Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 27, 2017

We Can Do it All - But Should We?

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold


Every now and then, a bit of life wisdom hits you and takes seed. That’s how I felt a decade ago, when author Regina McBride and I were talking about the disadvantages of the writer’s life being conducted at home. “Home” to the majority of people is the place where you go to unwind after a long day of salaried or clock-punched work. So when those people notice that you are always home, they immediately assume you’ve had more than your fair share of couch-flopped soap opera watching.

Enter the expectations of extended family members, others in the neighborhood—even your spouse and children—who believe that in comparison to them, you clearly do not have enough activity to fill your days. After all, they are busy out in the world, while you are at home letting your imagination wander. Regina said she was constantly entertaining requests to watch other kids, to volunteer at school or sports teams or Scouts, to run errands for elders, teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, write newsletter copy or speeches for nonprofits (since writing comes to you so easily anyway).

If we said yes to all such requests, we couldn’t possibly achieve our writing goals. We have to believe that these goals are not frivolous, that they are worthy of our protection. So it’s handy to have a comeback tucked in your back pocket. Regina’s impressed me. She would tell them:

“I’m going to pass that opportunity on to someone else. Writing is the way I hope to make a difference. I am already doing my part.”

That quote saved me numerous times while powering up my writing career. Practice it. We need an answer at the ready because to stumble is to pick up your neighbor’s dry cleaning.

I am not suggesting that writers are lazy or insensitive to the needs of others. It’s quite the opposite. We feel the need deeply, and we always think we can do more. Since we’re highly capable, we know we can affect change. Where does our obligation to do so end?

A thin line exists between extreme capability and madness. Many bright, sensitive multi-talents end up imploding their psyches and surrendering potential author careers to a bloated sense of civic imperative. A successful author platform can help us impact change by bestowing greater power, but our work is so time-consuming that we must choose carefully how best to wield it. Even writers who lollygag at home all day, it turns out, need nourishing food. Sleep at night. A break from 24/7 responsibility—and another title, lest they be forgotten.

I’m revisiting this topic after reading the following quote from Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a lobbying organization founded by a group of Catholic sisters. Simply put, the woman does a lot, but writes:

“All of creation is one body. I’m only just a little piece of it. But the freedom of knowing that means I just have to do my part. I don’t know how to communicate how freeing that is.”

That nugget came to me in the middle of my own personal March Madness—a term I’ve co-opted that has nothing to do with basketball. My 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule was jammed to the max—and then, into my inbox, dropped the ten, 10-page manuscripts I forgot I’d said I’d critique for a contest. I had two weeks to turn them around.

While my alumni magazine assures me that most of those in my year are enjoying retirement, I accept that many writers have similar schedules. It’s all important work. Worthy work. But where does it end?

Think about that today, as you race through your busy life. We can conceive it all. We can feel it all. But maybe we don’t have to do it all.

Maybe being a storyteller is our part. Maybe it’s enough.

What are the misperceptions you’ve encountered about your writing life? What additional activities have you deemed “worth it,” and otherwise, how do you guard your writing time? All great comebacks welcome!

*     *     *     *

About Kathryn:

Kathryn CraftKathryn CraftKathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.

Twitter: @kcraftwriter
FB: KathrynCraftAuthor

46 comments on “We Can Do it All - But Should We?”

  1. Words to soothe my busy heart this morning! Thank you, Kathryn, for putting this into a form that I can copy and share. I may pass a copy around at the next family gathering. 🙂 An artist friend and I were lamenting this very thing the other day . . .

    1. Mary, rest assured that applying yourself to becoming a good writer is already a lot, so choose what else you do with your time carefully. If other activities enhance your writing, great. But if it doesn't, it detracts. There is no neutral.

  2. And what makes it harder, Kathryn, is that as I age, the 'all' I could do last year is more than what I can do this year, so I have to constantly readjust my expectations of myself, and my time.

    BUT - I'm happy to have the opportunity!

    1. Thank you for mentioning this Laura. So it's not just me? 😉 I don't think this is just due to tiring out as we age. I think a large part of it is hormonal. Changes that make us less ambitious (we care less what others think of us) and more in tune with our true desires for what we want to do with our remaining time on this earth. Our "deadline" advances and we don't want to fritter around with things that won't bring meaning and some amount of pleasure. So we apply our resources in more focused ways.

      That's how I feel, anyway. You?

      1. Exactly! I'm much more focused in my time usage - partly because I know more what is WORTH my time! Too soon old, too late smart...

        1. I seem to be doing less and doing it more slowly. My kids live in different states and it's usually just me and my characters—and the beach—and deadlines. My ambition is still pretty intact, just having a harder time lugging the rest of me along the way.

    2. Laura, ain't it the truth. I never considered, not once, that I would have to think about "husbanding my energy." But the good news is we're both still at it. Thanks for making me feel less like a wimp. Kathryn, thanks for eliciting Laura's comment, and for your response.
      And, as always, type faster!

  3. I'm constantly thinking about priorities. What's most important to accomplish or take care of today, this week, this month, in order to reach my writing goals? I have a business plan with a detailed schedule of when I want to research, write, and publish various titles. Part of that plan is downtime between books, like right now when my hubby and I are preparing to move next month. When people ask me about doing something, I tell them I can (perhaps) help in the afternoon, because mornings are my writing time. 99% of the time, that 4 hours is devoted to writing.

    1. Betty I think there are many of us who could benefit from your business-like perspective. Whether or not you start a publishing entity or seek traditional publication, writers who hope to earn money for their endeavors are first and foremost entrepreneurs. You model this sensibility well! Thanks for your comment.

  4. As always, another great post, Kathryn! And a good reminder to take care of our own sanity first. 🙂
    I think the only person who "gets" that writing is work, in my family, is my husband. He SEES me at the computer every night and weekend that I have free. Most people think a book magically appears! And, once that book is written (and in the process of being published), they assume you sit back with a drink and cigarette while getting a foot massage, waiting for the millions to roll in!
    My mom called the other night, about 8:30 p.m. She asked what I was doing, "writing stuff" (of course!) after we talked a few minutes she said, "I should let you go so you can get some housework done." Huh? I'd worked all day, writing at night, have a retired husband, and in her mind I could/should "do it all."
    I tried to stifle my laugh. I can't do it all, and if I try, I'll run myself into the ground... just like every other author who tries.

    1. Jill I nodded the whole time I read your comment! After I finally admitted to my mother I was writing a novel, she sat on that information an entire three months before asking when she could buy it in a bookstore. Loved the vision of you with the drink and the cigarette waiting for your millions to roll in! Straight from the school of "Everything I Learned About Life I Learned from a Hollywood Movie," right? My motto: "Clean just enough to protect my health"—and I am constantly testing my immune system!

      But this is certainly generational. I recall my aunt telling me that all the mothers in her neighborhood would be out with prams and strollers by ten a.m. This was so specific I asked why, and she said, "Because that gave you time to do your cleaning first thing."

  5. I've been asked to do the newsletter article or PR piece because "you can write" and they "really need somebody" but I feel less and less guilty saying No because when I say Yes, it depletes my mental energy and guess what? Nothing left for my own creativity. I have stopped trying to get non-writers to understand this. And politics...shouldn't I be doing something? Putting my civic and social action into a little time slot because I need a BIG space for my next book project. Thanks for the reminder and validation today!

    1. Hi Linda, thanks for stopping by and great to see you at the Michael Hauge workshop on Thursday! Although you could have been home writing a newsletter article...

      Those newsletter articles are a great way to build a writing practice and an early platform—for someone who is just starting out. That's why I love the words, "I'm going to pass that opportunity on to someone else."

      I once saw Randy Newman in concert and he said, "Going to take a moment to apologize to all the talented newcomers who can't get gigs because old farts like me keep hogging the stage." It was funny because it was true. Randy was not past his prime by any means and gave an amazing concert, but I do think there is some wisdom in relinquishing our "obligations" to be "opportunities" for the next generation.

  6. I have an emotional and physical savings account. Every time I expend emotion or do something outside my plans is a withdrawal. If I don't recoup that effort and emotion by doing things I want and enjoy doing, pretty soon the account is empty and I'm no good to anyone or anything. That's my litmus test for if I'm doing too much. Once the account is empty, no more withdrawals, or just make sure that balance stays healthy enough to handle a sudden emergency need.

  7. I once heard a writer say she tried to tithe her writing time by giving away about 10% to worthy projects. I liked the idea of having a goal like that, because it is easy for me to get caught giving way more time to "could you please?" than to "Work-in-Progress!"

    1. This is also an interesting method, Kathy. Operative words: "WRITING time," not time. So if you work nine to five and spend the evening with family and get up to write at 5 a.m. each morning for two hours, you'd be looking at a tithe of twelve minutes per day. That adds perspective.

  8. Lucky me! My situation has the "10% tithe" built into it. Two years ago, when the opportunity to 'give back' came with a desk, I jumped at it. For some reason that I still have never articulated clearly to myself, I agreed to become an EMT for my community. So, three times a week I sit with my laptop on 12-hour shifts (I'm here now checking on all the wise writer bogs) with the dispatch radio on. And I write.

    Knowing I could be called out at any moment actually makes me concentrate better (a discipline I've been hammering out). . . . and it brings a renewed sense of humor to being attached to a session, a paragraph or a sentence. It's building the confidence that great ideas don't actually vanish. We writers all know there are a thousand great ways to say everything that comes to mind. So leaving a line unfinished merely provokes me to be open again. Always good to see your contributions, Kathryn.

  9. I am a casual writer at best but this essay resonated with me as I am a mid-life career changer. I am at a point in my new career that opportunities are coming my way left and right, and they all sound so interesting! But I had to make a list of things that really mattered to me and then drew my lines in the sand. This essay reminded me to keep really evaluating my options and making sure I remember ALL the time what is most important to me!


  10. "We always think we can do more." I almost gave myself whiplash nodding at this. And then looking at my to-do list. And then there's that annoying little fact that you and Laura were commenting on above - what I can get through is far less than in previous years. A few weeks ago, it finally dawned on me that it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that I can't do everything. The priorities will get done - I will finish this manuscript on deadline, I will get my debut launched to the best of my ability, and I will do everything I can for my family. All that other stuff ... it will happen in whatever free time comes after I take care of my priorities. And myself. So there! 🙂

    1. So there! Love it. And Orly—report back. If you don't implode/explode/get shot or suffer whatever other fearful consequence that drives us to overachieve, maybe it will embolden the rest of us to draw firmer boundaries!

  11. Yow, Katherine, you nailed it. I really needed to hear this. I think for me part of the problem comes when I'm staring off into space, seemingly asleep with my eyes open. (I started writing for money while in college and my friends in the dorm said my eyes rolled back into my head and I was gone.) People, who shall remain nameless but it's my wife Nancy, will come up and talk to me while this is going on. (At this point a non-writer would say, "Oh, my God, the horror, the horror!") but this group gets it. Lately i've started putting on headphones as a clue and it seems to work. Sometimes I actually have a playlist going.
    Thanks again!

    1. Oh James, the headphones. I had some other friends who discovered this. One year, on deadline up at our summer home (read: "this is where I"m supposed to relax"), my 5-yo granddaughter was visiting. She was at that perfect age: communicative, curious, and willing to do about anything—other than sit still or be quiet. I went out to the garage and got the ear muffs my husband wears for mowing! It looked stupid and I felt like an idiot but it got the job done. But yes, to preserve dignity, I suggest the nice computer-friendly headphones!

    1. If you are willing to admit you are at your limit, I'll bet you passed it a while ago, Jessica! Most women I know tend to ignore their own psychic pain and wait until external circumstances kick in...

  12. I don't find it hard to say no to most requests, but when the request is from a loved one, that's a lot harder. I am getting better, though, as my writing career takes up more of the front seat. In the past nine months I've learned how much I am capable of doing. Now, if I can just figure out a way to balance that with a healthy lifestyle...

    1. Fae your last comment—ugh. Always such a struggle! As to "no" to family members, yes it's super hard. My husband, who is retired, has a relationship with our grandchildren that I may never be able to approximate. I just feel I owe it to them as much as myself to give this all I have.

  13. This speaks to me in so many ways. I've felt pulled in too many directions these past months, wanting to speak out as an author, a woman, a citizen, to find a way to make my art my protest. Guilt that I'm not doing enough- enough writing, enough promotion to sustain my work, enough self-care, enough for my partner, my family, my friends, enough to speak up and out. All while balancing a 9-5, a freelance writing business, a homelife, and my writing. Hmm. Notice how my writing came last in that lineup? Not intended.

    In moments of clarity, I know that Art Matters. What I write, the words I share with the world in my novels and stories, ARE my voice of protest, they are enough. But only if I make my work, my avocation, a priority. I'm not so good at the balancing act, but forgiving myself and allowing the grace of being where I am is a daily practice in self-love and health. Embracing the work of my community- supporting my fellow authors, guiding aspiring authors to find their path, is the gift I can give.

    Thank you for this reminder, and to all for the perspectives they've shared here. It so help to know the anxieties and determination are shared.

    xoxo Julie

    1. Yes Julie, exactly why I revisited this little piece of life wisdom. Our country is in such need of commonsense, rational, compassionate voices right now, but an author's life is already so full. I think we end up at a crossroads that begs us to choose how best to put our voice into the world. Our decision could absolutely take us from our writing. Instead, I have recommitted to mine, and to the marketing that creates those big signs that say: My contribution? This way ———>

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