Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Birds In Hands and Bushes

I will be doing those 10 Commandments of Writing Romance Novels, but this issue came up today and really struck a chord in me. So I'm deviating slightly from my original plan. Oh, the joys of autonomy.

I have a very dear friend who is facing a decision. For the past many years, she has been a stay-at-home mom. During that time, in between diapers and school field trips and grocery shopping, she discovered her passion for writing. Not only does she have a passion, she actually is very good. So good that with the normal amount (if there is such a thing) of suffering, she could most likely become a published writer. Her youngest child is only a year or so away from entering school full-time, so she’s on the cusp of actually having the time and energy to try making a go of a writing career.

Problem is, she just received a job offer for a position that on the surface seems pretty much perfect. It’s in a field she loves. It’s working with people she admires and respects. It allows her to do all the things she’s both qualified to do and enjoys doing. Plus they’d pay her to do it and she’d get to dress in things other than denim capris and tee shirts.

My friend is now faced with a huge dilemma. She has a bird in the hand. Does she let it go to shoot for two in the bush?

Does she take this perfect job, or does she say no so that she can use her free time to try her hand at turning her hobby and passion into a real career, knowing that such a great job opportunity might never come her way again?

I’m not facing this decision. Yet. But I have a feeling it’s coming soon. Perhaps not in the form of having someone offer me a great job but more so in knowing that when I start to find my days more empty than full, it’s going to seem like time to start looking for that job-outside-the-home.

Except, here’s the deal. I don’t want to look for a job outside the home.

I want to try to make a go of having a job that I can do inside the home. I want to write. As a career.

That sounds simple enough. Many people make careers out of writing. But those people aren’t trying to justify going from stay-at-home mom to stay-at-home-not-yet-a-real-writer-who-has-never-earned-a-living-with-writing. And that is where my friend stands right now. She’s trying to justify turning down a great job to do something that not many people understand. Not necessarily to her husband (who is a wonderfully supportive man who encourages my friend in her writing efforts), family, friends or colleagues, but to herself.

The first and by far not the least hurdle to overcome in this justification is a huge amount of guilt. And since I think this issue pertains to a lot of us stay-at-home-moms cum writers, I'm going to speak for our group as a whole. If I overstep in my generalizations, please forgive me.

Ever since the day that the hospital attendant wheeled us out the hospital door and helped us strap our first newborn into the spanking new carseat, us moms have been needed pretty much 24/7. Our time has been owned by someone else. Even at night when everyone is sleeping, you are always listening and knowing that in a nano-second you could be pulled out of bed to deal with some kid-related crisis. When the kids are away at activities - time that "seems" like free time - you are constantly watching the clock because you have to be there to pick them up. This is not really free time in my book but rather killing time. You can't relax into it and let yourself be taken away. You have to remain alert.

Finally the youngest child is ready to start school. Finally, finally finally you are mere months away from having a dedicated amount of time that you can count on for yourself. Five days a week, you have a block of time that you can devote to whatever. Sure, you can spend it making beds and doing laundry and grocery shopping. Plus you can volunteer to do more things like be Brownie troop leader or room mom, and that kind of stuff will mean more errands and phone calls and the like which will gobble up a good bit of those free hours.

Even so, it's time. For you. And with that time, you could actually turn this writing thing into a career. Because instead of trying to snatch an hour here or getting up early or staying up late or trying to write around the kids running underfoot, you could conceivably sit down at a desk and spend a solid three to eight hours lost in whatever world you need to be lost in.

What pure bliss!

And sure, we say that this time is serious stuff. We are going to treat our writing as a real job because now is our chance to turn this hobby into a money-making deal. No more goofing off and wasting time. No more surfing the internet or blog-hopping. (That part might just be me, so if it's not applicable, just ignore.) We can finally make vows like "By Christmas, I will have a manuscript completed and ready to start sending out by January 1st" and really mean it because there is a good chance we can make it happen.

But honestly, all of that is justification because what it's really all about is the pure joy of having three (or more) hours of writing time after all those years of borrowing minutes here and there.

So of course we are the most selfish creatures to even think to ourselves how wonderful it would be to have free time to do something so worthless as write. To indulge in an activity that we truly love, that we consider a passion.

Not only is there guilt that we put on ourselves, but we have to contend with what society expects from us as well.

For whatever reason - I'm thinking it’s the hormones that suddenly become active the second the sperm fertilizes the egg - we moms seem to feel that we have to account for every second of our time. If we aren't taking care of a kid or completing some housewifely-chore, we should be doing something else constructive, like earning money. If we aren't working outside the home, what exactly are we doing while the kids are at school? We feel like we need to account for that missing time, and it had better be filled with something society (and our husbands/breadwinners) deem worthwhile.

Non-writers (which make up a healthy majority of the population) as a group seem to hold the view that writing isn't worthwhile unless it is going someplace, i.e., bringing in some cash. Until we've sold our first book and proven that writing can be and is a real job, it's just a hobby. And who out there except for the disgustingly rich have time to waste on hobbies? So writing for a hobby is probably right up there with watching soap operas while eating bonbons as far as unworthwhile activities are concerned.

Add to this the fact that of all careers, writing is such a self-monitored thing. Until you have an agent and real deadlines, no one has any clue what you get done. For all everyone knows, you sit in front of the computer for hours playing minesweeper and hanging out in chatrooms. No one checks to see if you've actually made any progress on that so-called book, and since writing is a fairly slow process, it's not like you end up with something at the end of each day that is a finished project to show everyone what you’ve accomplished. This is even more magnified when you hit the editing stages and nothing is new but rather simply rehashed for the eleven millionth time.

So as far as any non-writer can tell, when you pass up a real paying job so that you can use your free time to write, it’s like you’ve decided not to take a job so you could catch up on every episode of Dr. Phil that you've never watched while eating bowls of raw cake batter and flipping through People Magazine.

And what happens in my friend’s case, when the job she’s been offered is just as much fun as writing is and certainly more worthwhile than a maybe/if the stars align properly and she’s incredibly lucky writing career? What happens when it is the *perfect* job, the one she’s been waiting her whole working-life to have a chance to do? So what if she doesn't have any free time to write because the time she’s giving up will be filled doing this fun job. Kind of like saying no to chocolate cake because she gets to have a big hot fudge sundae instead

To which I answer, true. Except that someone else owns her time. She is now committed, and someone else has a right to expect things from her. Even though the job is wonderful - everything she ever thought she would want all served up on a silver platter with someone actually giving her money to do it - poof, her magic time is gone.

But that desire - that passion - to write will not disappear simply because the time to indulge in it has dwindled to next to nothing. Because a writer can't *not* write. It's too much a part of us.

So she'd go right back to trying to sneak in an hour here and getting up early or staying up late or trying to write around the kids underfoot.

When you consider the sacrifice, you start to wonder how perfect that perfect job is.

I think what it is is that when we are young and, especially, child-free, time for ourselves and doing the things *we* love to do is so abundant, it's easy to get excited about the perfect job. Sure, we say, we'll take that promotion or that job offer that requires us to work crazy hours. Because we know that when the job is done and we go home, whatever time is left will be our own. If we are exhausted, we can sleep. If we're married, we can spend time with the hubby. If we have this creative urge, we can sit down and write for a couple of hours.

But once we have kids, that time becomes so precious that we guard it carefully. A job that in the past and on paper sounds and is, in fact, perfect, doesn't hold the same appeal. Because something will have to go. And since it can't be the kids or the hubby, it's that time we used to have to be creative.

Problem comes when that creativity is something like writing. Writing is so all consuming. People who don't write just don't get it. You can't turn it off. It's not like knitting or painting or reading, where you can do the activity for an hour, put it down, and come back later to pick up where you left off. Writing is a whole-mind experience that takes you so far out of this world you need decompression time to get back to reality. And when an idea hits, there's no telling what might happen to those standing in the blast radius.

Plus, writing as a craft takes a lot of practice. And this practice is time-intensive. People who think it's just a matter of sitting down at a computer and putting the story down on paper crack me up. I'm always amazed when I hear about the writer who worked on her novel for 15 minutes each day over three years. And JK Rowlings penning Harry Potter while she sat in a coffee shop? Sounds like urban legend to me. (Yes, I know it’s true, but I’m still blown away by it.)

Not to mention that any true free time you might grab will be filled with this hanging-over-your-head guilt that there is something else you should be working on. All of your writing energy will be sucked up by your *real* work. Will there be anything left for writing? Is it the last thing in the world you will want to do at the end of a long day? And when you finally do sit down to write something for fun, will your brain be filled with work-related things that you'll feel compelled to turn to?

I say all of this knowing full well that there are many many successful writers who are/were moms who held full-time jobs. Heck, some of them didn’t have husbands around to help out or held down more than one job. It is a true luxury to have a choice of trying to make a go of a writing career before earning a living from it. In many ways, my friend is very lucky. And she is fully aware of this. She's by no means complaining, but even so, her choice is a tough one.

Weirdly enough, at one time I did the work/mom/writing thing myself. For two years after I had my second child I held down a full-time job. In fact, I did more writing when I worked than I do now. I think it's because I knew I didn't have much free time so I was very productive with what I did have. I was very determined. Now, I always feel like I have time later so I procrastinate.

Which means I’m pretty stupid not to take advantage of what I have. I shouldn’t be telling myself that it’ll all get done next month or next fall when school starts or next year. I should get busy before I’m faced with the decision my friend has to make. If I’m very, very lucky, maybe that decision will be an easy one.

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