Corner Post: “Stop Time”

What is your writing plan?  When I ask my students this question, some have the next ten years mapped out.  Some tell me plans never work out as planned so why bother.  All my students have a list of goals, which go something like this: a good full-time job, someone to love, a family life, travel, and, of course, writing.  All good things.  Taken together—overwhelming.  I don’t know when it happens, but at some point we go from asking ourselves to do one or two things well, to doing a lot of things well.  Which translates into doing the best we can juggling way too many plates.  That kind of life is exhausting.  And that kind of life keeps us on the surface, dabbling here, dabbling there, giving us excuses when we fail to make the long stretches of time needed to write.

Part of the problem is our over-working, forever-acquiring society.  As it grows and becomes more complex, it demands we stack our lives with more—more hours on the job, more stuff, more obligations until we are so cluttered and moving so fast, we don’t have time to rest or think.  And because our society values work-that-makes-money over work-that-makes-art, we’re hardwired with the belief that writing is that thing we will get around to once we’ve accomplished everything else.

Take a moment.  Step outside your own bustle.  Make a list of priorities that puts writing at the top.  Because the thing that matters to us most, ultimately shapes our lives.

There will be moments when it’s difficult to get to the writing.  Situations and people will step in and demand your attention.  And those moments can last months, years.  But if we place writing at the top and keep it there, we will jot down ideas and the beginnings of stories, we will draft incomplete stories in our heads until we push open a space where we can complete stories and novels.

A year after finishing my MFA, a year in which I was teaching ninth grade English and struggling to do anything well because of the demands of my job, I made a pact with myself that I might fail at a lot of things, but it wouldn’t be my own writing.

One of the biggest challenges is finding a job that doesn’t work against the writing.  In a best case scenario, you get a job that feeds you creatively, a job that inspires ideas for stories, and gives you time to write and revise.  I teach college now and my classes do just that, but not all teaching jobs are created equal.  Like my year teaching ninth grade.  And many writers I know are too exhausted, like I was that year, from grading comp papers to focus on their own work.  Working outdoors, while physically demanding, allows my mind to wander and make up stories.  But if a job makes me too physically exhausted to think, then that’s no good either.  I’ve worked the circulation desks at libraries and when patrons weren’t coming forward to checkout books, I worked on stories.  That job gave me a space to write from.  The whole job thing is tricky and I’d be grateful if readers would post in the comments section, either a job you have or jobs you know of that are good for writers.  Bottom line, ask yourself, Does my job support my writing? If it does, great.  If it doesn’t, look for another one.

When I made the pact that year after my MFA, I felt selfish.  But as my father has said, and I’m sure someone has told you this, You can’t do for others until you do for yourself.  My decision ultimately made my life better—I quit the job.  And I began to let go of my many impossible expectations. Which in turn allowed me to open up a space of longer and longer stretches of time for writing.  So take a moment. Stop time.  Split it open.  Then remake it.

James Braziel

About James Braziel

James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road. His work has appeared in journals and newspapers including the New York Times. Currently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

  • Kate Wisel

    I think this article is so important. I’ve worked many jobs but catering events as a waitress has been the best in terms of my writing life. Being on the outskirts of weddings, birthday parties or funerals always triggers something in me as I’m moving physically through the job but observing the emotional details of the event that’s taking place. Most people would not like to feel this sense of invisibility at work, but as a writer, it’s a benefit. You also make enough money to sustain yourself while not having to work a full work week or making a commitment to certain set hours. Still, I’m always trying to figure out the balance.

  • I think writers can really relate to this. I’ve found that most of my best writing occurs while completing seemingly mundane tasks, not while sitting at a computer. I’m always shocked by the unique and sometimes compelling ideas that come to me while I’m on my way to the grocery store or the dry cleaner’s. Sometimes the ideas are so interesting, the concepts so engrossing, that I often return home without the groceries or the dry cleaning 🙂

  • JamesAllen

    I give over to The Man and make cash in bunches. Then I vanish and write for a year or so.

    The tension I feel when working is almost unbearable. But I believe it favorably colors the resultant work.