sound and touch). This re-firing can have a re-energizing effect.

Getting outdoors is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you are feeling stressed, it doesn’t hurt to consider a bit of time in nature.

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**Parts of this post are re-published from http://www.supernatureadventures.com

 

There’s No Wrong Way to Do the Morning Pages

Several months back I wrote a blog post about using Julia Cameron’s concept of the Morning Pages (from her book The Artist’s Way) as a form of regular journaling. As I noted then, I began to develop this practice not long after finishing my dissertation as a means of self-care in that confusing landscape post-dissertation life. I’ve since received a number of inquiries about the Morning Pages. Do I still use them? How do they work? How are they helpful?

Although I have offered of basic thoughts to people one-on-one, I don’t feel like I’ve fully explained how I still find them useful. This is partly because they have become so routine that I hardly think about them anymore. The Morning Pages are part of a comforting morning ritual that happens before my child gets up.  I write them (almost) every day, always with a cup of coffee by my side, and usually on my couch with a blanket draped over me (it’s still chilly here in the PNW!).

Sometimes when people ask I feel like I can only explain their value to me as much as I can explain why I always drink that coffee from the same mug.  That’s the other reason I trip over explanations: the Morning Pages are personal. Once you start to do them regularly they can feel like an old friend – and like an old friend, for each person, they’ll provide a different kind of value. Still, there are common features to the Morning Pages that make them broadly useful – as I remembered once I went back to Cameron’s book as I was preparing to write this post. What follows are some of the main reasons they are one of my go-to morning rituals. Continue reading “There’s No Wrong Way to Do the Morning Pages”

A New Goal Emerges: Writing and Resistance in 2017

This morning, I drew a tarot card to give my day some shape, and it was Death.

It was the card I’ve needed to see for a while. This post is about scaling back your goals and killing off that which does not serve, in light of new priorities.

Instead of resolutions for the new year, I spend each December crafting my writing goals for the following year. I write them and pin them above my computer so that I have to stare at them every day, and so that every day I take a step toward them. And this works. I’ve had a really productive and prolific run these past few years- I landed a literary agent with a killer book proposal, I made headway on my first academic manuscript, and I wrote a few novels. This is in addition to the writing and publishing (academic articles, press releases, etc.) that I do for my jobs. I’ve been riding that cloud of smugness for years now, with no real empathy for the people who have to bleed all over the page just to get a few sentences down.

And then disaster struck.

It’s no secret that the new administration hell-bent on running our country into the ground has got me raging. Anyone even on the peripheries of my life has heard it from me, several times. Their misbegotten and selfish decisions already affect me, and most of the people I love, in countless little ways. It’s as if the administration wants to kill us with the death of a thousand cuts: someone’s health insurance here, someone’s livelihood there, someone’s ability to own property, to plan their family, to live the American dream.

And that has real-life consequences.

Suddenly, writing feels less important. Continue reading “A New Goal Emerges: Writing and Resistance in 2017”

Some thoughts on Joy, Resilience, and Practicing Gratitude

A few weeks ago in early January, I was having a conversation on twitter with fellow PhD Lisa Munro and others about the importance of practicing joy in 2017.  Yes, joy. Yes, now, of all times. Lisa wrote an excellent blog post on this subject, where she discusses establishing joy as part of her New Years intention, and the quiet power of practicing joy “in the middle of such terrible things.”

Here’s a gem from the post about practicing joy – but don’t stop here. Go and read the post for yourself:

“Joy requires being present. Like, really present. There’s no way to find joy while distractedly scrolling through Facebook while reading tabloid headlines in the grocery store and secretly wishing ill on the person in the express lane with 32 items. Joy requires our full attention.

Joy requires great vulnerability. It doesn’t seem possible to be worried about looking cool and experiencing joy at the same time. JOY requires letting go of what we want people to see in favor of experiencing something genuine and being real about it.”

I have also been thinking a lot about joy this year. Like Lisa, I usually choose words instead of specific resolutions to start every new year. And like Lisa, joy was one of my words. However, until reading her post and talking to her about joy as a practice, I hadn’t developed any useful tools to help me focus on this theme for this particular year. After several of us shared our tips in our twitter conversation, I decided I needed to start a gratitude journal. I have been using it every single day since. Continue reading “Some thoughts on Joy, Resilience, and Practicing Gratitude”

Writing in the Apocalypse of 2016

“2016 is the year that killed satire.”

So many people have said it in the past few months that I don’t even know  who I should attribute this quote to. But it’s true: nobody can tell the difference anymore between awful reality and caricature. 2016 is the year that extinguished many of our heroes and filled the swamp with bonafide jack-booted villains who half-joke about rounding us up.

I’m not going to mince words: the world feels unspeakably grim right now. I know that my feelings are not 100% a reflection of reality, but they are a reflection of the uncertainty the US and the world are facing. They are also a reflection of the fear I have for  my own personal safety, and the safety of people I care about. A lot of things many of us were fortunate enough to grow up taking for granted, like universal human rights, are up for debate on a scale that only the most maligned among us truly saw coming. Nothing about this situation is normal.

Trying to peer into the future is incredibly scary, because the worst might actually come to pass. No one knows if it will or not, but it’s no longer out of the question. It’s a possibility. A deeply terrifying possibility.

So what do I do with that, as a writer?
Continue reading “Writing in the Apocalypse of 2016”

Journaling and the Morning Pages

In my previous post I wrote about the value of journaling during my dissertation process. In this post, I’ll share a major shift in my practice after completing my PhD thanks to my discovery of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Cameron’s book is an indispensable tool for spurring creativity, and includes all kinds of nuggets for helping the “blocked artist” out of her rut.* The tip I’ve been using most since reading her book a year ago is what she calls the “morning pages,” a simple but wondrously useful tool that involves committing to three pages of longhand writing every morning. When you write the morning pages, you shouldn’t worry about it making any sense. They are not necessarily a reflection on the day (as my nightly journaling had been) but stream of consciousness stuff. As Cameron stresses:
There is no wrong way to do the morning pages. These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art. Or even writing….Nothing is too pretty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included (p. 10).