My Work Life Balance as a Writer
(Video at bottom.)
I am a big proponent of a good balance in life. And this can be hard to do as a writer. Because a lot of you who want to write professionally, by necessity, have to have another job. When I took this class back in 2000, one of the things Dave (Wolverton) said is there are a lot of people in the writing community that will tell you that you shouldn’t have a family, for instance, because having a family will distract you from your writing, or you will be a bad family member because of your writing. And he said this is a fallacy and self-fulfilling prophecy. This does happen because they expect it to and because they have bad work habits. And I agree with him 100%. I think having a good family who is supportive of you in your writing is going to be infinitely more valuable to you than you can even imagine. You need to have passion for life to write passionate books, and you need to have a cheering section.
Now, there are some issues you want to be aware of. When I was newly published, I remember an event that happened that’s always stuck with me. I went out to dinner with some writer friends. This would have been Brandon Mull and Shannon Hale. And Mull and Shannon and me and our spouses were there. It was actually at Mama Chu’s restaurant, if any of you know that, in Utah Valley. And we had this wonderful, very exciting sort of meeting of minds. Mull and Shannon are two of my favorite people ever. They are fantastic writers. (I love how people mistake Brandon Mull and me for each other and occasionally show up in the wrong line. And we both will good-naturedly sign the other’s book when that happens.) But it was just was wonderful.
And I got to the end of this dinner, and on the way home I said to my wife, “Wasn’t that the most amazing thing ever?” This was one of my first meetings like this with other authors. And she said, “You didn’t look at me one time the entire night. I felt like I wasn’t there.”
Yes. (Pretty bad.)
And this was an eye-opener for me. Because I got married, by this community’s standards, later in life. I was 30, which is, like, ancient in Utah County terms. For our foreign readers, you might be like, “You got married that early? What’s wrong with you?” Because I’ve noticed in Europe, especially, they do tend to have a later marriage age. Around here, it tends to be a lot faster. And I was used to writing dominating my life because I did not have any family stuff, which is really important and really valuable. I just didn’t have it. I wanted it. I didn’t get it till later in life. And I had to realize that once I had other people in my life that I cared about to that extent, I couldn’t let writing dominate that.
Writing is something that can dominate every waking moment of your life if you’ll let it. A friend of mine, Howard Taylor, loves to use the joke, he’s very good with these, that goes, “It’s great being self-employed because you only have to work half days, and you get to decide which 12 hours that is.” It is true. This isn’t the only job like this. There are lots of jobs like this. But writing is one of those that if you let it, it will consume everything. This can be really dangerous. This can lead to everything being about you and nothing being about your loved ones, everything being about the writing. This can be very helpful as well because you can use off moments that other people might waste, like on a commute, thinking about your stories and working on them. It can be a very handy thing.
Emily and I had to work out some things, mostly issues with me dealing with this. And one of them was the realization that when I’m with her, I need to actually be with her. I can’t be on Roshar. I can’t be on Scadrial. I have to make sure that I’m there for my wife during those times. And in turn, one thing that I would tell you to try to explain to your loved ones is that you need uninterrupted writing time when it’s writing time.
This is not the case for every writer. But for most writers I know, you usually have a warm-up period and a cool-down period for your writing session. Which means that it takes you a little while to get into it, then you have a really productive section in the middle, and then you get finished with whatever scene you were working on, and you start to cool down. And if you still have writing time, you will then spin back up into another section or scene and then spin down again.
Getting interrupted in the middle of this really productive time can be catastrophic for a lot of writers. Even just a small thing that your spouse might think is not a big distraction at all, just saying, “Hey, what do you want for dinner?” can pull you out of that and can interrupt the flow, that instead of a 10-second interruption it can turn into another 30-minute interruption as you start spinning down naturally because you’ve been interrupted. And then you have to try to force yourself to spin back up. Learning how to spin up and down faster is something you can practice, but it’s not something every writer can do.
So, I recommend a kind of trade. Where you go to your loved ones and you learn how to make sure you are there for them during family time, and you wall that time off in your brain, and you’re not allowed to be thinking about your stories during that time. And in turn, you make your loved ones the guardians of your writing time, whatever that is you have in your life, where they’re going to make sure that nobody interrupts you during those important moments, that you have your two hours uninterrupted so that you aren’t getting a phone call in the middle of that, or the person coming to want to do pest control, or whatever it is, that you have that time.
What I do in my life is two writing sessions. I need about a two- to four-hour chunk. Anything less than that, and I generally can’t work on new prose for a chapter because of that spin up and spin down. I can do other things. I can outline. I can edit. But I can’t work on new prose unless I’ve got at least two hours. I like three or four. Usually, when everything is on, things have been a little off for COVID, but I usually get up at noon or 1:00 and write from 1:00 until 5:00, a four-hour chunk. At 5:00 I stop, and 5:00 until 10:00 is family time for me. And that is walled off. I don’t work on books, even in the back of my brain. It’s got to be a really steep wall for me to make sure I am there for them. And I have to mentally say, “You are there for them.” When your kids ask you to do something, that’s the time you say, “Yes, I’m going to go do that.”
There are things that’ll interrupt that. This class is one of them. But on a normal day, that time should be theirs. And then I go back to work at 10:00 after everybody goes to bed, theoretically (children are children). And I write from 10:00 until 2:00, and then 2:00 until 4:00 is goof-off time for me. Video game, reading a book, listening to a podcast, whatever it is I feel like doing, assuming I’ve met my word count goals and things like that.
This may not work for you, but I hope that some of these ideas help you with understanding this. I will reiterate what Dave said. A family and time away from your books is actually going to be really important for you not burning out, for you having things to write about, and for you keeping that good balance in your life. It’s much tougher when you can’t write full time like me, I understand that. But just take that to heart and hopefully it’ll be useful to you.
(Adam here. If you’ve been following Brandon’s YouTube channel recently, you will have noticed some pearls of wisdom many of Brandon’s videos contain. Well, I’ve decided to take transcripts of those sections—only slightly edited from his speaking—and make them a bit more widely available.)