On Writing and Balance

This is from a talk I gave at the Franklin County Arts Council Writers’ Guild Spring Retreat on balancing a creative life with a work life.

The problem is never time. It’s urgency. How much urgency do you feel? How strongly do you want it? How much internal pressure do you feel if kept from writing? Or painting? Or sculpting? Or creating? Is the internal pressure greater than the inevitable discomfort you’ll feel as you try out this thing – writing, painting, sculpting, creating? If you can make the discomfort of not creating greater than the discomfort of creating you’ll find a way.

In retrospect, it was probably a good thing for me that I hadn’t gone to college and had never received a diploma, that stamp of approval that most of America, and surely all of Chapel Hill, has agreed on – the one that means you’re smart. I never felt smart. It’s why I chose not to go to college. I’d endured twelve years of public school during which my inadequacies were out on display every week day. I didn’t need anymore proof of my lacking. I needed proof that I was smart. That was my urgency although I could not have named it at the time. In some ways my discomfort over my perception that I needed a public stamp of approval was greater than my discomfort over sitting at a desk not knowing what to do next. It was a blessing that I’d turned my back on being told what to do next. I’d stepped out into a world where guidelines were not so clear.

To support myself, I worked. Waitress, clerk, baker, carpenter, housecleaner. These jobs also added to my urgency because I did not want to be defined by them. I knew that if I didn’t produce anything else in my life but a steady paycheck and a tray of chocolate glazed doughnuts, I would be defined solely by my job. So my motivation to be defined differently also drove me to produce creative work.

In the beginning motivation might have to come from some sort of impure place like this. Jealousy, envy, the certainty that you can write better than that idiot, whoever that idiot is, whatever prizes he may be racking up, whatever praise he receives from whatever source.

In the end though, you’ll have to abandon that. You’ll have to realize, as I did, that you have nothing to prove. The work itself will have to become your motivation.

Once you’ve experienced the immersion into a fictional world, once you’ve co-created with characters and setting and story, once you’ve finished writing your novel, you’ll hunger for the experience again. You’ll want to repeat it. You’ll want it like a hit of heroin. You’ll be thumping your arm trying to bring up that vein. And this too will be frustrating because unlike heroin, you can’t go back to your old dealer. Your old dealer in story won’t welcome you, won’t give that first hit free, won’t discount the second one. Your old dealer will disappear into the shadows of some dark alley and leave you out on the street jonesing for the next story, desperately looking into the eyes of every passerby. Are you it? Can you lead me to the next place? Do you know what I ought to be writing? These people will pull away from you. You’re like a beggar on the street now. The once writer. The one without a story to work on. You’re washed up and you know it.

So you go home and you’re depressed and you try what people tell you. Just write, and that’s good for a few things but not for the depth you got used to when you were writing that novel, the one you just brought to fruition, the fix you’re trying to repeat.

This is a crucial juncture and I have yet to figure out how to navigate it, so I can’t really give you any advice on moving from one work to the next. It’s never easy for me. I’ve quit the whole business many, many times and that seems to be what brings up the next work. Writing always comes back to me, and it’s always thrilled me and disappointed me and dashed me against a cliff and left my body to bleed out on the jagged rocks below, and yet still I come back for more, and constantly I have to remind myself during the discomfort of creating that this is what I want.


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4 Responses to On Writing and Balance

  1. This wowed me when you read it at FCAC Writers Retreat, and wows me again on reading it now. I’m not sure I have the same passion. having to survive gets in the way maybe. It is more like an irritating gnawing in the pit of my stomach, almost feels like fear.

    • Nancy says:

      Could totally be fear. I think for me when I bring a novel to completion, I’ve become a sort of expert on that particular story. I’ve worked with it deeply and intimately, and I find it very difficult to go back to writing something from the beginning, where I don’t know anything. I fear I won’t be able to do it again, and I want that feeling of deep work and I want ti instantly – but it’s not there instantly.

  2. Vicki says:

    Wow, indeed! I have a friend, whose writing I am trying to encourage, and will send her a link. I’m so honored to read your work, Nancy.

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