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Yes, you have to choose. But can’t you choose everything?

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
I am writing this on my iPhone in the backseat of a taxi.

I am coming home from a whirlwind research trip to Nicaragua and I have approximately 30 hours at home before my next flight.

Maybe I should have just stayed at the airport.
*
While I was in Nicaragua, my normally patient and always supportive husband was beginning to show some signs of wear and tear– the collateral damage of being a writer’s partner (especially one who travels so much)– during our nightly gchats. Having recently started a blog of his own in addition to his work as a photographer, he’s finding it tough to carve out uninterrupted time to write AND be a full-time stay-at-home dad, one who holds down the fort and keeps the home fire burning when I’m gone (and, truth be told, when I’m home, too).

“I haven’t had a minute to write since you left,” he typed. “Am exhausted.” The man with boundless energy had hit the wall and was feeling frustrated about it.

*
Over the past 3.5 years our roles have been reshaped to include the title of “parents” in our multi-hyphenated job descriptions. There is never enough time or energy to do everything we want to do. Writing and thinking are always interrupted. And yet, this is what we chose for ourselves– the vocation of parenthood– and we made the conscious decison to add another child to this romper room of a life we’ve made for ourselves.

People– mostly strangers I meet when traveling– keep asking me if I’m ready for this baby yet. “I keep telling him, ‘Just don’t come early because Ive got a lot to get done,'” I say. They laugh. I laugh.

I’m not joking.
*
When I started writing this post a few weeks ago, various writer friends and acquaintances were circulating “10 tips for aspiring journalists” that journalist Michael Hastings dispensed before his death in a car accident in mid-June. Most repostings of the tips were accompanied by commentary like “Solid advice for budding [ugh] writers.” I guess it was/is solid advice, but perhaps most of it just feels so obvious to me that it’s hard to remember what it was like to hear any of that for the first time.

Tip 9 really rubbed me the wrong way, though:

“9) Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever.”

It’s not the first part of tip 9 with which I take issue… obviously. If you don’t love reporting and you don’t love writing, why would you be in the business in the first place? The answer definitely isn’t “for the money,” and I genuinely can’t think of a single compelling answer why someone would devote herself or himself to writing or journalism if the inherent love for words and reporting wasn’t there.

It’s the second part of tip 9 with which I take issue: “Like it’s more important… than anything else in your life.” I hear this a lot. I have writer friends who defer having children or who are agonizing over whether they will decide to have children because they’re afraid that kids will intrude on their writing career and, especially, their neat trajectory toward the pinnacle of writing success… whatever that is.

Hastings’ advice makes me crazy because it reinforces the erroneous idea that writers have to be of the world yet never quite fully in it. That they don’t have to figure out how to make it all work because, well, writing’s just more important than anything: a healthy relationship, other hobbies and interests, and, possibly, the joys and, yes, the frustrations, of having kids.

It’s a false choice he proposed, in my opinion. Further, where does that leave writers and journalists who do have children or who believe that other parts of their lives are at least as important as writing and that, in fact, those parts of their lives give them tools and resources in their writing that they wouldn’t have otherwise?

It’s not that writers are free from the work of making choices. But I believe you can choose it all. I don’t believe that means anything will be easy. But I also believe that going it alone or that living life as if writing is more important than anything else– than everything else– is probably the hardest choice of all, and one that doesn’t actually serve a writer’s work as much as that bit of advice seems to imply.

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72 responses »

  1. I’m so glad you write this blog. I’ve been thinking about this concept of how much I really have time for lately, too, in a roundabout sort of way, and it’s heartening to hear that your choice to become a parent has actually strengthened your writing (instead of making you feel, as is the nightmare in my head, overwhelmingly busy, frustrated, and with no time to put pen to paper). I’m happiest when I’m writing AND making time for myself. When I’m on a deadline or tackling a big project, “me time” flies out the window, but I need that peaceful base to even get through the deadlines — you know?

    I do think there’s something to be said for, as a friend of mine put it, “being ruthless with your time.” I’ve probably say yes to too many times because I didn’t want to disappoint someone, or I felt obligated in some way. I’m really trying harder to make my personal writing time more sacred, and turn OFF my Skype and WiFi, and not answer my phone (sorry, parents, even though I haven’t talked to you in a week), and not feel guilty because the house is a mess and I haven’t cooked dinner. It’s a work in progress.

    Reply
  2. Bravo. It is tragic to me that this is such a widely believed requirement for writers – that writing be THE MOST IMPORTANT thing in a writer’s life. To me it just seems like a sanction on selfishness. I get it that it’s difficult to get out of our heads, and that we are always writing, even when our fingers aren’t on the keys or the pen in our hands, but frankly, that’s part of the territory of being a writer – figuring out boundaries, choosing life in addition to and beyond writing – if we don’t want to become dried out lonely husks of humans. There was a line in The Finkler Question, a book that didn’t do much for me, but had this line that made the whole book worth reading:

    “A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.” – Howard Jacobson

    If you choose any vocation to the exclusion of, or prioritized over, all other aspects of life – “family, friends, social life, whatever” – I think you’ll end up sad and lonely. Not to mention that there are plenty of writers out there – successful writers – who choose family life, friends, social life, *and* writing. Like you. And all that living provides material for the writing.

    I have to admit, it is nice to hear a “real” writer say these things though, that writers can choose it all. Like anyone else seeking success in her field, we can find balance without being any less serious of a writer.

    Reply
    • Dear andreabadgley, I share your approach and was glad to rewrite the words of Howard Jacobson “A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.” to my diary.
      English is a foreign language to me but I wish to master it as you do. I would greatly appreciate your visit to my blog and your comments\remarks on what should be improved in my writing. As the original artwork starts each my post, I hope you will have a good time with my teaching. Thank you very much and welcome to http://arthiker.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/symbolism-in-the-silence/

      Reply
    • Any art seems to come with that same set of false dichotomies. I am married to a concert musician–the only one of his group to have actually gotten married, as they all see marriage and family as being an impediment to success in their careers. And I can see how that idea exists, since success for a concert musician frequently means traveling tours and long stretches away from home, and budgeting for times with no money coming in at all. I guess each person just has to decide how much of each thing they need in their lives to be happy, and then try to make it so.

      Reply
  3. I couldn’t agree with your distaste for “tip #9” anymore! As a husband, father , and writer I would have to say that family always come first. Now of course there will be times when you as a writer have to sacrifice time with the family to entertain the muse, but that is just part of being creative!
    Write on! Jim

    Reply
  4. This made me tear up. I have been struggling so much recently with the decision to really write, and whether or not that will have a negative effect on my children. It’s certainly not easy, and I agree with you that many people suggest that writing has to come before everything else, when that isn’t really a valid option for most people.

    Reply
  5. I’ve been turning this post over and over in my thoughts and I can only come up with one simple question: if you don’t allow yourself to experience life, how can you possibly write about it?

    Reply
    • I second the question. I find my writing is better when my life is full of other things. I write because I love to write, and I will cram it in to five spare minutes if I have. And those five spare minutes will be full, because I have focused on other things for a while.

      Reply
    • I think you hit it right on. Singular devotion is a false choice, as Julie pointed out in her blog, but often paddled by the media and merchants for economic purpose (i.e. selling the idea that one must make a choice). In reality it is possible to have a balanced and complementary life.

      Reply
  6. I think writers who do have kids are often inspired by their kids. Plenty of famous writers created brilliant works while parenting, so I don’t see why kids would upset any sort of trajectory. The only thing upsetting my trajectory (whatever that is) is my own distractibility.

    Reply
  7. I didn’t realize that was such a widespread belief among writers. I’ve always liked writing. I’m not great at it but I definitely do enjoy it. There’s something cathartic about it. I believe a lot of writers who follow top stories and whatnot make it so that it is top priority only because that’s how they make it to the top of the food chain.
    But I do agree with you on the fact that it’s has to be something you enjoy but to say that you’ll be putting it ahead of other important things such as family, friends and others makes no sense to me as well. If anything these parts of their lives are what make them the writers they currently are. You take those out of the question and put writing as you main priority, you take out the character and you take out the influence these people have on your style of writing.
    When I think about something like this, the life of an I-banker comes to mind. I’m sure there are those who can do it, but the job itself requires you to be working forever as well as only allowing a few hours of the day to yourself and anything else. It drives these people to ways of life that is self-deprecating and disastrous. Without the support of those around you that you find important, It becomes sad, lonely and depressing at times.
    Great insight into the realm of writing. I will continue to follow your work.

    Reply
  8. “Hastings’ advice makes me crazy because it reinforces the erroneous idea that writers have to be of the world yet never quite fully in it.”

    As a middle-aged woman, his advice sounds like it’s directed to self-absorbed single young males with no kids. Once someone else depends on you and you can no longer think of yourself as an individual uber alles, the game changes.

    Reply
  9. Thank you for this post. It is fantastic!

    Reply
  10. I believe there is definitely a certain richness to writing that can really only come from participating in life. Observing the world may be a big part of a writer’s outlook and you must have love for writing to keep working at it but other interests, hobbies and life itself can only add to the page, not subtract.

    Reply
  11. Oh, how I feel this. I struggle so much to find the time to write. I have four small children, aged and under; the youngest is almost 11 months (and started walking this week! Woot!) and so much of my day is spend changing nappies and cleaning faces and making meals and doing washing…finding even a few minutes to sit down and scribble is difficult. I can still do it, I just want to be able to do it more and/or with fewer interruptions. And I know there is all this advice that I should be prioritising the writing, if I really want to get somewhere, and that nobody else will take it seriously unless I do, etc. But in the end, it’s one aspect of who I am. I’m parent and partner and pet owner; I garden and bake and cook. Those other elements help me to keep it real, and I’m not sure I would ever want to give them up.

    Reply
  12. Excellent post. I’m a teacher and we often talk about the isolation of the artist/writier/musician – fill in the blank- in order for them to be excellent at their craft. And their excellence, often due to their isolation, oftten comes at a great cost. A lot of them end of being damaged individuals. We need other people and things in our lives to keep us grounded. I don’t know if any career, skill, pursuit should ever be the most important thing in our lives – especially more important than people.

    Reply
  13. No one recognizes the troubles a writer has to go through. I’m a student as well as a freelance writer. Less money, short deadlines………all eat into my studies and the time I’d like to spend with my younger sister-but I never mind. Because writing is my passion. And many people sideline it.
    Very well written post. And congratulations! :]

    Reply
  14. Hi! I’m a fellow writer and I’d love it if you’d take a look at my new blog and told me what you think!
    I’m at http://singingpandawriter.wordpress.com
    Also, great article! I like your writing style.

    Reply
  15. Love this post! I’m with you all the way – it’s life and love and family and friends that make life worthwhile. Without all these things, what on earth is there to write about? How would your words connect with other people or offer insights if your life revolves solely around writing? Your computer might always be waiting for you at the end of the day but it can’t hug you back or give you a kiss to make a bad day better. All the best to you and your hubby and your little one(s), and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    Reply
  16. Having children gives you a lot more to write about. Their nuances and behaviors will truly amaze you on one hand and cause you untold calamity the very next second. All in all they are the source of most writing because they stir the imagination and give you a perspective on life. I was a teacher for the majority of my life but most of my stories relate to my kids. If you get a chance read my blog on Michael, my grandson, who survived brain cancer and you will get my drift.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      You’re right- kids provide exceptional material for writing. I don’t write much about my daughter, but I could; she provides plenty of fodder. 🙂 I look forward to checking out your blog about Michael.

      Reply
      • I hope you do and like it. I think writing about your daughter would be great but you have to be careful with what information you give out. My children have instructed me on what subjects are taboo and what I can write about them. On Michael, his dad gave me permission. Plus he gets his hair shaved each year to raise money for cancer.

  17. True words you said. But there are still many successful writers who don’t have a life apart from writing. It is definitely wrong, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Many famous authors we know had some kind of mental disorder. Take George Eliot, for instance. I guess now we know the reason.

    Reply
  18. nice post .. and also congrats on being freshly pressed … 🙂
    .
    http://www.bayofhealth.wordpress.com
    a way towards a healthy life

    Reply
  19. very nice article.. love reading this..

    Reply
  20. You do not have to have children — I do not, and I write journalism and NF books for a living — to feel the pull of workaholism. Like you, I also live/work in NY, which is an insanely competitive place, so it is tempting, at every stage of the game, to devote all your time, energy and resources to getting ahead of your many skilled and ferocious competitors.

    But what’s “ahead”? Ahead of whom, for how long?

    As someone whom when younger and un-coupled, made work my idol, I know how it warps you. What if your piece is cut, killed, doesn’t make front page? What if your book is badly reviewed (or ignored) or sells poorly? If all you have is your work, (and your entire ego is wrapped up in that one identity), you’re toast. Writing for a living is far too dicey a proposition to be single-minded about.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      You’re absolutely right- these issues are as much a challenge for people who don’t have children and who don’t intend to. When your entire identity becomes conflated with your work, you’re in a potentially dangerous spot, especially in this profession. As you note, there’s so much about being a writer (or other “creative”) that really has little to do with your skills and a great deal to do with other variables that are entirely beyond your control.

      Reply
  21. Isn’t it neat that in today’s world we can write on our iPhone. I wonder what is next to come?

    Reply
  22. I think we constantly have to choose. I work full time (in a job I mostly love) and I write part-time, (as a job I mostly love). And I plan on throwing a family into the mix. It just might mean I have to pick one over the other, for now. And it means picking one over the other daily. Some days writing will win. Some days work wins (especially with deadlines). And most days, family will win. But I don’t think it’s a choose 1 thing for life option. I think it’s a daily struggle for most people.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Heather-

      Yes, exactly! Picking one over the other is a daily task. The frustration (at least for me and my Type A personality) is that I map out in my head the night before– Ok, I’m going to wake up at 6 AM and knock out four hours of writing before anyone else is up– and then my daughter wakes up uncharacteristically early. Or I wake up early and don’t feel well and just want to go back to sleep. Flexibility and patience (which aren’t necessarily my strongest suits!) are definitely valuable.

      Reply
  23. Tip#9 is indeed crazy. If writing was more important than experiencing everything else, what would one ever have to write about??? The voices in our heads??

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      I think that for some writers (perhaps 20 and 30-somethign year old men especially?), there’s a fear that if they make a commitment to having a serious relationship or having children, that the ability to be spontaneous and follow a story wherever it leads will suddenly evaporate. It does become harder, but it’s by no means impossible. Being able to continue to follow a story involves, first of all, being in relationship with someone who supports your work and identity as a writer and who wants you to become your best self. I’m really fortunate to have that, but I realize many people are not.

      Reply
  24. It’s a silly comment to make, but each to their own. I wouldn’t put writing above all else. As much as I love writing, it really isn’t worth that.
    Family and friends bring new experiences to your life, which can be beneficial in many a writing task.
    Why does art have to be painful ? Sometimes, it can be painless.
    I’d prefer to be a happy writer rather than a bitter one any day.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      I’d prefer to be a happy writer, too. Every type of emotional experience can be mined for writing, I think. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  25. Solo por curiosidad,¿Porque el titulo en Castellano y el resto en Inglés?
    Thanks and best regards.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Buena pregunta! When I went to register a similar name in English, it wasn’t available. I’m bilingual and I liked the sound of “Cuaderno Inédito,” so I registered that instead… perhaps to the confusion of practically every reader I have. 🙂

      Reply
      • Gracias por la respuesta. I am also multi-lingual, perhaps you could tell me why you don’t also write in Spanish?

      • Julie Schwietert Collazo

        A veces, escribo en español para revistas (Delta SKY, entre otros) y para el sitio de mi esposo, la cual es un sitio en español. Yo creo que ya creí demasiada confusión con el nombre del sitio; sin embargo, me encantaría escribir en español cuando hay un público lector.

  26. Really appreciate your honest examination of priorities! Sometimes, I feel like I’m failing because I accomplish nothing but my priorities, but it’s good to remember what is important.

    Reply
  27. Pingback: Singular My A** | Running with Buddha

  28. I am having hard times making a decision, too. So thanks for sharing your thoughts on that! 🙂

    Reply
  29. Love is the most important thing, and a successful life expresses that. In any number of ways. Nice post!

    Reply
  30. Chris Winfield

    Reblogged this on Chris Winfield.

    Reply
  31. Advice about how to achieve success in creative professions is such an amusing exercise in absurdity. As if there was a formula applicable to all, or even most writers! Writers’ needs, personalities and talents vary as much as those of painters, musicians and dancers. Only in a crude, general estimation can you say what will lead to achievement of your own ambitions. You’ll need to get enough to eat, have a place to sleep, and either sufficient luck (patronage, supportive friends, spouse etc) or exceptional, undeniable talent (which most don’t have).

    I think you can choose everything, but you aren’t likely to get everything. (Thanks, Captain Obvious.) Then, over time, you learn how much is enough for you, make peace with it, and achieve your own acceptance and satisfaction with the compromises you choose along the way. You define success for yourself. It need not apply to anyone else.

    Reply
  32. I write because I wanted to share my feelings with other readers.

    Reply
  33. I hear what you’re saying about #9. Gender may play an issue here. As a former jounalist for a large metro daily, my pub understands the family/career balance of this career. One day at a staff meeting, she realized that the editors in powerful positins were either childless or the noncustodial parent of a divorce. Her children was being raised by her ex and a stepmother. My pub did not want this.

    within six months, she left a 20-plus-year fulltime career as a jounalist and worked part-time, instead. No regrets.

    Reply
  34. great post, and I agree, the last part of that tip is bogus!!

    Reply
  35. Pingback: What I’m reading | Butterfly Mind

  36. nice post there.. love reading this..

    Reply
  37. Pingback: Freshly Riffed 42: So Long, And Thanks For All The References | A VERY STRANGE PLACE

  38. True that, my friend. One of the reasons I chose to be self employed is so that I could have everything – a job I love, a boss I respect and time to spend on projects that give me joy, family activities, vacations and relaxation. Yes, the freelance writing life can be a bit hectic and chaotic, but if I ever become a slave to it, then I’ve walked right back into my Corporate America life. I have one life to live, and I will spend it doing what I want … and that’s not giving up everything that is important to me to be a writer.

    Reply
  39. Julie I loved this post, and totally agree – life is about goals, priorities, and choices. It’s never easy to balance family and work, but it’s easier if you make balance itself a top priority.

    I remember reading the “10 Tips” post by Mr. Hastings roughly a year ago (on Reddit) but my take on it was that he was writing his advice through the prism of his own personal experience (and yes, a young man’s perspective) which includes a more narrowly-defined interpretation of “journalism” that what is commonly used these days. I truly do believe that although there is some overlap between writers and journalists, they are still two distinctly different professions.

    I think the best description of the similarities and differences between the two is best expressed in this terrific blog post at World of Writing:

    http://writerlyderv.wordpress.com/2009/08/28/writers-vs-journalists-–-two-very-different-species/

    I don’t believe that journalism is any harder or more involved than typical fiction/non-fiction writing – I know some writers who do far more research and put forth far more effort into their product than do some journalists – but I do think that if you asked those journalists who have made it to the very pinnacle of success, most would tell you that they had to make some hard choices and difficult sacrifices to get there. I think Mr. Hastings assumed that any aspiring journalist who might be reading his advice was looking for that kind of success.

    Just my take 🙂

    Reply
  40. Shirley R Graceya

    Agree 100%!

    Reply
  41. You write on your iPhone too? I thought I was the only weirdo that does that on the way home from work. Good post!

    Reply
  42. My teenage son is interested in writing. A teacher once told him to make it a point to experience all that life has to offer because it will make his writing more relevent to his reader. I agree. Great post!

    Reply
  43. Pingback: What I’ve Read Recently - A Literal Girl

  44. Wow what do you do for a living.?

    Reply

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