Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Working to Write or Writing to Work?

Apr 02, 2015

By Bryan C. Johnson, Colorado Review Associate Editor

Quit gawking and get to work.

As I approach the end of my MFA experience, I’ve been thinking more and more about what my writing life will look like post-degree. For the past three years, I’ve had a decent amount of free time (I’m not an adjunct, or I would have no free time) to dedicate to writing, even though I’ve worked part time jobs and had other responsibilities. That’ll all change after May, when I have to start paying back student loans and finding a full-time job. But I’ve been here before, as have countless other artists: somehow, we find ways to make it work.

Working full-time doesn’t have to mean the death of your creative life. Most writers—most artists—have to manage competing demands: full-time work and their art. This is true of fiction writers, but even more so of poets, playwrights, and visual artists (there are, of course, the literary 1% that can pay the bills with their work, but most people can’t or don’t want to be Stephen King or J. K. Rowling). Full-time work doesn’t have to be a career or a nine-to-five job; plenty of writers have to juggle multiple part-time jobs, childcare, housework, and all the other day-to-day obligations that consume our lives before they have time to even think about writing. Even if your full-time work involves writing, it’s typically not the type of writing you want to be doing; trust me, I’ve spent too many years as a freelance writer hyping up motorized beer coolers to think that any time spent writing is time well spent.

Personally, that’s part of the reason I decided to pursue an MFA in the first place. I was working as a copywriter in a suburb of Chicago, and I spent at least two hours of each day trying to go ten miles in stop-and-go traffic. By the time I got home, I was typically exhausted, ready to kick back and turn my brain off. Not exactly the right frame of mind for a productive writing session. To counter this, I forced myself to get up earlier in the morning so I’d have an hour or so to write with an uncluttered (if sleepy) brain before the demands of the day came piling in. The problem with this was that I had to leave for work before seven in order to get to work by eight, which meant that I had a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call every day so I could have time to shower, eat breakfast, and do the rest of the morning routine. I am not a morning person; guess which thing got sacrificed when I was feeling too tired to respond to the alarm? Hint: it wasn’t eating, bathing, or sleeping.

Somehow I made it work, otherwise I probably would not have been accepted at Colorado State, or ever had any of my work published. But it was a struggle every day to get out of bed and get to the desk, and my writing always looked pretty terrible through the 5 a.m. sleep haze, no matter how good it actually was. Looking back on it now, I probably could have done many things differently, and in the next few months I’m going to have to figure out a better way to make it work: if I can’t find the time to write post-degree, these past three years will have been good for nothing except for a load of debt.

So I decided to take a look at what some other writers have to say on the subject. As I expected, everyone has a different way of making time for their writing, and it largely comes down to personal preference and dedication. Back in the Chicago days, my biggest rule was simply that I write; quality didn’t matter, so long as there were words on the page every morning. I still adhere to that rule, because it keeps me productive while also cutting off the “I’m a terrible writer” anxiety before it can blossom. There’s plenty of time to worry about quality when you’re editing. That’s the dedication part: continuing to put words on the page even when you don’t feel like it, or when you don’t trust yourself to write well, or when you don’t think the work is worth it.

The personal preference part is a bit trickier because it requires a little introspection. I can’t tell you what will work for you, I can only tell you what works for me, and why. For me, it’s important to have a specific time each day where I write. If I wait for inspiration or until I’m “in the mood,” it’ll never happen because I’m never in a perfect mood to write. The writing process is a messy, often-emotional one; why do I have to be in some ideal mental state when I sit down to do it? Practically, the rule protects me from myself; since productivity, not perfection, is the goal, I win if I simply show up at the desk. It’s like training a dog or a pet rat: make success easy, and you will succeed. Since writing (for me) is mostly about beating your head against a wall until something breaks, any win, no matter how small, feels empowering.

But that’s just me. I have to set boundaries and time limits, otherwise I let my moods dictate my schedule, and that is not conducive to good writing. Your writing might wither up and die if restricted to such a routine; mine flourishes. You might be fine with writing whenever you can scratch out ten minutes or two, or writing on the subway (I need silence or unobtrusive music), or dictating to a phone while you drive, or pounding out an entire novel in one half-remembered month. I can do none of these things, which is why my rules work for me and may or may not work for you. In the end, it’s going to take plenty of trial and error before I settle on a writing routine that works for me at this point in my life. That routine will change as my life changes; so will yours. And that’s not a bad thing. The literary world benefits from variety in writers, readers, publishers, and subjects; why wouldn’t it benefit from a variety of writing practices?

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