Friday, 10 June 2011

Keeping Busy

I was chatting to another author at the SCBWI Buyers Party the other night and commiserating about their workload. In response, they expressed surprise that I managed to fit in everything I was doing. And after thinking about it, I was surprised too. Can I really have been out four nights this week? Do I really have two SCBWI crit group meetings in the same seven day period? How have I somehow managed to write 5,000 words, re-plot the third act of my book and go to work every day? Not to mention fitting in writing a blog post.

For me, like many others, writing is a part-time job. At least, it feels like a job, even if the work I'm doing is with the promise of payment rather than an actual wage. I have a demanding day job to supply that, as well as all the meetings I can eat. And then there's my SCBWI work and social events to fit in, plus a wife and children who demand my attendance on a regular basis. And not just my physical attendance, either, they need me to switch off all of the other stuff in my brain and actually, like, pay attention.

Keeping busy does have its benefits in that you can avoid what mindfulness experts call "the ruminating mind," the part of your brain that chews over what you've done and said and haven't done, making problems where there weren't any to start with. As long as you are in the moment, dealing with stuff, there's no room to worry - that's the theory, at least. And I am nothing if not a worrier!

But there's a hitch here - the ruminating mind is actually essential to being a writer. The same thought processes that lead you to worry about what will happen if you forget to lock the back door, also allow you to imagine a post-apocalyptic future colonised entirely by telepathic ducks. Therefore, it's not surprising that so many writers are neurotic, or that they fight that by overloading themselves like a Buckaroo mule.

Perhaps the more you do, the more you can do. Certainly, all the hours I've spent on trains this week have allowed me to write those 5,000 words. But I still feel bad about not doing more. Why didn't I finish the book last week? What happens if I don't finish it next week? My agent is accommodating my ever-changing deadline for this novel with good grace, but at some point I will have to deliver an actual first draft. Perhaps I'm just in the middle of some very elaborate avoidance behaviour...

I set high standards for my work, and I know I'm not the only one. But those standards often tip into the category of unreachable. And unachievable goals, as any motivational expert will tell you, are not a strategy for happiness. If only I had time in my schedule to think up some better ones ;-)



  1. Sounds like you're completely overloaded Nick - which makes us even more grateful for the SCBWI work you do!
    I know what you mean though - I'm a full time mum to two kids and writing has to fit in around that. I've basically found though, that work expands to fit the time allowed for it.
    If I had more time, I'm sure I'd just procrastinate more. At least if I know I only have half an hour, I hit the writing hard.

  2. My boyfriend is big on unachievable goals, as in telling me not to have them, and to relax and do stuff because it's fun. Plus he claims that if ever I achieve a goal I move the goalpost. He may be right.

    But I still want to pack more stuff in - trying to find a YA crit group at the moment!

  3. It's interesting your comment about neurotic writers... I was trying to explain to someone the other day that my ability to imagine all possible scenarios, especially worst case, goes hand in hand with my ability to create an entirely different world when writing... It's a tricky one. Sometimes I'd love to not ruminate on every possible outcome, but without doing this, I wouldn't be able to really understand the motivations of my characters, or decide what might happen next plot-wise. But of course, in the real world, over-thinking and constant analysis of situations can be annoying to say the least!
    Thanks Nick, I enjoyed this post a lot! x

  4. Ruminating brains are great - it means you never waste time when travelling or waiting or waking up at some unearthly hour of the morning. If life seems to get impossibly full, just remind yourself that it's not the people with most time on their hands who get the most done!

    Good luck with the finished draft.

  5. I think deciding to write is the same as making a lifestyle choice. this is how it will be. and it will mean you'll be ruminating at inconvenient times and your brain will not always be connected to the right thing at the right time. My family and I are currently adjusting to this new situation. They're learning to accept a different stage in who I am. And I'm learning not to feel guilty that I have a ruminating life.

    Embrace it. We're just lucky we can have it.