Keep Your Day Job AND Write . . . How?

This summer I attended the Willamette Writers’ Conference.  Many of the writers and presenters there kept saying, “keep your day job.”  There’s even a pretty good blog that I occasionally read called www.writerwithadayjob.com that offers tips and motivation to keep going in the face of a busy life.  She also has a companion book that I haven’t read but it’s on my list.

Some of the reasons successful (read published) day job writers give for keeping the job are:

  • It keeps you out in the world with real people, not locked away in solitude.
  • It gives you something to write about
  • It helps structure your day
  • It keeps you focused.
  • Health  Insurance
  • A steady paycheck so you can relax and not feel pressured to write

While I actually agree with many of those reasons, in practice it’s tough.  Now that I am almost a semester and a half into the school year, I’ve been thinking about my progress on my writing thus far.

It’s been a struggle to meet my teaching, coaching, wife, and mom obligations and still find time to write.  Last week, I did alright, but during the two weeks prior, I failed miserably at the writing part.  It seems to work like this.  I have a great week and churn out two blog posts and two thousand novel words and other weeks, it’s a struggle to get one blog post done.

My new writing goal is to write something every day.  I started the school year with the goal to write 4000 words per week.  That soon got reduced to 2000 words until I finally decided that writing something every day was better than nothing and demanding a word count from myself only made me feel like I was failing, which I am not, at all.  It’s just that writing in the large chunks of time which I prefer has been difficult to achieve.

So my question is this:  How do published writers do it?  They give reasons to keep the day job but then how do they achieve their writing goals?

What are the specific strategies?  On the one hand, I like the structure and focus my job teaching gives me, but on the other hand, my job is a time suck.  Right now, I have a stack of research papers to grade; I had to be at school at 6:00 am this morning to take four students to town to speak to the local Rotary club; I am sending 18 more students to Reno for a tournament at 6:00 am Friday morning with hotel arrangements etc., and then I’m driving a school vehicle down with four more students after school gets out.  I’ll return home midday Sunday.

Oh ya, and then I have a novel to finish.  I am not complaining. I am happy . . . just busy.

My life is full.  Each minute is precious. What are strategies that any of you found that work?  I’ve tried a bunch, and I’m open to suggestions.

Getting Characters to Come and Play . . . or Not

I’ve been waiting for someone.  This is not someone I know, but someone I want to get to know.  Actually, she’s a character.  I didn’t realize she was a somewhat major character until last week when her role in my story grew.  Now, I need to get to know her in order to move on, but apparently she’s not nearly as interested in getting to know me as I am in getting to know her.

All week, I’ve been asking myself: what kind of person is she?  What is her name?  Her job?  Her ambitions?  All those things I ask myself as I develop a character, and so far, I’ve gotten nothing.

I almost feel like she’s not quite ready to introduce herself, which is an odd feeling.  Is it me?  Have I done something?  Is it possible to inadvertently offend or intimidate a character who lives in my head?

I realize I sound crazy right now.  I feel a little crazy.

I had big plans for writing this weekend.  It didn’t happen, and I’m starting to blame this character.  To be honest, it’s starting to piss me off.  I want to yell at her, explain that I have a novel to write and a busy life.  My weekends are important for making progress, and it’s all her fault that I’m unable to work on it right now.  This is not a good start to our relationship, unless, of course, for some reason, I’m supposed to not like her much, or she enjoys creating drama.  Maybe that’s it.

I’ve tried all my strategies to jump start my creativity:  running, reading fiction, reading “writing” books, quilting, quieting myself and listening, asking for help right before I go to sleep so my subconscious can work on it while I sleep, wine.  Nothing.

Apparently, I just have to be patient which is not my strong suit, but I feel better already after this little temper tantrum on the page.

For some reason, she’s not ready to introduce herself to me.  I guess I’ll have to trust there’s a reason for that and just hope that this week, she’ll be ready to make a grand entrance.

The Muses Must Play

Yesterday, I sat at the computer all morning, ready to write.  I have a time line here.  It’s summer vacation, and it ends in six weeks.  I need to write . . . NOW!  I have goals!  My muses don’t seem to be getting my sense of urgency as they failed to bless me with their presence for the third day in a row.  Apparently they don’t like to be ordered around.

I felt abandoned, so I tried a few different strategies:  I grabbed a favorite book off the shelf and opened it to a random page, reading great writing for inspiration . . . nothing.

I read a few blogs on writing . . . nothing.

I got on you tube and watched some videos of a fiddler since there’s one in the scene I’m writing . . . nothing.

I kept going and standing in front of the refrigerator.  I wasn’t hungry, but thought that feeding my stomach would possibly feed some ideas into my head . . . nothing, other than to make my ass a little bit cushier when I sit down to write.

Blocks that still aren't all sewn together

Finally, I forced myself to write half the fiddling scene until I gave up and left my computer for my sewing machine.

Maybe stitching a few blocks would inspire me.  I pulled some blocks off my design wall and began to put them together.  I was chain piecing them and at the end of each row instead of pulling the blocks out and snipping the thread, I grabbed two random scraps from my scrap bucket, sewed them together and then clipped the blocks off to press.  A friend showed me this technique to save thread.  Ultimately, you get enough pieces of scraps sewn together, and you have a whole new piece of “scrap” fabric, and maybe a teeny tiny dent in the scrap bucket.

Soon, my blocks were pushed aside, and I found myself surrounded with piles of scraps – the ironing board, the floor, my sewing table, all were covered with little pieces that were growing into bigger pieces.

My "new" scrappy fabric

I had a ball.  It was creative, fun, and probably most important, not forced.  I wasn’t planning on spending three hours making new scrap fabric, but I did.  I completely lost track of time.  I didn’t realize how much I needed to just play.  My muses are back this morning; apparently they like to play too.

If I demand they show up, they laugh at me and go their own merry way, off to play without me, leaving me to figure out, yet again, that I can’t force creativity.  I need to honor the process.

Just . . . Keep . . . Writing

I’ve read lots of books on writing over the years, but I’ve always read them from a teacher’s perspective ie. how can I use these ideas to help improve my student’s writing?  Now that I’ve begun writing, they’ve taken on a whole new meaning.  I have to improve my writing?!?

I haven’t written much in the last week or so due to lack of time and (I’ll admit) commitment.  So last night as I was watching a movie with my son, playing Words with Friends (a highly addictive app for scrabble people like myself), and not writing, I was thinking about why I’ve been avoiding my story.  I like my plot, my characters, my setting, but I don’t really like what I’ve written so far.  I’ve always been a decent writer.  It’s something that has come fairly easily to me.  But my novel is fiction, something I’ve never really tried and fiction is hard.

As I was pondering this, I thought of Annie Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.  It’s one of my favorite texts on writing.  Chapter 3 is titled “Shitty First Drafts” and chapter 4?  “Perfectionism.”  I realized that this is where I am.  I’ve written scenes and even whole chapters, and well, I’ll admit, some of it’s pretty shitty.  I’m not used to writing “shitty.”  And, I don’t really like it.

Apparently, I have to get used to it.  Lamott says, “All good writers write them [shitty first drafts].  This is how they end up with good second drafts, and terrific third drafts.”  I know I’m a good writer in the sense that I can write concise clear sentences, but can I build a story?  That’s a whole different ball game.  I’m not sure why I expected myself to do this really well, my first time.  Thinking about it, it’s a little bit (a lot) ridiculous.

A few years ago, I tried snowboarding.  I’ve been skiing since I was seven, so I didn’t think snow boarding would be that hard.  They both entail coming down a mountain attached to a board, right?  Wrong!  My skiing skills did not transfer even a little bit.  I never got off the bunny hill on the snow board; I was bruised and battered, both physically and mentally, and I gave up.  I have not picked up a snowboard since; instead, I’ve stuck with skiing, something I know how to do really well.  Learning to write fiction has been a little bit the same way.  I think I expected the transfer of my writing skills to a new genre to be a little bit easier . . . or maybe less painful?

I’m not giving up; this is just another mountain to go up, so I can have the fun of cruising down the other side.  But this is the hard part for me.  The initial excitement of this project has worn off a bit, and now I’m really having to work at this.

Annie Lamott’s book goes through the entire writing process.  Her last chapters deal with publication.  I wish I was there, but I’m still at chapter 2.  So, I’ll keep plugging away on my shitty first draft and hopefully, at some point, it will be a “terrific third draft” and worthy of a reader . . . somewhere.

Name Block

When I had my children, the first one had a name way before he got here; the second one took a little longer.  She was here, in our arms, for a few hours before she had a name.  Now, I’ve given birth to a slew of characters all of whom need names.  Most of them have names, and they seem to work, but naming them all of them is tough, much more difficult than naming my own children.  My main character has gone through three or four names.  Now she’s just ______________, literally.  Somehow, she has rejected all my ideas.

Juliet says, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Essentially, we can call a person or thing by any name, and it won’t change the essence of that person or thing.  I don’t disagree, but names definitely have differing connotations.  For example, to me a “Priscilla” would be, well, prissy, while someone named “Scarlet” would probably be a much more sexual character.   When I named my children, their names “fit” them, but they also “grew” into them.  Now I can’t imagine calling them anything else, well, okay that’s not entirely true (if you’re a parent of teens, you know what I’m saying).  But generally, their names “fit” them.

Now, I’ve created a character who is fully grown and developed.  I have a picture of her in my head; we’ve had conversations.  (That may sound crazy, but if you write, I think you understand what I mean.)  I know her strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, all kinds of interesting details about her life.  But I don’t know her NAME!!!  It’s driving me crazy.  I think the hard part is that her name has to fit her right away; she can’t “grow” into it like a baby does.  I have looked through books about the time period to help create a list of names.  I’ve looked at the etymology and meaning of different names. I’ve written about her using different names, but none seem just right.  And she’s not a newborn staring at me, waiting.  I’m stuck.  I have name block.