Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#26: Hermitage

by Seanan McGuire


It sounds like a simple notion, doesn't it? But the fact of the matter is, hermitage is a big, complicated thing that we often fail to give sufficient attention or consideration. Bearing that in mind, here's today's expanded topic:

Learn to be a hermit. Learn to say 'I'm sorry, but I can't come to your party, I booked that night for revisions and I don't have any other time to do it this week.' Learn to tell people no. Learn to treat writing as a job -- one that may well be both unpaid and in addition to whatever job pays the bills for a long, long time. If you make excuses to let yourself skip writing, if you choose a social life over that second job, you're not addicted enough. If you want to get better, you'll learn.

As anyone who's ever tried to sit down for a block of scheduled writing -- from the wealthiest novelist to the kid who just needs to finish that book report -- can tell you, most people don't view 'writing' as being the same as 'real work.' Even the people who've heard me explain exactly how many hours I need to complete a novel frequently have trouble understanding that those necessary hours will sometimes conflict with their proposed dinner plans. And here's the thing: nobody tells a doctor not to practice medicine, or tries to talk him out of reading that book on brain surgery because they'd rather be playing checkers. But as a writer, you'll get it all the time.

So how do you cope? How do you strike a balance, and how do you do it without losing all your friends? Let's begin.

Facts of Life.

Fact: Writing, like any activity, takes time. Everything takes time. Sleeping, eating, walking to the 7-11 for a soda the size of your head, these things all take time. A thing does not actually have to have any redeeming value to take time. A thing does not need to have any value that can be seen by the people who don't live inside your head, either. Things will take time, whether you want them to or not, and at the end of the day, we just get to figure out where we want our time to be spent.

Fact: Everyone has their own system of judgments and values, which applies when attempting to gauge the value of time. I spent a lovely ninety minutes or so not that long ago doing nothing but working on art cards. Coloring art cards. Inking art cards. Attempting to do really subtle color blending with rapidly drying markers, on art cards. There are people -- some of whom I respect greatly and love dearly -- who would say this time was wasted; that if I had ninety minutes to spend, I should have spent it on writing. There are others who will say that heck, I should've put on something nice and gone out for a cocktail. We all rate according to our own scale. At the end of the day, no one gets to rate your time but you.

Fact: Our time is not our own. Our time is never our own. When we're kids, our time is controlled at least in part by our parents, by schooldays and bedtimes and the social structure of our peers. There are things we can make choices about, but we'll never have total freedom. Even as adults, while we may have the power to decide that it's ice cream for breakfast day, we can't decide not to waste time on sleeping, eating, working...the list goes on. The loneliest, most isolated person in the entire universe still doesn't have absolute control over his or her time.

Fact: Most writers -- even successful, established writers, writers with half a dozen novels under their belts and a thousand short stories to their names -- will not be able to make their living purely on the written word. If it happens at all, it will most likely happen after years of work, and it may not last forever. All those liens on your time are there to stay. Learning how to live with them is going to make your life a lot easier.

Fact: All work and no play really does make Jack a dull boy. If you put your head down and refuse to come up for water ever ever ever amen, you're eventually going to burn yourself out. This is also a time-management issue, because barring unexpected deadlines and things going boom, you should always have the space to build a little slack into your schedule. Slack takes time, too. Just like everything else.

Learning About Time.

Most of us learned what would become our default time management tactics while we were still in grade school. You have your diligent students, you have your last-minute study hall crammers, and you have everything in the middle. (We're leaving the people who didn't do their homework out of this little metaphor. Their editors will deal with them in detention.) For the average person, patterns become habit in about three weeks. Well, we went to school for anywhere from fifteen to twenty-four years. That's a lot of pattern-forming.

The trouble is really the fact that, when you're in school, people automatically give you time to do your homework. Hell, people make you sit down and do your homework. We all had those jam-packed weekends where we totally forgot about that book report until ten minutes before the bell on Monday morning, but on the whole, we were encouraged to do what needed to be done in a timely fashion. Sometimes we were encouraged with sticks. When we turned our homework in late (or not at all), there were immediate and absolutely understandable consequences, pretty much regardless of the reasons for the delay. So we learned that we needed to do our work, and we learned that the world would always give us space for that work to happen.

Sadly, once you graduate from high school, this is no longer the case. Oh, many people stay in school for several more years, but very few parents call their college-age children specifically to ask if their history paper is finished yet. Consequences become a lot more vague, and it gets a lot easier to let other things get between us and more scholarly pursuits. This is, unfortunately, when a lot of people develop the habit of coaxing friends with writing to do out into the world. They're 'saving us' from our lack of a social life; after all, who wants to spend all their time bent over a dusty ol' typewriter, anyway?

And then we graduate, and suddenly, homework is no longer a part of daily life. Instead, we have housework, day jobs, the need to balance social life with responsibility, maybe kids of our own, with homework of their own to do...it gets messy, and since we're not technically being graded for our writing most of the time, it gets really easy to allow writing to be the thing that slips. Again, we're building habits. This is where even the most diligent students can turn into the kids from detention...only since detention never comes, there's nothing to break the cycle. We keep chipping away at the time allotted to anything that doesn't seem 'vital,' until one day we raise our heads and realize that we haven't written a word in weeks.

So here's another fact: time is finite. If you spend eight hours a day sleeping, and eight hours a day working, you now have eight hours left for socializing, eating, watching television, playing Dance Dance Revolution, jogging, walking the dog, and anything else that you need to do. There will come a point at which you have to decide what's actually worth your time -- and once that decision is made, you're going to have to live with it.

Please remember that you get to make the decisions about what is and is not worth your time. I watch a lot of television, take a lot of long walks, and draw a semi-regular comic strip. I also tend to spend my weeknights at home, rather than going out with friends, and don't have kids. My friend Jim has a wife and children, and watches rather less television than I do. So it goes. Once you've made your choices, you're going to be the one who does the most living with them. Make sure they're things you can really and truly handle, or you're going to find yourself right back at square one before very much time has passed.

Loving Sabotage.

Anyone who's ever undertaken a diet or exercise program can tell you that some of the hardest challenges come not from free donuts in the workplace, not from the urge to go home and watch television rather than going to the gym, but from the people who care the most about them: their friends and family. My going on a diet doesn't stop my mother from offering me candy corn, or my friends from asking if I want to go out to dinner at the local steak joint. Nor does it change the habits of everyone I know. When I'm going 'let's walk to Orinda,' half of them are going 'you're insane' and 'let's go sit in the movie theater for a marathon of Evil Dead movies.' I have to find a balance between the people I love and the things I want, and I have to remember that even when you're offering me a cupcake, the final choice to eat it is my own.

Focusing on your writing -- focusing on your hermitage -- is a lot like going on a diet. Substitute 'party' or 'dinner date' for 'cupcake,' and remember that the choice to accept what's offered is always yours. A lot of the same language can be adapted to explain your choices. "Thank you so much for the offer, but I promised myself I'd stay on my writing plan for the month; can we do tomorrow?" is a way better answer than "Screw you, no," if you want to keep having friends. And even as most diets allow a certain amount of flexibility, remember that it's okay to take a day off every once in a while, especially if it keeps our friends and loved ones happy, and thus less likely to poke us.

Most people can't tell the difference between 'I am staying home to mope around doing nothing' and 'I am staying home to write.' Even once writing has become your day job, if it ever does, this distinction is invisible. Why? Maybe because we can write in our pajamas. Maybe because we can, if we're willing to risk unpleasant paper mache incidents, process edits in the bathtub. Maybe because of all that early habit-forming homework. Whatever the cause, some people genuinely hear 'save me' when we say 'let me write.' It's best not to blame them for tempting us, and to just find a way to strike our own personal forms of balance.

Growing the Addiction.

In the end, it comes down to this: you can choose to go either way, and it really is your choice. There will always be demands on your time that you can't avoid or opt out of; it's what you do with the time that remains that will determine the course of your writing life. There is no teacher to give you encouraging lectures about your potential. There is no study hall, no detention, and nobody who's going to force you to succeed. There's only you.

Take the time you need to learn just how good you can become.


© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published four novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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