Shutting Down, In a Good Way

Cassie Alexander is an active registered nurse. Nightshifted is her debut novel, coming out through St. Martin’s Press on May 22, 2012.

Protect your time. Protect your time. Protect your time. In fact, protect it so much, that if you already know what I’m going to say here, stop reading, and get back to writing.

The most valuable thing you have as a writer just starting off is time. Time, and taking yourself seriously. I was going to break the serious thing out into another post, but it really fits here, because you won’t make the time for yourself until you do take your writing seriously.
I know how easy it is to let real life waylay your writing time. But if your writing never wins out, you’ll never get anywhere. Ever.

There was a point when I was finishing up Moonshifted, where I shut out the whole world and did nothing but go to work and write. I made one date night a week with my husband…everything else went into the book. A little bit ago, mid-July, post turning the book in, I said to my husband, “I worry our group of friends isn’t hanging out as often as they used to.” And he looked at me like I was insane and said, “No, you’ve just been living in a cave.”

Let me say up front that the type of career I want is fast paced and commercial. If you’re writing a personal memoir or a historical that requires a PHD, etc, my ways are probably not for you. But now that I might be under two deadlines here very soon, and I have to shut down again, very soon, I thought I might talk for a bit about what that means, to me.

Again, this is for me. This may not be for you. Your mileage may vary.

What to shut out?

The big ones are job, family, friends, and society.

My job’s part time. Do you think I planned it that way to give me the best possible chance at a writing career? Damn skippy. My primary reason for becoming a nurse was to have a part time career that paid well. If you burn to be a writer and you’re young enough to switch from a grueling career that takes all your creativity out of you to something with more flexibility — the free time from which you will use wisely, not just to dick around, because you have made Goals (see last post) — do so. Or get a job that lets you leave work at work. Sooner the better.

I don’t have kids. Although I like kids, I’ve never been maternal, and despite my in-laws complaining about it, I’m OK with that. I’m very lucky that I get to hang out with kids at work sometimes, and I have an adorable niece to fill in those spots. Not that there aren’t writers who are also successful mothers (before it gets all J. K. Rowling up in here) — but being a mom is hard. It means sublimating a lot of your personal desires for long stretches of time. Some of you may find that rewarding. I wouldn’t. This is what I want to do, and I’m doing it. I don’t have advice for people who have kids, other than to remember who you are. You may be a parent, but you’re also a writer. Make time for that, whenever, and where ever you can.

My husband supports me and what I do completely. Which, frankly, is amazing. My prior marriage was not like this, and the biggest thing I knew going into the dating world after that relationship was that I wanted someone who got what I was doing, and who was very self-sufficient. I think a lot of women feel the need to please other people before themselves. Spouses of either sex who don’t get why you’re writing or why it’s important to you, are very likely to get jealous of all the time you’re spending alone with your computer, unless they have equal and opposite hobbies/careers to distract themselves as well. You don’t want someone who tries to sabotage your writing or your self esteem. They need to understand that rejection’s the name of the game for a decade or so, maybe longer. If they can’t cheer you on (or at least be quiet) for that period of time, and be truly in your court, ditch them. Now.

If I’m going to pound out two books in a year, I need to have the least amount of stress in my life as possible. It’s impossible to avoid everything — your car’s gonna break down, your cat’s gonna get sick, you’re gonna sprain an ankle — which is why you need to control what you can control, as much as possible.

I won’t be reading news — or I’ll be down to just one news feed, where everything is boiled down for me, by people who I’ve come to trust. Not because I don’t care what’s going on in the world, but because I can’t get mired in a link-tab fest where I’m getting a 360 on current issues. It isn’t that I don’t care — I just don’t have time to care right now.

Turn off the rest of the internet. Or only turn on the portion you can be responsible with. For me, that’s Pandora. Other then that, I log off of twitter, go invisible on gchat, and hunker down. When I got really heavy into things, I downloaded my 3 favorite albums to write to to my little shuffle, and disconnected entirely from the net and used it, so I wouldn’t have any reason to get online. Figure out a way for you to succeed — using a program that shuts off your wireless router, a shuffle, willpower, whatever — and use it. Commit to it.

There’s certain friends and family members I’ll be seeing/calling/emailing less of. If there’s someone in your life who is high drama — I get it, that shit’s fun for awhile, yeah. But when the day ends, if you’re spending more energy dealing with somebody else’s problems (that they’re making yours) instead of dealing with your writing, it’s not worth it. Be prepared for some backlash — if you’ve been a willing accomplice or a supportive friend in the past, they may not get your change of heart now, they may even be threatened by it. But it’s worth it for you to be a clean slate and not stew over what your homophobic uncle said last week when you next sit down.

If someone — friends or family — makes fun of you because you want to be a writer, or because you are writing, drop them. Like a stone. You will get so much other rejection in this choice of careers (reward too, but so much rejection first) that you don’t need your self-esteem assailed from any other angle. Again, they’re just threatened that you’re deciding to follow a dream. Not many people past the age of 16 get to do that, and they’ll see in you everything they ever tried at and failed to succeed in. Or things that they didn’t even muster the strength to try. You don’t need that in your life. Segue out of the relationship and move on.

What to Let In?

Good friends and relatives. If you have true friends who get what you’re doing and are supportive of your career, keep them close. Be up front with your friends. If they know you’re on deadline — publisher imposed or personal — they should get it. After all, they’ve been on deadlines before too, right? (This is assuming your friends are responsible non-stoner types.) Tell them you may not be checking on facebook so often, but call them when you have a break too short to write in, or drop them an email or text. You’re gonna have some rocky times in your life, and you don’t want to be an island when those events happen. Just a text or two can let someone know you’re thinking of them and that you still want in on their life.

Make time for yourself. You serve no one if you’re hunchbacked and have RSI from writing too much. For me, this me-time is yoga. For you, it could be 15 minutes of book reading before bed, or a Starbucks latte. Whatever it is, do it for yourself, sheerly for the pleasure of doing it for yourself. Be nice to yourself. No one else will be/has to be nice to you — except for you. Let you be on your own side. (Being nice to yourself will be a whole other post in this series. It’s very important.)

Your Responsiblities?

Don’t be a dick. Don’t let your family starve because you’re being an artiste. Don’t let your work be an excuse for you to hide from people or personal obligations. (Art, the introvert’s shield maiden.) Work your hardest when you’ve set aside the time for you to work, but set aside some time to play, too.

If someone needs you — in a yo, my grandma died way, not a high drama way — get your ass over there. ASAP.

Attend the occasional social activity. I know people humblebrag on twitter about parties they’re missing because their writing, like whoa. It’s fun to pretend that writing consumes your whole life. (Look at this post, for instance! :P) I find open ended parties can get a bit rough for me — 6 till ???, heh — but I like to schedule lunches and dinners with friends. That way, I know that I can be fully present and social for an hour, but not get nervous about getting behind when I’m on the clock.

When you’re not under crazy deadline, get connected with humanity. Volunteer. Read non-fiction. Explore the issues you’ve been avoiding for half the year, to really figure out what’s going on. Being connected with humanity — living, breathing, good and bad humanity — is what’s going to give you actual grist for your work. You can’t write in a box — you’ll die, and worse yet, your work’ll be flat. Find a way to get out some, when you can.

Know that people need you to write what’s true — and you need them to read it, once you’re done. Humanity’s a two way street. Don’t abandon it for your art, or your art will mean nothing to anyone.