Category Archives: The Writing Journey

What’s a dream job?

The life of a business traveler

Yesterday one of my favourite blogs, Broadside, published a question that’s on my mind almost as constantly as Alfie’s train of thought (see Self-Forgiveness and a Thanksgiving Vacation):  she asked, “what’s your dream job?”

She cites a recently published survey by LinkedIn, which asked its users that very question and found vast differences between men and women (though I wonder what surprising differences they’d find if they sliced the data differently). The differences are interesting, and I suggest having a look, but what’s more interesting to me is the question itself: “what’s your dream job?”

We talk often about finding our dream jobs or our dream man/woman… maybe a dream vacation… but how often do we think about our dream life holistically? Or is that it: work, partner, holidays – is that all we’re meant to dream about?

I don’t believe that for a second. I do believe that life is a scarier question.

For the last year or so, I’ve been making an honest attempt at asking myself that question once a month. I look at what I’ve written down as some tangible goals – how close I am to being a writer; how close I am to being truly financially secure; how well my relationships are going; how happy I am at work; how healthy I feel; etc. I plot it on a radar chart and see what that shows me.

Of course it shows me that whenever I make progress in one, something else slips: it’s a constant balancing act.

And sometimes it feels really tiring, this pursuit of constant progress – I’m seriously considering adding an axis that has something to do with relaxation or general enjoyment of life so I get points for some time doing nothing – but, likewise, it’s given me a lot to think about.

On vacation this summer, I found myself thinking about how difficult and frustrating my life is because my job is so demanding: it affords me little time and mental space to write during the week. One of those classic spirals of negative self-talk that’s more common with me than I’ll admit. But the good thing about these moments of reflection – especially if I write them down – is that they force me to admit that rather than solving the problem, I’m just whining. And that kind of behaviour never leads us to our dream lives (or job or spouse or car or holiday)… instead, it just gives us a litany of excuses we can share with our enablers over a bottle of red wine…

I ended up doing some maths (to sit aside my radar chart of life):

I am awake about 16 hours per day… that’s 112 hours per week

I am contracted to spend 37.5 of those at work – let’s be pragmatic and round that up to 40

That’s only 36% of my life.

I have 72 hours left.

72 hours left. Work need only be a little over a third of my life.

I don’t know about you, but that thought was so freeing for me. I’m someone who thought a lot about ‘my dream job’ and saw the workplace as the bulk of life. I still struggle with this, but since then I’ve tried to work 40 hour weeks, tried to take a lunch break to read blogs or write – it’s made me happier at work. I’m happier at home. I’ve learned to switch off and it’s made me more productive. I’ve realised that the 10% of my life I give away by working until 7pm is a valuable 10%.

Questions like ‘what’s your dream job’ force us to view our lives through the context of work. Similarly, ‘who’s your dream man’ encourages us to view our dream lives through the context of another. Is that really how we want to view the world?

I’d much prefer to ask the questions: what do you want to do with your life?

How does the 36% of your life you spend at work contribute to your purpose?

And what do you do with the remaining 64%…..

Self-Forgiveness and a Thanksgiving Vacation

In my inbox this morning was a blog post from The Write Practice called ‘Why You Should Take a Day Off from Writing’ and I need to say thanks to its author, Melissa Tydell.

Why?

Del’s luggage can be viewed as a metaphor for novel-writing

Because I’ve been tying myself up in knots lately. I can’t seem to sit down and write and the more I recognise that I’m not making enough time, not making enough progress, the more difficult it gets. I start to question whether I’ve really got it in me:

“Writers write,” people tell us…

“Just show up,” the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in her inspiring Ted Talk on creativity.

And so it is repeated in just about every book on writing that there is: the guilt is piled on and we come to believe that real writers write every single day; they too suffer procrastination and block, but they turn up every day to wrestle with those demons. Even on Thanksgiving.

Let’s get this clear: I write. I’ve written and re-written a full-length novel and have a home that’s filled with an arguably creepy number of notebooks. My living room floor was carpeted with notecards for four months of this year, until I decided to buy a couch and invite my boyfriend over for dinner.

Sometimes, when I find myself staring at people on the train and consumed by some narrative problem, I suddenly realise that the people around me don’t have these anxieties: they’re on their way to a party where they’ll laugh and gossip and talk about television or boys. It sounds to me so free, sometimes, when I realise that I’ve been struggling with an endless string of story or writing puzzles, consistently, for about fifteen years. Not everyone will be sipping mulled wine at their work Christmas party, pretending to interact as they try to work out exactly what a fictional man called Alfie should be thinking about as he sits through a long church service.

That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about for the last week. Every meeting I’ve had about energy bills has been slightly clouded by Alfie’s church presence.  Every conversation I have with friends at my Thanksgiving party will be weighed down by this question. What the hell would he be thinking??

How amazing would I be at my job if that was not the case? How much deeper my relationships?

I’m a writer. I’m a writer because I write even when I don’t have a pen in my hand or a laptop on my knees. I’m a writer because I need to be.

I think a lot of people feel the guilt that I feel and I say we let it go. I say we allow ourselves a vacation – how much better will our writing be when we come back refreshed and renewed? When we’ve been fully open to the world and all its people?

What do you think? Am I lazy or am I right? Is it something in between?

Happy Thanksgiving Vacation!

Writing is Re-Writing

I thought I knew what Michael Crichton meant when he said “writing is re-writing.” Then I finished my second draft. A quarter of the way through editing a third draft, the message has finally crystallised: turns out writing is re-writing.

This post is about where I’ve been since June.

I started this blog when I finished my second draft and I was determined to A) send my novel to an agent by the end of August and B) post at least once per week. It wasn’t until I started really editing  that I realised how much I learned through the development of my second draft – how much growing I’d done as a writer, as a person.

My second draft started in late 2010 after an abnormally fast first draft (2-3 months) and a few months of writer’s block while I wrestled the conflicting feelings of loving my story but hating my style. It wasn’t until I found the potential in a secondary – tertiary, even – character that I found my stride again and started weaving her in while re-writing what I’d done. That took a long time: a little more than a year and a half. In June, when I finished and looked back at the start, I found a story I love… and an almost schizophrenic style: the beginning and the end sound like they’ve been written by completely different people.

I’ve been working on that and, as you’ve gathered, it has taken a lot longer than I thought. I realised my problem when I got about three pages in… then I went through a brief period of avoidance. Considered a career as a baker. I even considered pursuing my current career even further. But then, after a long struggle that involved hacking apart the same stale words and sticking them back together with an old piece of bubblegum, I wrote something different. I wrote a wholly new scene: one that blended the deeper understanding of my characters with the higher level of skill I’d gained over two years. I wrote something good.

In this process I have failed to achieve my artificial deadlines many times – self-forgiveness is paramount in this profession (Lesson 1) – so I’m not too upset about that. Especially because I’ve learned how important and exciting this stage of the journey can be: I’m reading  every page of my novel to ensure a consistent voice, a consistent point-of-view, a consistent silent force that leads each character toward their ultimate decision. The task is enormous, but it’s the chance to empower the characters and the novel to speak for themselves. This really feels like writing.

If you want some more specific advice about editing, I’ve found a nice, succinct post by Joanna Penn, whose blog often reminds me that I’m part of a great big community of people who sit, alone, in their quiet writing spaces as they go about tackling the exact same problems. I definitely relate to her description of finishing her first draft and many of her key points for editing.

See you in a week or less – my commitment to this blog has now been re-affirmed.

In Medias Res: so I’ve finished a novel…

It took me two years and I’ve done it: I’ve finished writing a novel.

And now that it’s done, I thought I’d feel the subtle, sublime sense of an ending, something cathartic, something to celebrate. I can’t say that it didn’t feel amazing: it left me breathless… but it definitely feels much more like a middle.

That’s because, immediately upon finishing, all the thoughts of what comes next came rushing to my mind:

  • Edit
  • Write a 1-line hook that compels everyone to read it
  • Edit
  • Build an ‘author platform’
  • Find an agent
  • Edit x3
  • Find a publisher
  • Create a marketing & publicity plan (I suppose that requires me to have said ‘platform’ to ‘leverage’)
  • Edit a little (or a lot) more…

Granted, I now have more time to think about these things: these new and exciting things, like this blog – something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. But I feel the same impatience with myself now that I’ve felt since that New Year’s Eve over 2 years ago that I first picked up my pen.

The story dominated my life for two years and, throughout, I would think ‘once I’ve finished my novel, I’ll…’

INSERT: quit smoking for good this time / focus on a new job / let someone read my work / volunteer / play more sport / start that blog I’m always thinking about / let someone new into my life

But human nature has caught up with me again, it seems. It doesn’t matter how often we learn this lesson, it seems we always fall for those arbitrary, artificial moments that are meant to mark an end-point and change our lives for good. Truth is, they don’t. Or if they do, it’s not in the way that we foresee. Happiness and meaning – fulfillment –  don’t seep in suddenly on the day you graduate from high school or college or the day you quit your job. It doesn’t suddenly appear on the day you finish your novel. Not if you don’t let it.

When I spot this immediate stress and impatience in myself, I often sigh and recollect popular wisdom that says if there’s nothing left to strive for then we’ve lost our purpose, the very foundation of our happiness. Ah, the paradox of the human condition. But I think it’s time I let that go. I think it’s time we all let that go.

I think it’s time I put my worries and to-do’s away, call my mom & dad, go out for a pizza with a lovely young man and a nice glass of wine – pat myself on the back and say, “damn, girl, you wrote a BOOK”

Let’s do this for each other too.