How to Work and Write and Not Go Crazy

Finding a balance between following your dreams and working to pay the bills.

Writing is amazing if you love it. But for most of us trying to break into the business, it isn’t lucrative. (In fact, I wrote a whole dang post about things I do to manage my money specifically so writers can keep writing.) Maybe your novel will be the next big thing and get on Reese’s book club list, but the chances of that are slim, and in the meantime, you gotta pay the bills. Work comes first. And that’s okay.

In the past few years, I’ve had a myriad of jobs; service-oriented, administrative and editorial, and a few weird things in-between. Working full-time (while also balancing depression, anxiety, and PCOS, ugh) made the idea of coming home from work and writing seem utterly ludicrous. I imagine it’s the same for many of you.

Balancing life and a passion for writing is so freaking hard.

As I reflect on my past, working full time and writing, I’m surprised by how much I was able to get done. (Right now I’m living at home and not working and feel like I’m getting nothing done! Thanks, Covid-19 angst!). I had a whole slew of projects and was pretty productive on all of them. I realized that I had worked out a few little systems to balance my writing life with my work life. Again, it was hard; I wasn’t having the best time, but I knew I had to keep going up that mountain.

Here are some things I’ve learned that make the climb a little easier;

Write 100 Words (or 3-5 screenplay pages) before work.

(or after work, it’s your life)

Every day, sit down and try and write 100 words. It’s that simple. Usually, by the time you hit 100 words, you’re on a roll and can keep going until you lose steam. It’s not a lot of words, I get that. In fact, it’s a downright negligible amount of words if you’re trying to write a novel. Even then, sometimes 100 words can feel like pulling teeth. If that’s the case, hit your 100 and walk away; you’re still 100 words richer. (And if you’re one of my screenplay audience, 100 words is comparable to 3-5 pages of screenplay. If you can get 3 pages of screenplay done a day, you’ll have a 90-page screenplay in a month.)

It doesn’t have to be good either. Just getting the words on the page is an accomplishment. You can edit later

(And look, this section was about 130-ish words! See? it’s not that bad!)

Write at Work/Don’t Write at Work

This is a two-parter and depends wholly on your personal situation.

Write at Work

There are a fair amount of jobs where you can mentally balance your work-life and your creative endeavors. Being a barista means you can think about your plot and characters while cleaning your espresso bar and restocking the fridge. It’s hard work, and physically taxing, but the mental aspect is less strenuous, and daydreaming about your story is a great way to pass the time. If you have supportive coworkers you can even use them as a sounding board for ideas.

Also, if you have a customer-facing job you can definitely look for inspiration there. These kind of jobs are ones where you can open your mind and take ideas from literally everywhere if you have the right attitude.

Don’t write at work!

Here’s the second part! There are also a fair amount of jobs where you CANNOT be thinking about your novel.

Being a brain surgeon means you cannot think about your plot and characters while literally going into someone’s head and fixing what is arguably their most important organ.

But here’s the kicker; if you’re not writing at work, you can’t be brain-surgeon-ing at home (god I hope you’re not doing surgery at home; that’s a horror movie right there). I truly believe that bleeding the boundary between work and life in this regard is what makes reaching writing goals so much harder. Work stays at work, writing stays at home. It’s a good approach to consider.

Work to Eat a Damned Vegetable

I hate this one, but it’s super true. I angrily stuff spinach leaves into my gaping maw when I start feeling sluggish and usually the next day I feel better and can get more done. Your health plays a role in how productive you can be outside of work. It sucks, but listening to your body and figuring out what it needs can make writing easier in the long run.

I’m an advocate for making the process of eating veggies and moving around as easy as possible. I’ve overcome the dreaded, “frozen meal for dinner,” rut that is so easy to fall into when you’re working and tired, and you can too.

Here’s some tips;

  • Prep food when you can. If you cook dinner, you can make extra and freeze it. No need for fancy meal-prep boxes if that’s not your jam, either. Just store food like a squirrel waiting for the winter when you’ve got the energy to make food in the first place.
  • Get an app; I use ‘Stand-Up’ to remind me once an hour to stand up and move around. It’s doesn’t have the benefits of a full workout, but every little bit helps, especially if you have a sitting down job, trust me.
  • Instagram is a liar: your meals and workouts can be ugly. Mushrooms are always brown and weird-looking no matter how you cook them but still packed with nutrients. Working out is sweaty and weird looking. You don’t need to aesthetically plate your food and take perfect-angle gym selfies. Be ugly, eat ugly, prosper.
  • Frozen vegetables are just as good as fresh. This is a toughie because yeah, you get a little bit more oomph from fresh vegetables, but it’s kind of negligible if you’re going from not eating any vegetables to eating some frozen vegetables. Again, every little bit helps, and the frozen vegetable game has really gotten good in recent years.
  • If you have the money, things like Daily Harvest (not a sponsor; god I wish I were that cool), makes eating veggie-rich meals and smoothies a lot easier.

Clean-Up as You Go

Oh god, I can’t count the number of days I got back from work thinking about writing and then seeing a desk filled with mugs and scrap papers and losing all drive to write.

Like the cooking tip, cleaning is hard after working all day and I want to make it easier. Maybe you’re someone who thrives in clutter, but I know having things a little tidier really does help move things along creatively for me.

Take a look at my desk; it’s not a complete trash pile, (you should’ve seen it last week), but it’s not great. La Croix cans and paper towels and non-desk ephemera are everywhere. It’s easy to get comfortable in the clutter, but it’s not conducive to writing.

The post-author's messy desk. It's hard to get any work done here!

Now take a look at my desk. It’s not perfect, but I’ve tidied it up a bit (both for myself and also for this post! You guys are holding me accountable! Many thanks!). Much better for writing!

The author's slightly cleaner desk. Way better for getting work done.

The ball of yarn is gone, the trash is gone, all my pens are in the same spot. It’s a start!

A few rules I like to adhere to to make my space a little more inhabitable and more writing-friendly.

  • Keep like with like. This is direct from Marie Kondo. Bathroom stuff should be in the bathroom, desk stuff on the desk, and kitchen stuff in the kitchen. If you use the computer you write with for recreation and other stuff, those lines can get blurred easily. Scan your space once a day and move things back to the general area they belong to. You don’t even have to put them all the way away, but moving dishes and mugs from your desk to the kitchen makes a huge difference.
  • Fill your space with stuff you love. Again, a pretty Kondo-esque idea. But this is less about sparking joy (though that’s important), and more about keeping you sane. Cleaning can be an even bigger chore if what you are cleaning isn’t stuff you like. Look at my desk; my pen mug is a unicorn that says “I’m fucking magical.” It’s one of my favorite possessions. I want to put my pens away there. It’s dumb, but little things like that add up. Look at your space and find something that makes you happy and work from there.
  • Use the two hamper system. I hate doing laundry. I loathe it. It’s the first thing to go when my depression gets its claws into me. But one thing I’ve got under my belt is the two hamper system. One hamper is for dirty clothes, one is for clean clothes. And none go on the floor! (Sure folding and putting away clothes is the preferred method, but I tell ya, the two hamper system is a real winner in terms of keeping things a little less wild. It’s not perfect, and it’s not ideal, but clearing your ‘floordrobe’ is rad!)

Carve Out a Writing Time separate from Work Time

This one has to be specific. You can’t say, “I’m going to get some writing done this month,” because you invariably won’t, I promise. Life just gets in the way. You have to put a notification in your google calendar or take up a block in your day planner or put an alert on your phone; “WRITING, SATURDAY 1 PM TO 3 PM.”

Then you have to sit down on Saturday and work on your project from 1:00-3:00 pm. Do this regularly and it becomes a habit and before long you’ve got a screenplay under your belt from those two-hour writing sessions.

This is a date with yourself, and ghosting is not an option.

But you also have to be a little strict with yourself. That means you stop writing at 3 pm. That feels counterintuitive because if you keep writing, you’ll have more words on the page! That can only be a win, right? Well, not necessarily. You want to respect the time you chose to write. A real win is having a schedule that keeps you sane, helps you be productive, and doesn’t burn you out.

Relax

Pobody’s nerfect. Writing is a long-con. You can’t get a novel or feature screenplay out in one sitting, and it’s stupid to try. Instead, focus on putting one foot in front of the other; one word after the next. Do some planning and be ready for your plot to pull the rug out from under you.

You’re a writer because you are writing. Even if you’re working in a warehouse or an office building or a zoo, you still make time to write and that makes you a writer.

And being a writer is awesome. Enjoy the ride!

Whee!

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