Friday, August 5, 2011

Carolyn Haines: The Thirty-Hour Day

Time management is an issue no matter what profession a person chooses, but I think it is a particular problem for those of us in the creative realm. While a banker must balance his books, a writer can avoid writing for months at a time-until a looming deadline crashes in. And for those writers who are working on spec rather than a contract, it can often be harder to motivate to spend that solitary time in pursuit of “the greatest scene ever written.”

Because I teach fiction writing at the University of South Alabama, I get to look at the issue of time management from many different angles. My own perspective—a full time teaching load, grad students with thesis projects, the paperwork, politics, and committee work of participating in an English department, not to mention book promotion (a 24-7 job), touring, giving speeches, and trying to write the next book.

Add an animal rescue on top of that, which brings so many emotional upsets as well as hard physical labor and expense, and I am extremely busy.

The thing is—I love all three aspects of my life. I could give up teaching, but I don’t want to. I love being able to share what I know with students who are fevered to write. If I gave up the animals, who would care for them, and some need a lot of care? And I’ve written stories since I was nineteen. Not much chance of leaving that behind.

I have made many sacrifices, though. Many. But those are personal and a blog is not a place to explore them. Let me just say that I believe the writing life often costs women a lot more than men. I’m sure this is a point that could be debated, so I do not speak it as a truth, only as my opinion.

The writing life is demanding. It requires total focus for long periods of time. In teaching hundreds of students, I have come to see how vital the role of time management and perseverance plays in getting published.

Many people think talent is the key to publishing. Yeah, it sure helps. But raw talent is of little practical use unless a writer also has discipline, drive, tenacity, and the ability to take criticism constructively. I see many young people with talent so pure and raw that it takes my breath away. But if they miss deadlines, procrastinate, make excuses, or dither away their time, I also understand that these students will likely never publish. Unless they mature into better time managers.

Because the drive to write comes from within, an external teacher can’t force a student to “do what’s necessary.” 

There’s a bit more to it here—many of these students are nineteen or so. At that early age, I had no great discipline for writing fiction. I wandered around in the world of writers who intimidated me to death. Try reading Doris Betts or Lee Smith or Flannery O’Connor while you’re struggling with your own short story. That’s a ticket to true despair. While these writers have so greatly motivated me, they can also prove to be intimidating to the green writer.

But the urge to write has to push aside fear and ego and all of the things that keep people from writing. The story has to be told—and it is my story, so I must tell it. (A writer must have a bit of an ego to think that people will want to spend their leisure time reading his/her work. This ego is leavened by abject fear, though!)

I feel that I have an obligation to my readers. Many have followed me through 11 Bones books and numerous other stories. They buy my books and spend their reading time on my creations—and I owe them the best story I can tell, which means a whole lot of work.

I can’t get that work done if I procrastinate. I hate being up against a deadline. I hate that pressure. I worked as a journalist for 10 years, and I met numerous DAILY deadlines. But I was writing 200-400 words at most. The hard thing about a novel is that it can be up to 100,000 words and the work stretches over a year. That means 365 days of work even when I don’t feel like it or would rather watch a SUPERNATURAL marathon on TV. Some days I want to be entertained without using my brain at all!

So I try to do my hard writing work in the morning, so it’s done and I can’t begin to find excuses not to do it. I do my editing in the afternoons. I work everyday. Even when I am not actively writing, I am working because I am thinking about it.

But if I am sick or traveling—I give myself that time off. Illness robs me of my creativity and focus. Travel discombobulates me and I am not grounded enough to write.
That’s how I handle the writing life. I stay focused in the moment on what I’m doing and I never accept excuses about how hard it is or how I’d rather clean toilets than write. I have those days, but I don’t let them beat me.

A native of Mississippi, Carolyn Haines lives in Alabama on a farm with her dogs, horses, & cats. Bones of a Feather, the 11th book in her Sarah Booth Delaney series, is now available.  Sign up for Carolyn Haines' Newsletter & feel free to visit her Website, along with her Facebook, Twitter, & Fan Page.


N. L. Snowden said...

Carolyn, I know exactly what you mean by the time needed to be an accomplished writer, teacher, and take care of animals being more demanding on a woman. Sometimes the cost is a marriage in my case. This is a fascinating blog and of course, well written and inspiring.

Carolyn said...

Thanks, N.L. Sometimes it just has to be said.

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