Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 9th, 2013

A writer’s arms race

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The author's desk

My house is dark as I write this. It’s just before six in the morning, and I’ve been up for an hour. My daughter, who is just about to turn ten months old, is going through a fussy period, which usually means that she’s up and ready for the day long before the sun comes up. This means that I’m up with her, too—I try to give my wife, who has been on baby duty for most of the night, an extra hour of sleep—but I don’t mind that much. I’ll brew a pot of coffee, put Beatrix in her high chair with a few toys, and try to crank out as much of the day’s blog post as I can before breakfast. After my wife gets up and goes to work, I’ve got a few hours to write and play with the baby before her first nap, which can last anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour or more. Then it’s more baby time, broken by intervals of writing, until dinner. That may sound like an exhausting routine, but it’s gone better than I could have expected: I’ve done a lot of work between diaper changes, including the editorial rewrite and copy edit of Eternal Empire, a novelette, and a few other writing projects, not to mention something like 100,000 words of blog posts. And I don’t know where it all came from.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been forced to rethink my schedule, of course. In the heady years after I quit my job to focus on writing, I was able to structure my day however I wanted, which usually meant writing all morning, taking a long break in the afternoon, and continuing well past midnight. After I got married, my schedule started to resemble that of a regular job, since I wanted my evenings free. And although my total hours of work per day has gone down slightly, my productivity hasn’t suffered. If anything, I’ve gotten a little faster, although I sometimes wonder whether my writing process—and even my style—has been subtly changed along the way. When you’re writing past dark, it affects your approach to the material: it’s intimate, intuitive, a little romantic. Confining your work to daylight hours forces you to see the story from a more rational angle, as well as encouraging you to plan the day’s work more carefully, and it’s possible that my writing has become slightly more refined and clinical. It wouldn’t surprise me if my new schedule, broken up by baby time, resulted in a similar change, although I’m still too close to my recent work to see any difference.

The author's daughter

What I have begun to notice is that I’m engaged in an artistic arms race with all the other elements of my life competing for my attention. The time it takes me to write a blog post has probably been cut in half, for example, and the first drafts of my fiction are also more efficient. I’ve noted before that the only real measure of progress in a writer’s life is that your first drafts start to look more like your final drafts from five years ago, and that’s as much a survival skill as a measure of advancing craft. When most of us compare our situations now with what we were struggling to handle half a decade ago, we find that our lives have grown increasingly complicated. In your twenties, you’re pretty much just looking out for yourself; in your thirties and beyond, you start to acquire more stuff—a marriage, a mortgage, children, career responsibilities and upheavals. The pie is the same size, but it’s divided among more things, and the amount of time you have for writing is correspondingly reduced. To maintain the same pace you once did, which is often a prerequisite for staying artistically viable, you need to get smarter and faster, or else postpone your other obligations for as long as possible.

This may be why so many New York writers end up in a state of arrested development in their personal lives. Part of it has to do with living in a city that makes it hard for you to escape your twenties—you’re always a renter, in an apartment that feels too small for kids—but it’s also an artistic judgment call. Very few writers in New York manage to have it both ways: you can’t buy a house or send your kids to a good kindergarten on a starving artist’s salary, so you end up either putting off your personal goals or sacrificing your artistic ones. In my case, if I hadn’t moved to Chicago, I don’t even think I’d need to worry about the dilemmas I’m discussing here: it just wouldn’t be in the cards. As it stands, I’m in a curious position in which I can sort of have it both ways, as long as my writing skills can manage to stay one step ahead of my encroaching responsibilities. Whether this is sustainable or not is still an open question, but I’m lucky to even have the option. That’s why I don’t necessarily mind these early mornings. Being here at all means that I’ve survived the arms race, at least for now. And the best reward is the chance to stay in the game.

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Leszek Kołakowski

A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.

Leszek Kołakowski

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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