Time is a strange kind of puzzle, isn’t it? At least that’s how it has been for me with respect to my writing life.
Decades ago, when I made a personal commitment to pursue writing as a career, I knew I would have to learn how to set aside time to write. Otherwise, my commitment would be useless. I wouldn’t have a
chance. In order to make any headway learning my craft and hopefully publish one day, I knew I’d have to manage those hundreds of pieces of time, each of them vying for my attention (time for friends, romance, family, paid work, exercise, sleep, health). Each puzzle piece of time came with emotional and spiritual demands that could whisk me away from that essential thing I wanted to do: write.
So, how to manage it? How could I assemble these pieces, organize them in a meaningful, purposeful and authentic way to create a whole life picture, one that reflected my true self?
Perhaps I began badly.
In my twenties, for instance, I took on a variety of waitressing jobs and temporary office jobs. Why did I choose that career path? I had a bachelor’s degree with honors. Was I underachieving? Was I lowering my standards in the world of careers? Some people thought so. While many of my friends were making their way through law school, business and medical schools, pursuing grown-up leadership positions that our society typically applauds; I kept on my temporary work track as a way to guard against compromising my precious writing time. It was difficult. I felt insecure. I had nothing to show for my efforts, just a long string of days, weeks, years of writing and revising short stories, a novel. Lots of pages covered. Nothing published.
And, those disapproving looks. (What is she doing with her life?)
My first breakthrough came, I thought, when I landed a fulltime job with a respectable title: technical writer. A full time job that paid me to write? This was at a large insurance company. Within months, the dark side of my respectable job emerged. I had little time for writing about things I cared about (fiction, poetry, essays). I felt shackled, emotionally and spiritually half-dead. Now I was the one asking: What is she doing with her life?
So. How to manage it? Should I buck up? Deal with it? Get over it? Grow up?
I heard lots of well-meaning (or mean) advice about sticking with a job because, well, it was practical. But my gut advised differently. I knew that time evaporates. I knew this because I’d spent two years dealing with a fatal illness—three months in a hospital, another year recovering. Time, as I understood it, was all I had.
Postponing what you wanted to do for a later date? To me, that translated to postponing who you are. Deferring what you want to do or be in the name of some vague promise of time in the abstract, almighty future? That future didn’t exist.
Thankfully, I couldn’t ignore my distress. I couldn’t buck up. Deal with it. Get on with it. Grow up. Every day, hour, minute spent at a job that lacked meaning for me meant my time puzzle no longer reflected what I wanted or hoped to be. Pieces everywhere. An ugly mess.
Jump to graduate school and a degree in creative writing. Why did I apply? In part because it bought me two full years of writing time via scholarship money. I mention this because money pressures cannot be ignored. After one’s health, I think it’s the single most dangerous threat to anyone pursing a life in the arts. It’s like a virus. The need for money will wear you down.
But at long last, I began to get stuff published. After graduate school, money pressures intruded once more. (The need for money can taunt you; provoke you to lose your way.) My time puzzle got messy again. I took another full time office job, wrote less. Fell in love.
Married. Moved. Adopted our son. Took a part-time teaching position at a university. Wrote a bit more.
Money pressures returned so I took another full-time writing job. For a year and a half, I wrote about health care, a subject I care about. But that novel I’d halfway completed lay unfinished in a closet at home—untouched.
I remember the smirk on my co-worker’s face when I told her why. (I had a novel I needed to write.) I couldn’t blame her for looking at me with some disbelief. A novel?
All I could do was smile and shrug. It was my life. Not hers. Quitting was a risk. My way of growing up.
Eventually I found a combination that seemed to work for me: part-time teaching, manuscript consulting, magazine freelancer, real estate dabbler—these things don’t drain my energy. I’m in my fifties now. I’ve published several books, scores and scores of articles.
This struggle for time, though, is a daily practice. I won’t sugarcoat it. It demands diligence, and perhaps, most of all, courage to make unpopular decisions on a regular basis—decisions that go against social pressures, those disapproving looks from strangers or family, and those unwanted financial pressures, which might be the worst pressures of all after issues of health.
Truth is, since that initial commitment three decades ago, this “time to write” mantra has influenced every decision I’ve made—from parenting, to paid work, to the person I chose to marry, to where I live, and how I live, and the rest of the choices still ahead —foreseeable ones and those impossible to predict.
Difficult? Yes. But I harbor no regrets.
Jessica Keener is the author of bestselling novel, Night Swim. Publisher's Weekly says of her new story collection, Women In Bed,“[Keener]demonstrates a versatile voice and ability to deliver as much exquisite detail as the stories’ brevity will allow.”