No, I don’t have time for “a” coffee …
A chat about the difficulty to protect “office-hours” (includes NaNoWriMo and coffee)
Being a writer surrounded and held by a network of friends who are or are not writers is great. But there’s a recurring theme of how hard it is to explain and protect our “office-hours” to people who seem to think we are that much more flexible. Just because we are working from home, in a location that lends itself to a quick phone chat, or the infamous “time for a coffee”.
People. Friends and family. We LOVE you. We WANT to spend time with you. We feel bad if we have to turn your coffee- or chat-offer down. Or refuse to do tasks. But we really need to talk about work-ethics, office-hours, an artist’s job, the frenzy of NaNoWriMo.
To explain it simply: NaNo is a month of writerly driving cross-country, with no map (in my case, only sketches), over bumpy roads and sometimes smooth highways, with getting lost and swearing and despairing, then again falling silent with awe at the beauty that suddenly pops up around the next bend (that’s me hoping there will be good writing, ahem). There are forks in the road, and we have to decide. And then, while we just found our way and are confident we’re making enough mileage to get to our destination ON TIME (because NaNo says midnight November 30th, full stop, or the car-park is closed!) — there is you loving friends slouching on the backseat shouting, “Hey, you’re just driving there, easy job, can we now stop for a coffee? And I need to pee.” (you just peed an hour ago, mate…) And I have my nose pressed against the windscreen to find a fucking way through the fog! There’s abysses and mountains there, potholes and driving rain. And you? You don’t see MY surroundings, you’re All relaxed, staring at your phone or into space, oblivious. Well-meaning. But be prepared that I might turn around and shout at you, “I’m FIRST getting through this, THEN we can have that fecking coffee!”
And you’re not the only passenger on the backseat. There are loads of you loving guys, (AND MY KIDS!) which is AWESOME, just not IN my car, when I’m just about racing to that car-park, i.e. the finish-line, ok?? Being in that car is being in my office. And it IS hard work.
Let me put it this way: You all do enjoy art, don’t you? You wanna be entertained from time to time? By books, for example? How do you think that entertainment is created?
I give you credit for that you cannot have an idea how complicated being a writer (or driver on that cross-country road) really is. And how much pressure Novembers with NaNo are. Kids and myself ALWAYS get sick in November. I already booked doc-appointments just because. I’ll have to race like a maniac to get to that car-park on time after all that.
So here is our side, friends: I spoke to my beloved writing buddy and regular NaNo-warrior Elaine Coetzee about this. Please, hear us out:
Q1: As NaNo approaches, what do you find is the biggest challenge where family and friends are concerned?
Sarah: I’m lucky in that most friends and family members know how seriously I take my writing – it’s A JOB! – and that I’m at my pc daily, from 8-1, sometimes again at night, working. I work from home, like others work from an office somewhere. And still there is often this notion of “oh, as she’s home anyway, can I drop by for a quick coffee and a chat? For her to take me to the station (as happened yesterday, thanks, MIL)? For a quick phone chat? Whatever. During relaxed times, I squeeze that in for friends, as we all have kids, and evenings are short and full. But with NaNoWriMo approaching, I regularly become more wary. THAT schedule is a monster that will eat up every available minute. And NaNo needs prep, too. And my normal writing tasks (like editing, prepping launches) don’t evaporate.
Elaine: I am part of a successful neighbourhood watch and civilian patrol group. I’m very proud of being part of that community, and as you can imagine those people have become friends over time, and a lot of them think because I’m home and “just” writing, I have time to do everything they can’t do, because they have “proper” jobs. Writing is a proper job, and not an easy one at that. Over the last 6 months or so, I’ve seen how my work as an author was pushed on the backburner and once more became ‘just a hobby’. This year, for NaNo, I’ve resolved to make it my priority to be a writer again. That means saying “no” to people a lot. It might take a while for everyone to accept that I can’t just quickly do “XYZ” because I’m at home, and no one will care if I quickly run out. I care. My home is my office. Yes, I work here, and yes I am a little more flexible than most, but I DO work. People are not overly happy that I can’t devote all my time to them anymore, but a person can only take on so much, and sooner or later we have to decide what’s most important to us.
Q2: How seriously do people take your writing as “proper work”? In general? Is it seen as a cute hobby?
Sarah: I’m rigorous about my work. If I want to have any chance of succeeding, I have to put my foot down and convince ME everyday that this IS work, and then everyone else around me. Most people know that I mean business, and with a “proper book” out, that helps with acknowledgement and being taken seriously. But everyone who loves me seems to think that “it is just me, just this short time span” out of her writing time, and what harm can that do? They are irritated or puzzled when right before NaNo I tell them No. Because if everyone came to me like that, “just me, just briefly”, my days would be torn apart and shit would not be finished. Artists need peace and quiet (well, me) to sink into the tasks and let creativity flow. So no, they don’t see it as a hobby, I made sure of that. The problem is everyone thinking, “it’s just them”.
Elaine: I started writing a serial novel for an online magazine not so long ago. That means I suddenly have deadlines. People get irritated with me when I tell them I can’t hang out to party all weekend, or that I have a deadline and have to go. I have been asked, “Why do you have to go? It’s not such an important deadline, it’s just a story.” Yes, it’s just a story … but it’s important to me, and all those books you read, and movies you watch are entertainment to you, and important to you, because the human race needs entertainment. Do people think that art just falls out of the sky? It’s created by us – misunderstood people who are pouring their whole being into something the world at large don’t understand. Writing is art, and creating art takes time. My husband, a few very close friends, and most of my family, understand that it’s my fulltime job, and are less condescending.
Q3: How do you guard your writing time, and how do those around you respond when you choose writing over having ‘that cup of coffee’ with them?
Sarah: I can be too lax with such requests, as I love my people and want to spend time with them, and if they are free and just wanna come over … I can give in easily. But NaNo is the time of year where I can’t do that, or else I’d fail, and I take pride in that I never failed NaNo once, despite regular sicknesses and mishaps with the kids. I plan for a few days of “nursing time” anyway, so being a mum is always an extra struggle as you don’t get every day to yourself. I’ll have to work doubly hard. November is therefore a very complicated month, and my stress levels high. So I tell people what NaNo is and how it helps me to kick start novels, and most understand and step back. It’s not the first time, either. When I mention that it’s “that time of year” they understand. Still, things like school excursions, parents’ meetings etc. are weighed against my work, and people who don’t write don’t get the dynamics. They simply assume I can be flexible and will somehow make up for it, just do things later. NO! I have to stick to a schedule, too, like everyone who works, and that is often still hard to convey. That I’m not that much more flexible than other workers – and I don’t want to be. Being an artist is complicated enough, it’s not a straightforward job. So if I don’t protect my schedules, I’ll get into more trouble. Some friends (and at one point even the husband) rolled their eyes when I said no to seemingly small tasks. But in the long run, I think being that strict can only prove to them how serious I am about this. IT’S. MY. JOB.
Elaine: I put my headphones on, close the door and tell people to fuck off. I’ve had to use those exact words before, and I have regretted it. I don’t like letting people down, so often I’ll push my writing time back to accommodate others. My husband will sometimes say, “Oh, you can do it later when the boys are asleep.” Sure, but when do I sleep? When you intrude on our working time, we have to find some other time to work, that means sacrificing time with our family and friends. Just like everyone else, we don’t want to give that up, but because someone intruded on our ‘working’ hours we are forced to make a decision. What do we give up? Writing time or family time? Most often, family wins, and tomorrow we have to work like maniacs to catch up on the time we lost yesterday.
It’s up to the writer to make her own hours, put her foot down and say “this is my work time. You have to wait.” Most people get annoyed, a few understand. The best way to deal with it is to ignore it. The world won’t come to an end because I do not have time for that movie, or that party, or that drink right now. I will have time later, but not right now. It’s hard sometimes, but I’m getting better at saying no.
Q4: “What do you want to say to all those people who intrude on your writing time?”
Sarah: I want to tell them that I DO love them, sooo much, but that they need to see my work like everyone else’s work. It’s just a different location. Being at home doesn’t equal being available, not even for the postman, sometimes! So please, understand that I have to protect my time to get things done, to have even the slightest chance of being successful one day. That it’s not personal, it’s protecting my workspace. I want to see them, talk to them, do tasks. Just not during “office-hours”. Over time, I think they’ll see I’m serious. I’m proving this to them by working hard, every single day, not just when I feel like it or “have time”. Sticking to my office-hours will make them see just how important my job is, and that it is a proper job, with normal, regular working hours that mustn’t be interrupted. The more I keep that habit up, the easier people will understand. I hope.
Elaine: To you it may seem like it’s “just a hobby” or “just a story.” But think about all those good books you’ve read, the joy you’ve derived from them, the discussions you’ve had (people still have endless discussions about books written 100s of years ago). Those were written by people like me. Writing is hard. We are creating something out of thin air, or as Stephen King likes to put it, we’re digging up a fossil. It’s hard. Understand, that we’re not just sitting there thinking up a story. We work out timelines, plots, do endless hours of research, put storyboards together (well some writers do), and once that story is told, we have to put in more hours editing the work, finding spelling and grammar mistakes, fixing timelines, plots, adding and cutting. Thousands of hours go into creating just one novel, and it’s all for your entertainment. We are happy when people enjoy our work. For most writers, any monetary gain is secondary to a job well done. We do it because it’s our passion. When you relegate it to something ‘cute’ we do in our spare time, you’re basically shitting on every masterpiece written over the centuries. All those authors who brought you such joy are suddenly lumped into a category of non-importance. Yet, the human race craves stories. They read them, they tell them, they watch them on television and in cinemas across the globe. Have more respect for those who pour their entire being into bringing you that pleasure. That is all we ask.
AND NOW we’d like to hear other driver’s opinions on that bumpy ride. And ALSO that of the passengers! What is it like sitting on that backseat, quite uncomfortably, being driven around like that, having to listen to our whining and raving? To watch the madness, hoping the car will stay in one piece? Let’s hear your comments!