How to Live with Humans and Still Write.

How to live with humans and still write: a discussion about balancing work and people. |

When I was at college, I didn't have much trouble with priorities. I knew how much money it cost to be there, so my whole plan was academics first, friends second. Not to say that I didn't have fun. I found a wonderful group of friends that I cherished. But I knew that I was there to learn, to grow, to get a degree. All that stuff.

Fast forward to post-graduation, and coming back home. I came home to write, full-time. And I thought that giving writing top-priority status would be fairly simple. I'd spent four years putting my brain first: I knew how to do this. Right?

Not so much.

When it came to family versus writing, I found myself in decision-making, priority-clarifying agony.

My family members are my biggest fans. Hands down. They are the ones who champion my work, believe in me when I don't, and pick me up when I've had a crappy day. So it's not like they were intentionally jeopardizing my schedule. 

But I deeply internalized the idea that writers must be strict about the time they spend writing. They need to make a commitment to get the words down, and then honor that commitment, no matter what. Even when they work from home, they need to be as accountable as anyone in a 9-5 office environment.

And there's a lot of truth, still, in all of that.

But I began to put everything in my life into two groups: Things That Help the Work Get Done, and Things That Don't.

That looks very cold blooded typed out, but I knew that 1) I was absolutely called to do this work, and 2) if I didn't get my writing in, the book stopped existing.

If I didn't think about my characters, they evaporated like smoke. My ability to have a career one day in this massively competitive field depended on me becoming the best novelist I could.

I came across this quote from the golfer Ben Hogan:

Every day you don't practice you're one day further from being good.

I posted that above my desk and let it torment me.

The pressure was on.

But I love my family like crazy.

So there would be days when minor (or major) emergencies would strike. There would be out-of-town guests who would be visiting right during working hours. There would be impromptu afternoons of errands where my opinion was needed. 

I seemed to be in a constant state of guilt.

I felt guilty when I skipped my writing to entertain guests for four hours. I felt guilty the next day when I felt too drained from visiting to think a single clear thought. Any time family won over writing, I felt like a bad, lazy writer.

But when writing won out, and I didn't help when my family could use the help, or when I didn't spend time enjoying their company or building our relationships, or when I kept myself from joining in too many activities (because I felt overly drained, and knew I wouldn't be working if I participated)...

Well, then I felt like a bitter, hysterical, self-focused shrew.

And I'm guessing I acted like one, too.

And nothing keeps me from writing like a sense of guilt.

I don't know if you find yourself in this kind of circumstance at all.

It always haunted me that on paper, I could easily portion my days: Family gets this amount of time, work gets that amount. 

But for years and years, I couldn't do that. I couldn't stick to it. And I felt like a mess.

Perspective Shift

Two things have helped change my perspective on all that.

First, my younger sister got married and gave birth to the three cutest kids in the universe. And I learned that, if you give me a choice between playing with a cute kid and writing a difficult scene, I almost always choose the cute kid. (Even though I'll get food in my hair.)

But the even bigger change was this: During the last two years, my family was struck by a series of bewildering difficulties, lost jobs, injuries with lonnnng recoveries, and serious illness. And I became deeply, seriously exhausted. Like--I broke.

I stopped doing everything.

And I really didn't care about how many hours I needed to work, or how many pages I needed to write.

So, writing wasn't my full-time job for a long while. Trying to on my feet again: that was my full-time job.

And after I'd done that, I focused on my family, not my words. Real, living people needed me far more than my characters did. I worried--a lot--about what that meant for my writing. I was barreling toward my thirtieth birthday, and no novel deal, no agent, nothing even ready to send to readers.

But at the same time, being present for my family during incredibly hard times, and throwing over my work so that I could spend time with my nieces and nephew--that has all profoundly changed my heart, my character, and my sense of what's truly important.

Donald Maass says, Success as an author requires a big heart. | How to Live with Humans and Still Write, on

I'm a different person. With different--better--stories inside me.

Yes, I gave up a lot of writing time. But the ironic thing is: when life calmed down a bit, I cranked out two new novels at an astonishing pace.

For example: I've been writing a trilogy (all the first drafts done, hooray!) And the core idea for the whole thing leapt into my mind four days after my first niece was born. I was staring at her small baby fingers, and thinking about what it felt like to be an aunt.

It was like something sliced through my heart and shook my brain inside out. And--because I'm a writer--I had a new character in my head. And because of that new character, I have three books where she plays the main role.

Loving my family, being present with them, strengthening those relationships... well, friends, it all actually goes into the work.

So is balance a myth, or is it attainable? Do you see life as family versus work? Does one win and the other lose?

I don't have a perfect answer all hammered out. But here's what I've decided.

I do have a commitment to my work. And I do want to do all I can to become the best writer possible. 

But I don't want to do that at the cost of my heart, my most important relationships, or my character. During those early years of debating between writing and family--I didn't really like myself. I didn't like all the resentment I felt, for one commitment over the other. I didn't like the guilt.

Lately, I've chosen to see them as not in conflict with each other. My family, and their lives mingling with mine, drive my stories. My stories are my job, the thing I've been given to do, what I care about, one of my greatest passions. My family relationships: well, they're another. 

I've decided not to see them as "in competition" with each other. Instead, they're two of the main forces that make me who I am. 

It still isn't an easy thing to wrestle with. And yes, there's definitely a time to enforce a strict routine (which I usually do keep to), and to talk about boundaries, and all those healthy things. And we'll definitely be talking about all that later on the blog. 

But for now, here are a few questions I ask myself when things get tricky (because of course they still do sometimes!):

1. Where am I most needed? 

When family is sick or hurting, writing just takes a back seat. Period. I bring books and small writing exercises to waiting rooms, or I'll read out loud as I keep people company, but the family member comes first. And I refuse to feel guilty about not working. 

Likewise, if writing has a really rough week, and the family commitment or errand or request is something that can be shifted, compromised on, or rescheduled: then writing prevails.

2. Is doing less actually okay?

I tend to think that I have to do all or nothing, and that mindset limits my options. 

Sometimes, sitting at my desk for a good thirty minutes, on a difficult-to-get-to-the-writing day, is a lot better than nothing. On days when life is butting in, I set a small task and commit to finishing it, before doing what I need to with family.

It goes the other way too: sometimes, if I just have twenty minutes for a FaceTime date with my nieces and nephew, I'll be honest that that's all I can do right now. I go all out during those twenty minutes (make all the silly faces, sing all the silly songs), but then I go back to my work. And I don't let myself feel guilty.

3. Don't aim for perfect.

Frankly, I don't always know what the right call is. Sometimes the lines are blurry.

Sometimes, "they're going to my favorite coffeehouse for a long afternoon of conversation!" is really worth ditching writing for the day. 

It's too easy for my nature to be obsessed with making the right decision. With picking the thing that I can perfectly defend to myself.  But sometimes the best decisions wouldn't necessarily pass the grim panel of judges that reside in my brain.

Sometimes, you need to chuck your work for the day and go to the apple orchard with your niece and sing to the goats at the petting zoo. Sometimes, when someone is hurting, you need to take a week off of work to be the full-time support staff in your own home. Sometimes, that's just the most important thing.

So when I am tempted to panic, when I think that "I'm one day further from being good," I remember this other quote (infinitely more helpful):

"One may achieve remarkable writerly success while flunking all the major criteria for success as a human being. Try not to do that." -- Michael Bishop

That sounds like the absolute right way to look at the whole question. The right focus to have. 

I'd rather be a good human than a perfect writer.

What lessons have you learned, about balancing work and family? If you're working from home, do you have any special tricks or mindsets that help? Chime in down in the comments!

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Wanna keep reading? Check out Empty All Your Pockets and Beating the Writer's Paradox.