While everyone else at the office celebrates another successful commute home by popping the tab on a cold one and settling into the couch for a night in front of the TV, the rest of us brew a pot of coffee (or load the first of many K-Cups), reheat yesterday’s General Tso’s, open our computers, and prepare to camp out for the night.
We’re professional writers, but that might not be what it says on our business cards.
A lot of people who work eight hours a day also have some kind of side hustle, especially those in their 30s or younger, and these after-hours pursuits are not restricted to writing. Painters, composers, upcyclers, photographers, graffiti artists, filmmakers, microbrewers, web designers—they all create in the off-hours, the five-to-nine.
These endeavors are sometimes monetized hobbies, or they can even be secret second jobs in multistage schemes to escape the cubicle life forever.
Either way, at the end of a full workday, these creatives devote themselves to an ambitious pursuit without any guarantee of a payoff beyond the satisfaction of exploring their talents and passions.
And yet there are some who insist millennials are the laziest generation. You call that lazy?
But how do professional writers, and other creatives, pursue their careers without losing their steady paychecks?
And is it possible to do right by our day jobs while also challenging ourselves in our craft?
After all, it surely isn’t moral to phone it in at work in order to save our true energies for the page.
As the great sage and eminent canoe builder Ron Swanson once said, “Never half-ass two things. Always whole-ass one thing.”
So when you’re writing at night and on the weekends, put everything you have into it. When you’re pulling spreadsheet levers or whatever all day at the business factory, put everything you have into that. And in the rare times you’re packed into a booth with your best friends at your favorite restaurant, enjoy the hell out of their company (and those nachos), too.
The reality is that you won’t be able to do some of the things you want. You’ll have to be judicial, maybe for the first time ever, about what to keep in your life and what to throw out. And what you do keep, you’ll have to fight to maintain.
Imagine getting ready for a garage sale that’s going to be going on indefinitely, and it will constantly be hungry for more vintage T-shirts steeped in sentimental value that you will constantly have to sell away to strangers.
That sounds bleak, but I’m going to go even further than that: You’re floating on a wooden door in the freezing ocean, the Titanic is going down in the background, and there’s just not enough room on that door for teenage Leo (who in this case represents, let’s say, sports on TV, which you no longer have time for).
It’s cold and unpretty, but if you’re serious about your writing career—especially when there’s a full-time job claiming eight hours of your day—you’re going to have to weigh the price of everything against the value you ascribe to your craft, and for a while you might have to get pretty tough about it.
Brunches may be missed. Lively patios may be foregone. DVRs may fill to bursting with unwatched shows. Sleep may erode. Fast food may work its way into your life more often than you’d like. That gym membership might turn into a gym donation.
I remember having to make these calls years ago, after I’d recuperated from my tenure in the newsroom and found myself neck-deep in a writing project that was getting so big that I had to start asking myself what was most important to me. As a confirmed extrovert, it stung at first to turn down invitations to things and to know the weather outside was beautiful while I was inside, sitting at a shadowy writing desk. But that sting has dulled, and time is fostering discipline.
Whether or not you make those sacrifices depends on how much you value your writing career and whether it’s worth more to you than those things. And there’s no way to cheat on this appraisal.
The truth will be evident in your decisions. All across the planet, there are countless unfinished projects sitting on hard drives, or worse, floating in the backs of people’s minds, never to see one word of realization.
For some writers, it might be a healthy reprieve to spend a season wringing every minute they can out of their Netflix subscription or finding room for Leo on that floating door (come on, Rose, there was plenty of room), even if it means a potentially great work of their own will never take form. It goes back to appraisal and how valuable writing really is to someone versus every other diversion in existence. And it’s not always bad to choose a different road temporarily.
But the powerful draw to write isn’t silenced even when it is ignored, and that’s something that I’ve experienced during seasons of my life when I’ve chosen binge-watching and patios over grueling hours trying to hammer a pile of words into something that looks like a sentence.
I don’t think a writer is ever completely healthy or happy when they’ve locked away their craft, because I think to some degree they’re made for it. A writer needs to write like a bird needs to sing or a cat needs to endlessly knead a pillow while making creepy eye contact with you.
So you probably won’t be happy at home if your work life is a cycle of gray days spent slinging spreadsheets and staring at the acoustic tiles over your cubicle wall. Neither will you reach peak fulfillment in your career if it’s eight hours a day as chief cuddler at the puppy-cuddling institute. No matter how great or how terrible your day job is, if you’re a writer, you’re denying your nature if you starve that skill.
Rushing home at 5 p.m. to lock your door and consume media may be the suburban way, but we as writers have to stand up to that programming like a wrestler with magic sunglasses and carve out time for our craft even if it hurts. Because if we don’t, we’ll always know there’s something else we should be doing.
If you’re a steady nine-to-fiver as well as a committed writer, with a mind full of ideas for both but seemingly not enough minutes in the day for either, you’ve probably developed a deep appreciation of time. You’ve come to see it as both a commodity and a necessity.
With a slate full of projects and ample energy to attack them, it can feel ludicrous to sit in your cubicle or stand at your counter merely because the clock says you’re supposed to. Especially if there are dishes in the sink at home because you don’t have time to wash them, and you’re using the last traces of your deodorant stick because driving 20 minutes both ways to the nearest Target seems like an absurd indulgence. (Who am I, Marie Antoinette?)
It’s easy to fixate on all of the other things you could be doing. It’s easy to feel like you don’t have time to be at work, but that thought falls apart pretty quickly when you ask yourself where your rent money comes from.
At my nine-to-five, the pace can be glacial. If I don’t have a customer or a big deadline crashing down on me, it’s natural to slip into the gentle current and become hypnotized by the whoosh of the AC vent above me and the droning buzz of gossip and small talk happening in the other cubicles. It’s maddening to be sitting there, clicking through agencywide emails about this or that, when I know my evening is going to be a breakneck marathon of writing that probably won’t be finished until well after midnight.
But lots of people already “work for the weekend,” and now your weekends are crammed with more work. On one weekend in the not-too-distant past, for instance, I completed my final writing project for the week just in time to crash into bed on Sunday night. My weekend began literally minutes before it ended.
So this begs two questions to be asked: What are we working for, and how do we guard against burnout?
For a lot of us, the carrot on the end of the string is the chance to one day shed our nine-to-fives forever. Our motivation is nothing less than freedom from the job that is our public face—the one for which we keep the stack of business cards and tell our families about at the holidays when they ask us about work.
For others, the reward is more abstract—the satisfaction of writing something they believe is good, or the excitement of seeing marked improvement in their skill.
That satisfaction and excitement can be rejuvenative. It might not be a dozy afternoon of lemonade in a hammock while a distant neighbor mows his lawn and the smell of charcoal drifts over the fence, but feeling good about your writing can restore your batteries for another week at the office.
That might delay burnout, but the only way you’ll really avoid it is if you pry your clawed fingers off your extremely limited free time and spend some of it with friends and loved ones instead of hoarding it all for your double life. If you aren’t occasionally generous to yourself and others, you’ll crash and burn.
But to find time for a social life, true relaxation, and other hobbies you love, you’ll have to be meticulous and intentional with how you spend your time, maybe even a bit miserly. And you’ll have to mine extra hours from places you never thought to look.
Staying up later and getting up earlier are easy to try first, and most of us can probably shave some time off our nightly sleep without too much trouble. But there’s only so many hours you can subtract between the time your head hits the pillow and the crow of the rooster before your health starts to degrade. (And I live in the heartland, so the rooster isn’t always figurative.)
It’s better to find repeatable, sustainable sources of extra time—areas of your life from which you can ring out extra minutes every day.
If you have a hobby, like learning a foreign language, and you like to set aside time to practice on an app every day, instead play a language-learning podcast while you spend your daily half-hour inhaling bus exhaust in stop-and-go limbo. That way, you can learn while you drive—something that you have to do anyway. If you have a gym membership and also want to stay caught up on your favorite show, stream episodes while you bike instead of mindlessly watching whatever they have closed captioned on the little TV screens.
This way you can keep up with your hobbies, which is important. Frustration over abandoned hobbies can build up quickly and become disillusionment with both of your careers.
If you’re losing touch with your friends or neglecting your significant other or family members, make undistracted time for them. You have to eat, so spin that physical need into facetime (not FaceTime) with other humans. Instead of throwing together something in the kitchen, give up a little more time and a little more cash (this is where that day job comes in handy), and meet a friend at a restaurant.
If you have breaks at work, instead of mingling with the smokers or idly scrolling Facebook, use that time to answer any emails or notifications related to your writing. Staying on top of your correspondence is a great way to prevent an overwhelming situation that can quickly stack up.
When you write, go somewhere. Isolate yourself from your rumbling washing machine, your stack of mail, and your broom and dustpan. They say writers have the cleanest houses, and that’s because when the writing gets tough, it’s tempting to find any excuse you can to do something else. So remove the temptation.
Head to a coffee shop, cafe, or even a bar. Someplace where you can sit alone and tell yourself you’re there to write. All you need is an electrical outlet and (maybe) Wi-Fi.
The more efficient you are in your writing time, the less time you’ll need to get it done. And this will also help you find more time to see your friends and engage in the other things you love. In other words, finding ways to be efficient is the best way to balance your writing and work demands with your personal life.
The supposed “work-life balance” is different when you essentially have two full-time jobs. Whether it’s fair or not, it seems our demanding side hustles tend to fall on the “life” side of the scales, since it’s our life outside of our nine-to-five that it blends with the most. But Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the world’s richest person, says to get out of here with that noise.
“It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance,” Bezos said in an interview last spring. “If I’m happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. If I’m happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy.”
Since it’s your writing career and your free time that you likely have to be the most mindful to keep separate, when it’s you and the page, your nine-to-five does not exist, and neither does your social or home life. If you can spare an hour at night or early in the morning, commit to that hour. If you can carve out more time than that, do it. Once you start to look for it, you’ll start finding time in the strangest places, and if you grab them, you’ll thank yourself.
But when you’re with friends and family, be present with them. If you’ve decided to turn the computer off for the night and kick back with a bowl of popcorn and stream a movie, don’t let your work or writing worlds encroach on it. Try to keep your head clear of all the responsibilities you have waiting for you for just a little while.
It’s only fair that if you’re focused on your work and writing when it’s time for those things, you’re also focused on relaxation when it’s time for that.
We are not machines, and no amount of coffee and deadline-panic will change that. You can only watch so many Leos sink below the icy Atlantic before it’s no longer worth it. Making room for other people in your life and being a well-rounded individual are more important than your paychecks, dreams, and the warm-fuzzy feeling writing gives you.
But we can push ourselves for a little while. Maybe even a few years. We can buckle down and make sacrifices because what we see at the end of the really hard times seems worth it. But be on the lookout for signs of burnout, because even if you love your day job and your writing career, a crash and burn is always waiting for you if you don’t keep the other things in life at a healthy balance.
Nathan Winfrey graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a degree in journalism and a minor in creative writing. After years navigating a colorful succession of reporting and editing jobs, he took the helm of his hometown newspaper before eventually becoming the copy editor for the largest state agency in Oklahoma. Nathan is currently a swing editor for Craft Your Content.