The Double Life

The Double LifeI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of a career and balancing work-life with creative-life.

I’ve been a full-time student for the last two years. I’ve also worked a full-time job during this time. Student. Employee. Writer somewhere in the midst of it all.

I’ve come to terms (maybe?) with the idea of being a slow writer. I have friends, classmates, and colleagues who can churn out an astonishing amount of work in a given period of time. That is not me.

If it takes me a month or two to write fifty messy, awful pages, that’s what it takes, and I can’t beat myself up for it.

I recently had a conversation where someone asked me what my grand plans were after I finish my MFA. This well-meaning question shouldn’t catch me off guard for the number of times it’s been asked, but even three weeks away from the completion of my degree, it still makes me pause.

My response?

“The same thing I did before getting the MFA.”

Sometimes this response puzzles people. But it’s the only one I have. I’m going to live a double life. I’m going to write. I’m going to work. The point of the MFA program was to improve my writing. It’s not a hot ticket to a life of literary patronage and letters in Paris.

There is a perception that if you are a writer, you must be holed away in single-minded pursuit of that goal.

I think this is a problem.

It’s a problem because even among writers it’s easy to buy in to that standard as the only model for success or legitimacy.

It’s a problem because it doesn’t reflect the reality of many working writers (or people working in other creative mediums, for that matter) who don’t and won’t achieve that “status” of being a full-time writer. There is a mystique, intrigue, and romanticized vision of the idea of that life.

But that life isn’t mine. And at this point, I’m comfortable saying that it won’t be mine. It can’t be, because I know how I work.

Can I confess a secret? I would get bored if I spent my days only writing. I don’t want to be stuck inside my head all the time. This is just one part of my life. I need the external stimulus of meeting and interacting with people in the real world. I need structure, whether self-imposed or otherwise, to keep me on track with things.

There is an analytical side to my brain that thrives in my day job. The day job pays my bills and allows the freedom to pursue my creative goals separate from the pressures of financial stress. I live a double life, and I am okay with that for now.

What does that mean for me as a creative person?

It means realistically that the activities a full-time writer pursues in the space of one working day, I must pursue over the span of several.

Whether it’s drafting, brainstorming, day dreaming, editing, reading, or feeding my creative self in any number of ways, all of this takes more time and spans more days. I need to give myself space for all of those things in a week that a full-time writer may accomplish in a normal working day.

If I spend time daydreaming about my work in progress, and not a single word hits the page, that is okay.

I’ll repeat it, if only to combat worry over my own process. This is okay.

If I write 300 words or a thousand, or two; if I keep them or throw them away in the space of a week, this is okay. No single day will make or break my progress towards my goals. It’s the sum of my days over a sustained period of time. Writing a novel is a process, and we’re in it for the long haul.

Progress is progress, whether it is unknotting a difficult plot tangle in my head, or exploring a new thread on the page.

Or maybe I choose to sit down at the piano or noodle around on the guitar for an hour, letting the other cylinders in my brain fire for a moment. Maybe I read a book, or celebrate with a friend or go out for coffee or dinner….

This is part of life. All of it. And it’s all necessary.

Too often I catch myself apologizing for it, or feeling guilty about the double life. Or quadruple life. Or balancing the multitude of interests and roles I play with the creative projects I tackle. I worry sometimes that I’m working when I should be writing. That I’m writing when I should be seeing friends. That I’m working on a different creative project instead of homework.

There’s a balancing act that takes place, and I find myself wondering what it does to my overall productivity. It’s worth considering from time to time. But I’ve also found that I worry about this the most when I’ve spent too much time thinking about what my peers are doing, and not enough about the creative work that is in front of me.

Part of my routine needs to be reminding myself that this double life – the dual and dueling passions – are all part of my creative journey. We’re all living our lives and pursuing our goals in our own time and own pace. It’s easy to forget that in the midst of a MFA program.

It might take longer to see the fruits of my creative efforts. Some days are more focused than others. Some days are more productive. Some days I’m just exhausted and I don’t work on anything. Some days I sit with butt-in-chair and throw words at the page until something sticks.

Though the creative labor looks different on different days, I make progress and build my novel, little by little, at my own pace. It’s all part of the double life. And it will all be fine.

Madeleine L’Engle: Artist at Work

“In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered among the stars.

We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing. And during the writing of the story, or the painting, or the composing or singing or playing, we are returned to that open creativity which was ours when we were children. We cannot be mature artists if we have lost the ability to believe which we had as children. An artist at work is in a condition of complete and total faith.”

— Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Don’t you love Madeleine L’Engle? I truly wish I could have met her.

Beyond the beauty and evocative imagery of the writing, this quote feels so right for launching a new creative endeavor. The thought of starting a blog or sending anything out into the cluttered waters of the web is a bit daunting, but I find myself in agreement with L’Engle’s wise, wise words. Every creative act is an act of faith. It’s a step out onto the water.

When L’Engle writes about the “open creativity” we had as children, I think she’s on to something. A young child who draws doesn’t necessarily care what his picture looks like. He cares about the act of drawing and the pleasure of it. You’ve seen it before: the child toils away on his masterwork, and as soon as he’s done, he rushes to give it away. To share it.

Too often, as we get older, we start to censor ourselves. We hesitate. We judge. We take a step and think, “Eep! This water is too cold! Too deep! I can’t do this!”

And then we start to believe it.

For me, this quote is a good reminder to dump those things that bog me down and stop me from doing the work of creating and sharing. It’s a call to action as much as it is an observation. This quote is also why I added a picture of the ocean. I snapped the photo this summer while I was on vacation with my family. I love it, and it just seemed to fit.

So this blog is a next step. I’ll use it to share writing, ideas, and to connect with the wider world of storytellers and enthusiasts who make the book community such a vibrant and rewarding place.

Thanks for visiting and reading. I’m so glad to have you along.

(PS — If you haven’t read Walking on Water, I highly recommend it. It’s a beautiful book!)