Hello, internet!

I have a slightly shorter post for you today, to atone for last week’s epic uberpost.

I’ve written before about whether it’s necessary or remotely useful for writers to make ourselves suffer for our art, and how important it is to persist through tough ruts in pursuit of our dreams. Today I want to talk about the best lifestyle for an aspiring author. I don’t have any definitive answers – if I did, I wouldn’t have to write blog posts trying to puzzle them out – but I can share a few observations.

I recently lost my job, when my company downsized their operations and cut half the staff. I wasn’t particularly upset about this, because I hadn’t really been enjoying the job. I spent the last few months working there daydreaming about my book, writing reliably most evenings, and thinking that if I didn’t have to go to my stupid job every day then I could increase my creative productivity by about 1000%. I even found myself writing snippets of my story in a scaled down window whenever my manager was out of the room. In retrospect, this might have been one of the reasons that I was on the list of employees made redundant. But I maintain that it was worth it.

Fortunately I have supportive parents who are letting me fall back on them while I regroup and look for other job opportunities. I have to admit that, in the first few days of unemployment, I had soaring hopes for my productivity. “Between now and finding another job,” I thought, “I’ll have half a book written.”

In the weeks since then I’ve learnt an important lesson, which I’ve expressed pictorially below.

being-a-good-writer-is-3-percent-talent-97-percent-not-being-distracted-by-the-internet-writing-meme-photo-kill-your-darlings-atl1

I haven’t found another job yet, but I certainly haven’t written half a book, either. My old employers paid me for my notice period without making me work it, so I effectively got an extra month’s salary. They could have been paying me to write. Instead they ended up paying me to level up on Skyrim and conquer half of India on Empire: Total War.

(And attend a writing course, and go to a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I wasn’t a complete layabout. But let’s pretend I was, because that makes for better narrative progression.)

I can’t explain exactly how this transpired, given my intentions. I spent a little time being hard on myself and accusing myself of barefaced laziness and weak-willed procrastination but that didn’t really achieve much either, and after a while I got to wondering whether having wall-to-wall free time is actually the best environment for an author to work in.

Perhaps this is only true for people of a certain persuasion who share my weaknesses for playing video games…and reading webcomics…and scrolling through Tumblr…and watching livestreams…but I think too much free time can be a bad thing. It allows you to put off your writing indefinitely, to after you’ve eaten, or after you’ve read a chapter of your book, or to tomorrow, or to next week. Unless you’re a naturally disciplined person, having more free time just encourages you to waste it. You end up becoming a vegetable. An unproductive vegetable.

veggie brain

Now that I lack the strict daily routine enforced by my job, I almost miss it. Having a set, limited number of free hours every evening where I could write encouraged me to use those hours as productively as possible, because I knew that if I didn’t write anything then, I wouldn’t end up writing anything at all. But a 9-5 routine can be counterproductive as well. Sometimes when you’ve had an exhausting day at work, you just want to come home and crash like a regular human being who isn’t trying to write a book. Successful superhuman writers seem to just learn how to soldier on through evenings like this, often with the help of alcohol or other stimulants, until they’ve finished writing their books. And that knowledge can be very daunting for aspiring authors who aren’t quite as battle-hardened. If we have a rough day at work and get home feeling dead on our feet, it’s natural to want to collapse in a heap and binge watch our favourite shows on Netflix. But we end up feeling guilty, because we know that if we do that every night, we’re never going to get around to writing anything. For me, it’s a double-edged sword. Even on the nights where I procrastinate, I don’t end up enjoying myself.

There must be some sort of midpoint – some way of having a good routine without completely surrendering our freedom to just collapse and vegetate every so often. The best way I can think of is probably academia. I didn’t write much myself while I was at university, but I mostly forgive myself for that. I spent most of my time stressing about my deadlines, or playing video games to flee from deadlines, and dealing with mental illness, compounded by a very unhealthy romantic relationship with an abusive partner. Obviously these weren’t the ideal circumstances for writing, let alone completing my degree. But if you can afford to stay in the academic bubble, without going through all of the extra drama that I did, I can imagine that it might be a good way of sustaining your writing. You have regular contact hours and plenty of other work to do to stop you from vegetating, but you also have enough free time to get a few hours of writing done every day, and still have some genuine free time at the end of it if you budget wisely.

I’m lucky to live in the UK where higher education is relatively cheap, and I’m lucky to have parents who will let me leech off them when I’m unemployed. All of my lucking out has reminded me of how much harder it must be for aspiring authors who don’t have the same opportunities. Small wonder that we see such a disproportionate number of white, straight, heterosexual, cisgender, college-educated men from wealthy backgrounds getting their books published and winning Hugo awards, when it’s so much easier for them to devote time to writing and editing. Authors who don’t fit that description are playing the game on a much harder difficulty setting, straight from the intro sequence all the way through to the final boss level. I know that a lot of readers might not have the luxury of staying in college or spending a few weeks leisurely unemployed. A gruelling 9-5 job, or worse, might be your only option. But if you’re in that camp then I hope you can take some solace from the fact that, in my experience, the daily grind actually encourages productivity.

As I said, I don’t know any answers. But I think the ideal lifestyle for writers is one that strikes a balance. You have to be jealous about protecting your free time and making sure that you have the headspace that you need to be creative every day, or at least to churn out a few hundred words. But you also need to make sure that you marshal your free time and use it effectively. From my own recent experience of unemployment, that process becomes a lot easier when you actually have less free time to work with. You know you have to use it wisely.

wisely use your time

So if you’re going back to your day job tomorrow thinking “if only I was at home, I could be writing right now” – ask yourself, would you really be writing? Or are you going to write a lot more effectively when you get home at the end of the workday and only have five or six hours to write before you go to bed?  I know which is true for me!

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6 thoughts on “What are the best life circumstances for the successful writer?

  1. Tom, it’s not life circumstances that should be the deciding factor, but what I bring to those circumstances. Discipline, creating a routine when there is not an external one, doing what is necessary or good when I do not want to do it, is an essential characteristic for any success in any field. Add to that good nutrition and exercise – taking care of the body so I am not so easily exhausted – and you are at the beginning of the process of internalizing those characteristics that create success. Don’t do this and you are back in the cycle of failure and excusing that failure and blaming it on external things.

  2. Hi Wayne! I think you’ve missed my point a little. What I’m saying is that I was a much better writer when I had less free time to write, which forced me to be a lot more disciplined. Obviously discipline is key, but unless you’re a some sort of iron-willed Nietzschian superman, it’s important to think about which circumstances you work best in. Obviously having more free time hasn’t improved my discipline, which I hope is encouraging to any readers who are yearning for more free time in which to write. Time is less important than how you use it, and time constraints can be surprisingly helpful.

    A lot of aspiring writers struggle with discipline and that doesn’t mean that they’re in a “cycle of failure” or that they’re deceiving themselves! Pursuing an art is hard, it’s not something that comes naturally, and you’re not a failure if you don’t sit down and write something every night. Even if that is the best way to get a book published.

  3. Tom, Sorry but i work evry day, to do mine blog so best as possible. When i have a day free, you write no blog. And i find that i have take a day of rest, and i have choose for sunday, but i read youre post. I stay by mine free day on sunday.
    Thanks for reading.

  4. Think about the difference between external and internal discipline. There are very many people who complete an excellent career in the military (retiring as E-7 or better) and then fall apart when they lose the external discipline from the military. Others internalize the discipline, apply it to their daily lives, and continue to get up in the AM, have a plan for the day, and have regular pauses for rest and reflection during the day. I’m not talking of making something a daily grind so much as lacking a daily plan.

    Most of us rely on the external discipline provided by parents, jobs, school, or the military. Much of the college Freshman problematic experience is the transition from a very structured external discipline to a much less structured one. If we do not internalize these basic values and apply them to ourself all the time we lose them on vacation, weekends, or when out of a job. Perhaps ‘discipline’ is to strong of a word for what I am talking about, and ‘structure’ may be better. But it all comes down to the willingness to apply basic disciplines to myself and to my day.

  5. I know writers who are making 30-40k a year and pick up a part time job to get out, gain new experiences, and to eat up some of that time. Give them time to think. My most successful writing days start between 8-9pm. Work until 5, eat and watch an episode of something, workout, clean, and finally sit down to type. I only write an hour before hitting up video games, but that hour is often 2k+ word count, and it’s not entirely uncommon for me to be in such a flow that I continue writing after it. So…in short I agree that having a job helps. Most the greats did.

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