How do you juggle writing a book and paid work and life?

IMG_0946Sometimes I feel like a fraud when I tell people I’m a writer. Because on most days, my writing time is limited to about 2 hours when my 3 year old is asleep. Which means that, really, writing is one of the things I spend the least amount of time doing. But writer-mother-cleaner-washerwoman-tearwiper-bottomwiper doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

A couple of weeks ago, one of the lovely people who visit this blog asked me to write about how I fit writing into my life. So this is my attempt at a response. The truth is, anything else that you do takes time away from writing. But if you spend all your time writing, it is very hard to have any kind of regular income and we all know that money, not words, makes the world go round when it comes to feeding three hungry kids every night.

Writing versus work that pays you money, now

To be honest, I think it’s not balancing writing and being a mum that’s hard; it’s the balance of writing (which is potentially paid work, but at some far distant time in the future) versus actual paid-at-the-time-you-do-it work, which is the hardest juggle.

I have a pretty good routine now for writing-time and mum-time. I write my books from 12.30 till 2.30 every day while my youngest is asleep, and I have the bonus time of Tuesday morning to write as well, when someone looks after my son. I do all of my admin work at night, because I find that my writing brain goes into retirement by about 7pm. So every night, except weekends, from 7.30pm to 9.00pm, I write blogs, or do the invoicing, or update my Pinterest boards, or write my newsletter, or check what’s happening on Twitter, or read research books that relate to the novel I’m writing, or do some preparation for courses I might be teaching.

Teaching writing, or conducting workshops about writing, is what I do to ensure some form of regular income. I find this the hardest thing to fit in. Not so much actually making the time to teach, but making the time to plan and prepare courses, material, mark assignments etc. And so this year, I made a choice, and only time will tell if it’s been the right choice. I’m not doing any undergraduate teaching at university.

Deciding to write, rather than “work”

This was a big decision for me, because undergraduate teaching is a guaranteed income flow for two by twelve week semesters, plus online teaching for the university’s OUA units, which I would fit in during the regular university holidays. When I was teaching at university, I found that I would have to spend at least two of my weekly writing sessions on course preparation, or marking, or answering student queries etc. Which left me with only three writing blocks a week. The first writing block of any week is always, for me, a warm up. A way to rediscover the voice and the flow and the story. So a lot less words get written on the first day than on subsequent days. What would it be like, I wondered, to have dedicated writing time 5 days a week? It meant dropping the university teaching. But it’s been a huge bonus for me because as I’ve said in other blog posts, I’ve been able to write an entire first draft of a novel in just five and a half months. Having five consecutive writing days has made a huge difference to my productivity.

Luckily I am still able to teach at UWA Extension, which I love as I am working with engaged and enthusiastic adult writers, and the classes are at night, which means no babysitting hassles. And as any mother will know, babysitting dramas can often throw the best laid plans into disarray. I also pick up some paid work from time to time doing speaking engagements etc.

Investing in yourself

So that’s the juggle as I see it. Because being a writer is so much more than just sitting down and writing books. And every choice we make involves a sacrifice of some sort – we sacrifice words, or money, or time with the kids, or having a clean house (I’ve forgotten what that’s like!) to do what we do the best way we know how at any given time. And here’s hoping my decision to invest my time in me and my New York book has been the right one!

What do you think? How do you juggle writing and paid work and other commitments, such as family? How do you decide what should be your priority at any given time? I’d love to hear other people’s experiences.

26 comments

  1. I definitely thought once I graduated I’d have way more time to write. Nope. It seems that writing is definitely something you have to force yourself to do, especially if you’ve been at work all day, otherwise it just never happens. Fortunately I find that on my weekends off, or if it’s just Sundays, I can normally squeeze in a few hours there and get a few thousand words down at least.

    • You’re right, Anthony. It’s often easy to think that there will be time for writing when … I often think, well next year will be great because then all of my kids will be in school for at least 3 days a week, and then I’ll have time to write. But I think all the the other stuff in our lives easily expands to fill the available time. It’s great that you’re motivated to write on weekends – I always find it harder to get into the spirit of writing when everyone else is having fun!

  2. Kailijade

    Well Natasha, for me, it was proving to be very difficult in terms of time management, so I have taken some time out to focus purely on my writing. As much I wanted to be able to finish my first draft as a single working mother, it was not happening. It is very scary, and I am watching my savings dwindle, but I need to believe that with the tools I have learnt (thanks by the way) and the discipline I have acquired … plus a bit of natural talent, I can make it happen!

    • Glen Hunting

      Kailijade, you need to understand that you may never see a financial return for your novel, even though it may be a very good novel. I am not one of those optimists who believes that good work will always find a market; in my experience, good work is very often passed over for all sorts of reasons (and I’m not refering to my own work.) But I absolutely APPLAUD you for your scary decision and your scary lifestyle. You’ll have to get back ‘in the swim’ eventually (I know this because I did a similar thing to you some years ago) but it’s great that you have the time and resources (and the courage) to devote yourself to your writing. I hope the process turns out to be everything you could hope for, and more.

      • Same Kaili, I also applaud you for investing in yourself and backing yourself. And you mention discipline, Kaili, and I think that’s the key. Lots of people lack the discipline and nothing can make up for forcing yourself to sit and write no mater what. I so hope it all works out for you and, regardless, you’ll have learned a lot and had a lot of fun so it will never be wasted time.

        Glen, you’re right. Good work doesn’t always find a market and it does take a lot of luck. I suppose the important thing is that we all press on writing regardless, and never give up hope, and work out some way to fit writing into our lives, if that’s what we love.

  3. I like you work part time and have a family, my 3 yr old is now at a nursery giving my precisely 2.5 hours a week in which to write, unless of course I get up early or write at night. I find this hugely fraustrating and always want more time. On the plus side it means I have to be very focused! 🙂

    • Focus is so important, isn’t it? I find that I get much less distracted and am much less interested in waiting for inspiration because there is no time for distractions or inspiration; I just have to make the most of the time available. I think it makes us better writers, and possibly more productive because we use the little time we have to the fullest. Most days anyway, sometimes Facebook or Twitter can get a little too distracting!

  4. Work full time, have 2 toddlers, and a wife that is notorious for weekend honey-do lists. Requires a lot of focus and energy. For the past few weeks I was just pooped, couldn’t write a thing. I’ve written and edited about 200 pages of my novel in the past three months. 300 pages down, about 300 to go.

    If I had to describe marriage and kids in one word: Sacrifice.

    • Yes, something is often sacrificed by someone to fit everything in. And tiredness and writing well don’t seem to go hand in hand. Hopefully some of the sacrifices are rewarded at some future time. Good luck with the editing.

  5. Full-time work and a two-year old, there’s only one piece of advice I have: aim to write every day. That’s my goal and for the most part, even if a paragraph, that’s what I do. It’s taken me a few years to get to that point however 🙂

    • I think that’s the key – consistency. It doesn’t matter how many words you get down, or how terrible they are, at least you have words on a page. It’s great that you are so committed to daily writing. As with you, it took me a while to work out my routine and to have that consistency but now I have it, it helps me manage my whole life.

  6. Sometimes it really does feel like the whole world wants a piece of me, but I am learning (slowly) to make writing priority number 1. Lately that’s writing/ writing admin because I’m researching etc, but it definitely makes me feel like less of a fraud to be doing something related to writing every day. Even if I have to be sneaky and do it while I’m on my lunch break.

    • I think the problem is that everything else clamours more loudly for attention than writing does and so it is easier to ignore the writing and do all the other seemingly more important things. Perhaps someone needs to teach writing to be a bit more demanding of us writers for our time!

    • Glen Hunting

      This is very much do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do, but I think the key is setting some reasonable limits and boundaries and then sticking to them, and Knowing When To Say ‘No’, and knowing when you Really Can’t Say ‘No’. The other unhealthy end of the writer/life spectrum is not letting yourself go out and play now and again, or work or observe or recharge or whatever. Remember what Elizabeth Jolley said about writers needing something else to do, to get some vital, nourishing interplay between life and art?

      So, Elimy, you owe it to yourself and your enraptured readership to find the right balance. Otherwise your work will lose its spark and verisimilitude, and you will become dour and irritable, as will your fans and your peer reviewers. Please don’t make me dour and irritable. 🙂

      • It’s amazing how many seemingly unrelated aspects of your life end up helping you in writing a book. I agree, Glen, all writers need something other than writing in their lives, to make the writing all the richer.

  7. Louise Allan

    Natasha, I give you, and all the others with young children who have commented here, a virtual pat on the back that you are able to do ANY writing at all! I don’t know how anyone with young children does. I didn’t have the mental space to consider anything beyond the home or kids. You must all have mountains of self-discipline!

    And once the kids are all at school, I think it still takes a couple of years for gaps to open up in your day. There’s canteen and sports days, and music lessons and parent help, and … and … But each year you find you have more time and mental space. It’s the mental space as much as anything, I think.

    Anyway, congrats on your discipline and effort. It looks like it’s paying off. Can’t wait to hear more about the new novel …

    • Hi Louise, I also think that for me, writing is a bit like mediation or something. If I have a day when I don’t get to do any writing, I feel grumpy and out of sorts and I’m not such a nice person to all of those around me. When I write, I feel happier and so I’m able to do everything else with a smile and be more efficient because I’ve had my writing fix. So maybe it’s not just self-discilpine for me, maybe it’s also my mood enhancer and so that’s why I’m happy to make time to do it – it makes everything about the day better.

  8. annabelsmith

    I always wondered how you did all your social media etc when you had so little time for writing. The evening shift! Now my son is at full-time school that has made a big difference to the amount of time I have for writing. I have sessions for marketing, admin etc built into my day and I stay on target with the ‘pomodoro’ technique (kitchen timer!)

    • Yes, gotta love the night shift. Lucky I’m not a big fan of TV. And I must try some sort of timer, because I do still find myself occasionally wandering off into the land of Facebook when I should be writing. I could certainly ration more effectively.

  9. Sioban

    Thank you for writing this wonderful piece, this and all the comments really resonated with me. I have two children and work partime at night. I am currently working on my first book of poetry to come out next year and conducting a variety of storytime and writing programmes for children, that while rewarding are unpaid. A large amount of time is spent trying to make all of this fit together, without anything getting less attention than it deserves and as the writing doesnt get upset or make me feel guilty for leaving it neglected; it tends to be the thing to wait. This is the start of a journey to ‘Write for money’ and I am hoping to convert some of this unpaid work to something more profitable. It is wonderful to see I am not alone in the struggle and other women writers feel the same.

    • Thanks Sioban for visiting and for your comments. It’s taken me a long time to get the balance right – my oldest child is now 7 and for all of the last 7 years I have tried to fit too much in. It’s really only this year, when I’ve made a conscious decision to take on less paid work, that my creativity has been properly unleashed, and I feel busy, but not insanely so. However, it’s probably not a decision I can afford to make every year, unless my next book is a bestseller. So here’s hoping!

      I also understand what you’ve said about the level of unpaid work that you take on. I also did a lot of that for the first few years and while some of it has converted to paid work, some of it I’ve stopped doing because I also made a decision this year not to do certain kinds of unpaid work. It’s a tricky balance. Good luck with your book, and with making everything fit in to your life!

  10. Thanks, Natasha. With two lively boys, a demanding working life and volunteer commitments, I’m still searching for ways to strike the balance. I’m a natural introvert, and require ‘alone-quiet-time’ to recharge; I find it difficult to write when I’ve been too social!

    I’m like you though; writing ‘fills my cup’ and makes me a happier person. 🙂

    • Hi Kristen, keep searching, it will come, if not balance then just enough time for everything. And isn’t it great that we’ve both found the thing that makes us a happier person. I look at other people who are still searching for that thing, late into their life, and am forever grateful to have already found it.

  11. Tamara

    Thanks so much for that Natasha. It seems like having a routine is a big key to your productivity. You know if it’s 12:30 on a weekday it’s time to write. I know I need to put this in place. Set aside the same time each day that is designated writing time. Otherwise there is always something else to distract me and writing becomes something I’ll do when I have more time (ha! like that will ever happen!!) Thanks for the insight into how you do it all 🙂

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