Writing Around a Day Job

In August, writer Tom Pollock contributed a guest post to one of my favourite blogs, Terrible Minds, on the topic of writing around a day job. Given that’s something I’ve been struggling with all summer, I was curious about his recommendations, and it turns out I have a few things to add.

Mr. Pollock’s first piece of advice is: Plan Your Time.

“If you’re effectively trying to do two jobs at once, then time is likely to be your scarcest resource, and like any scarce resource, you’ll need to budget. Plan your week ahead, know when you’re writing.  Have a routine.”

A very good piece of advice indeed, except when it’s impossible. Not every job is structured and stable. Not every job is 9-to-5. Not every job is left behind at the end of the day. Mine isn’t.

Now, fair warning, my situation is unusual. My ‘day’ job is in the theatre. I love what I do, and I have no intention of giving it up, but the hours can be all-consuming and irregular (the drama school application pack called the schedule ‘anti-social’). Which means a routine is something I just can’t create.

I work six days a week, and since March I’ve worked upwards of 55 hours in those six days. But the configuration of those 55 hours within the week is different every time. I can’t say I’ll write for two hours every Wednesday night, because I might never get two Wednesday nights off in a row.

(This is also why taking classes of any kind – dance, yoga, writing, whatever – is challenging to the point of impossible. Hobbies are for the down time between contracts, and you just hope that the start and end dates of the classes line up with your schedule.)

The other issue I have with Mr. Pollock’s advice is that time is not the only resource that’s scarce. Even working nutty hours, I can find the time to write if I need to. I managed it up until July and wrote three short stories in that time in addition to keeping up my do-it-yourself writing course. The resource that is most scarce for me is energy. Mental real estate. Passion.

And it’s not about laziness or lack of commitment, it’s about being wrung out. It doesn’t help that I’m an introvert by nature. Being around other people requires energy, and I burn through everything I have in a 12-hour day. What is left, then, to put down onto the page?

And, going back to the question of routine, I can’t always plan for how much emotional investment a day will require. Let’s say I decide to write for two hours on Wednesday evening. Great. Some days the show goes well, and I bounce out of the theatre with a bundle of energy to sink into my story.

But if during the matinee on that Wednesday we have an understudy go on at the last minute because the principal actor got trapped in traffic on the highway (last month), or there’s an accident backstage (two days ago), or we get nailed by a huge storm and spend the whole show bracing for a possible power outage (last night), or the lead fucks up a line onstage and takes it out on everyone backstage when he or she comes off (oh, so often), or an actor is performing while sick or injured and requires extra care… Any energy, any bounce I had at the beginning of the day is gone. I’ve spent my passion at work, and there is none left for my writing.

And exhaustion is cumulative. I managed to keep writing from March through into July, but by then my reserves were spent and there was nothing I could do but hang on by my fingernails until the schedule eased up again. Which it did, two weeks ago. I’ve been building my reserves back up for those two weeks, and only in the last couple of days have I been able to start writing again.

In short, sometimes all the planning in the world still can’t make it happen.

So what did I want to add to Mr. Pollock’s advice?

Know your limits and work around them. I know my schedule is going to ebb and flow in this way, which is one among several reasons why I’m not writing a novel. I can start and finish short stories and blog posts in smaller bursts of time. I’m less likely to run out of momentum in the way I would on a longer project.

Keep good notes. Even if I’m not writing, I try to jot down ideas as they pop into my head. My brain often kicks up the best stuff while it’s busy with other things. I keep a file for each story I’m working on and collect the notes there so it’s all in one place when I’m ready to come back to it.

Don’t force it. Discipline is one thing, torturing yourself is another. If you’re running on empty, give yourself a break. For me, the very last thing I want is to end up dreading writing the way I dreaded doing homework in school. If writing is your passion, you’ll come back to it when your energy levels rebound.

And I’m curious now about how other people balance writing around jobs that don’t fit the standard 9-to-5 mold, jobs that require a piece of your soul. Paramedics? Parents? Lawyers? Shift-workers? How do you handle it?

 

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Righting an old wrong

Once upon a time – back when I was in theatre school – we put on a play about Orpheus and Eurydice. (The story is a part of Greek mythology, and I’m sure wikipedia has all the details.)

In theatre, one of the main activities on the first day of rehearsals, after going around the room and introducing ourselves to the group, is a read-through of the play. We sit around a table (or, more often, several tables pushed together) and all the actors read their parts out loud, with scripts in hand. It always starts a little flat, with actors feeling awkward and self-conscious with all these new people. It’s not intended to be a dramatic reading at all, just an introduction, but by the end of the play there’s usually more acting going on, more emotion in the voices. This is the first time we hear the play, the first time we get a sense of what it will become, of who the characters will be. It brings the text alive for the first time.

For this play about Orpheus and Eurydice, we did the read-through in a classroom, not in a rehearsal hall which is the usual setting. I can’t remember why. This classroom was on the top floor of the school, only just big enough to fit us all in. It was a warm afternoon in early summer, and we could see the dust motes in the sunlight pouring through the windows. We kept the overhead fluorescents off, and the whole thing felt more comfortable, less formal, than our usual read-throughs.

The text of the play was quite stylized, and something about the warm, somnolent feel of the summer afternoon melded with the words to create a thing of beauty. The reading was quiet and understated, but that allowed the tragedy of the story full reign. This interpretation of the myth was grappling with why Eurydice would choose to go back to Hades rather than escape with her lover, Orpheus. The idea was that her father was in Hades, having died when Eurydice was little, and the relationship between them was beautiful and heartbreaking. And that reunion was held up against the anguish of Orpheus at Eurydice’s death on their wedding night and his attempts to get her back.

There were a number of symbolic elements in the play, but in this perfect, nebulous read-through, everything fit. Everything worked. It became one of my favourite plays of all time on that day.

And then the director got hold of it.

The result was awful. Just… awful. None of the symbolic elements worked. The beautiful stylized language became flat and awkward. The character of the father, who I had loved, was pushed to become a hard, nasal, accountant type. It broke my heart.

I wasn’t in that production. I ended up working as crew backstage. I operated the stage left elevator door, and my friend operated the stage right elevator door (the characters entered and exited Hades via elevator), and between cues we sat backstage together in the dark. Half the time we mimed slitting our wrists to the play’s incredibly depressing soundtrack of French accordion music. The rest of the time we talked about how the play should have been done. We both had a LOT of opinions.

I’ve always wanted to see that play done properly. I nearly booked a trip to New York for it, once, but in the end I couldn’t make the dates line up with my work schedule. One day, though.

All of this to explain, really, why I’m writing a re-telling of the Orpheus myth for this week’s challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s blog: “I want you to write a story about Hell.”

 

Taking up the challenge

At his website, author Chuck Wendig issues a weekly flash fiction challenge. He’ll give a topic or a structure or a prompt, and the challenge is to write a 1000-word flash fiction piece within a week.

I came across this last Friday, when I was flagellating myself over a missed deadline. I thought a no-pressure challenge would be good for me, and 1000 words isn’t much. This week, Mr. Wendig gave ten random words and the challenge was to use five of them in the story.

It turns out the challenge was good for me. I came up with a story, worked out a plot, and wrote the whole thing. I actually finished it. I am inordinately proud of myself. I never finish anything. Except now I can’t say that anymore.

The last part of the challenge is to post your story on your own site and link to it in the comments at the challenge. I’m going to do that in a separate post shortly.