Your Biggest Challenge as a Writer - and What To Do About It, Part 3
In the last couple of articles, we’ve seen how the writer’s biggest challenge, by survey result, has to do with time and procrastination, and that this really isn’t going to be solved completely by those short-term remedies which enable a writer to eke out a few minutes here and there to get something onto the page (though those kinds of things help to relieve pressure, like first aid).
What’s needed to defeat procrastination and time issues completely is an almost total reorientation around writing: if you really want to conquer these large issues, large changes are needed.
But it’s all very well me using myself as an example when my circumstances might be fairly unique. What are the broad steps that any writer should look at taking if he or she wants to build a life around their work, rather than the other way round?
Here are some suggestions. Not all of these will be practicable for all people, but implementing even a few of them should go a long way towards the goal of
having a writing-centred life.
1. Recognise That You Have A Purpose.
This might sound a little esoteric at first, but it is perhaps the most concrete prerequisite you need to make any of this work. You have to know or feel or divine in some way that writing is what you are ‘supposed’ to be doing. This is irrespective of whether or not you are any good at it, you understand: even if your existing writing is considered rubbish by you or anyone else, if you feel that writing is somehow central to you, the rest of these steps have a chance of working.
If writing is just a pleasant hobby or something that you wonder if you can make some easy money at, then you will not be ‘anchored’ enough to carry out the rest of the plan - Life will come along and brush aside any further actions you might try to take. If you discern, though, that a writer is what you are Meant To Be, things will eventually align themselves around that - if you persist.
2. Don’t Dream: Plan
You might have already spent considerable time daydreaming what it would be like if you could write full time. There’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, but the thing to do is to transform these idle dreams into plans.
Work out how long you need to transform your life so that you can concentrate on writing. If you look at this realistically, you’re probably going to need five years at least. It took me two years to get reorientated from being a management consultant in London to a full-time English Literature teacher in the countryside; then it took a further ten years to move from that position to my current position of full-time writer. You don’t have to take ten years - I made some fundamental mistakes along the way which added time into the equation. Without the mistakes, I estimate that it would have taken me five years in total to make the transition to a writing-centred life.
It might take less for you because you might not be so embedded in a life far removed from that of a full-time writer, like I was.
Planning includes confronting some uncomfortable things. You probably have routines, possessions, patterns of living which will have to change dramatically or be given up entirely to make this work. One of the almost inevitable things about planning to live a writing-centred life is that your income will plummet - so you need to design a life around a lower income.
Do you need to hand in notice at a job? Find other ways of paying bills? Re-establish contact with supportive family and friends? Sell stuff? Many of these things cannot be rushed.
One thing I would advise against planning for, at least not for some time, is making any money from your writing. This is such an unknown and risky quarter that you’d be better leaving it out of your calculations altogether. Plan to be a writer, not earn an income from it. Hard to grasp? That’s where the next step comes in.
3. Set Realistic Expectations
By ‘realistic expectations’ I generally mean ‘lower expectations’ - lower income, more restricted lifestyle, more do-able goals. If that sounds miserable or undesirable, please realise that for every lowered expectation there will be a massive rise in what I can only call ‘job satisfaction’. Every move you make towards building a life around writing (given that you are Meant To Be a Writer, per Step 1 above) will result in a huge freeing up of attention, an unlocking of inner energies, and a surge of happiness, regardless of what might appear to be losses at first. For every superficial loss of a possession or a money-consuming habit there will be a gain of meaning and purpose.
For example, my expectations as a consultant were at one point that I would be able to influence the evolution of post-Soviet Russian society through a programme of educational radio programmes which would reach hundreds of thousands of interested Russian business people, thus creating a global effect. These expectations were lowered over the space of two years to the idea that I might be able to influence about two dozen or so teenagers by inculcating in them a love of literature and the sanity and hope that that brings, perhaps resulting in them making a difference in their individual lives. My first set of expectations were grandiose and unwieldy, ego-based and unrealistic; my second set were more concrete, achievable, altruistic and turned out to come true over a year or two: the children I taught eventually went to live in various places all over the world, from where they kept in touch with me and updated me regularly about their advances into various careers to do with culture and the arts. They were creating effects I couldn't have dreamed about, and those effects were real and grounded.
As my career coalesced even more around writing and literature, people reported to me the most meaningful and powerful revelations and triumphs from working with me.
So the one set of hopes, though grand, turned out to be vague and resulted in nothing, while the adjusted set of hopes, though humble, brought about real heart-felt and life-changing transformations.
‘Lowering one’s expectations’ is probably the wrong way to describe what actually happens, then. It is more like ‘aligning one’s expectations’, making sure that one’s expectations are actually achievable and result in live, measurable products that make a difference in the real world.
As a writer, your stories may or may not change the world - but you can work on them so that they will affect a few people at least. What is better? Grandiose ideas which come to nothing? Or trimmed-down ideas which create real wonder and change in people’s hearts?
Part of being realistic is being patient. As you can see, these shifts of lifestyle often take years. Don’t rush things, but, like a sailor navigating the oceans, wait for the right winds and weathers and adjust your sails accordingly. Eventually, you will arrive - and you will be so much better for the journey and enjoy the destination so much more. The important thing is to know where you are going and persist in getting there.
4. Get Practical About Money
Part of my personal solution is that I was lucky enough to meet a woman who became my wife, and whose support, financial and otherwise, remains a bulwark of my current set-up. This doesn’t mean that the whole thing is a one-way street or that I am being ‘sponsored’ - it means that I do certain things for her and she does certain things for me. In other words, there is a basic exchange occurring, one of the results of which is that I get to focus on writing. There are other ways of getting support than marriage, obviously. But don't expect a one-way flow: expect to provide something which results in a flow coming your way.
Living costs are the Big Distraction: there has to be some way of paying for the mortgage, the food, the bills, and everything else that each calendar month demands from us. Whether you marry into a solution or develop some other way of getting this under control, unless you do get a grip on it, the writing-centred edifice can collapse pretty quickly. However, if you have applied the steps above, you will have reduced the whole burden of costs quite seriously over a period of time.
For example, I went from outgoings of more than £3,000 a month in London to under £1,000 a month in the country by occasionally drastic cutbacks and moves. Then, over the following years, I was able to a adjust this even more. This wasn’t simply a case of cutting out wastefulness, which obviously has to be part of any realistic plan: it involved moving house to a cheaper part of the country and selling off much-loved assets. I did warn you that reorientation on this scale was not always easy.
But the rewards are correspondingly great: not only do I get to concentrate on my writing every day, I am also situated in one of the most pleasant parts of Britain, with surroundings that beggar belief in terms of their beauty and wholesomeness.
When it comes to wastefulness, there is a further aspect to be confronted.
5. Get Rid Of Distractions
This often translates simply to ‘Get rid of your television’ and, if you have it, ‘Get rid of any kind of cable or internet entertainment service’.
If you’re serious about being a writer, you probably need to stop placing yourself at the wrong end of the writing vector: you are supposed to be generating material to hook, glue and guide the attention of millions, not get hooked and glued and guided by others.
Television is one of the most ridiculously effective methods of killing off writers. Hour after hour can pass by in which a writer, otherwise capable of creating whole universes worth of entertainment and enlightenment, is trapped, hypnotised into immobility and driven deeper and deeper into apathy by an electronic picture box in the corner of a room.
I grew up on television: television was the internet of my generation. Everyone watched it and it didn’t seem to matter what rubbish was playing, one simply sat in front of the ‘gogglebox’ and ‘goggled’. Luckily, I developed the habit of drawing pictures while sitting watching the little screen, otherwise that time would have been even more wasteful. But it was wasteful enough.
Should you get rid of social media as well? I would argue that you should keep this, but adopt some firm practices around it. Keep it, because being a writer can be a lonely existence and I have seen hundreds of writers benefit immensely from the two-way communication that can be had so easily through things like Facebook; but adopt some restrictions, because I have also seen a lot of time wasted watching little videos about ducks or cats or people falling over and the like.
My own habit is this: I write like blazes, shutting out distractions and typing as fast as I can for about an hour. Then - or before, if I have reached some kind of natural break or pause - I surface to check social media, reply to messages, add a few posts, and so forth. Then I plunge in to writing again. It’s a rhythm that can be developed and which usually generates a ton of words while also maintaining the sense that one is still part of the rest of the world. Hence the three million words, 1,000 blog items, thirty-odd books, etc which this rhythmic approach has generated.
You’ve probably noticed that much of this looks like it is about paring down, cutting back, reducing things to their core. And that’s exactly what it is about. If you are a writer and want to build a life around being one, you will probably need to jettison much of the rest of your lifestyle. That looks from one angle like a series of terrible losses - but from another angle, it is a massive gain.
There’ll be time to get up (after a good night's sleep), have a decent breakfast, see your children off to school and write to your heart’s content all day.
There’ll be enough free attention that you won’t mind being distracted momentarily by conversations and other bright things on social media.
There’ll be so many words being generated that feelings of elation will be commonplace - lifelong goals to do with novels or epics or even series of books will come within reach.
There will be so many things written that the craft of writing itself will be slowly learned over periods of time - and there’ll be time to take formal courses, to read books, to practise techniques, to perfect styles.
Who knows? You might even begin making money from your writing. You’ll almost certainly gain a reputation as what you always wanted to be: a writer.
I work individually with writers to help them navigate this transformation. My Lifestyle Consultancy service is normally valued at £365.00, but is available for £99.00 for a limited time. It involves me getting to know you and your situation more closely, and results in a tailor-made programme to get you to where you want to go.
Drop me a line here if you want to know more: