A Personal Digression

Please forgive the personal digression, but as many of you know, as much as I self-identify as a practicing writer my favorite role these days is as “Aunt Erika”. Today marks five years since I officially earned the title. Read all about it (and see some “archival” newborn photos of my niece) at my sister’s blog.

Response to a Reader: Getting It All Done

I have been receiving some of the most flattering e-mails from you folks lately. I want to thank you for telling me how much this blog (and the newsletter) mean to you. Really. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.

One of our readers included a question with her kind words. Here’s an excerpt from her e-mail:

How do you do it all?

You recently posed your own question to your blog readers–how does one prioritize, versus “just” set goals?–and related to that, I would like to know what your basic weekly schedule looks like. How do you keep up with the various facets of this varied industry, talked about in so many journals, blogs and other media; teach (and prep for teaching); write (both fiction and nonfiction, and now poetry); read (both for pleasure and for reviews); submit; go to literary events (even just the informal, ‘easy’ ones, like readings); expand to new projects; whatever else I’m neglecting to mention; and sleep and eat? And just think. Or just relax.

[….]I would appreciate your inspiration as well as your concrete, specific ideas (the latter even more so, at this point): How and in what form do you create your to-do ‘lists’? Do you say, wake up by reading a set group of blogs and journals, to always start up-to-date; are lunch hours reserved for pleasure reading (and eating)? You obviously have a good model, and I’d greatly appreciate the opportunity to use it, or adapt it, as well.

Wow! Our reader gives me A LOT of credit. Much more than I deserve.

I’m certainly not satisfied with the amount of reading I’m doing, or with the number of literary events I see listed in Time Out New York but somehow don’t manage to attend. And I shouldn’t receive kudos for teaching or fiction writing these days. As you’ll see if you continue reading through the response I’ve cobbled together for my correspondent:

1) I’ve learned to say “no.” I’ve learned to accept that it’s OK to move on from certain projects and commitments when the time seems right. For example, after one semester teaching my online book reviewing course for the Lesley University MFA program while simultaneously settling into my full-time desk job in New York, I went on a teaching hiatus. While I’m considering returning to teaching in adult education and one-time seminar settings, I’m not taking on any semester-long commitments right now. It’s just too much for me. Similarly, I’ve cut back on producing new e-books/guides (and those I once updated quarterly now receive semi-annual updates). I’ve even retired some of the guides as I’ve the purposes they served (providing lists of short fiction or poetry markets, for example) handled better elsewhere. So I do manage to open up time and mental space for new projects (sometimes!).

2) I use technology, to the extent I’m able. This may seem silly, but my research moved exponentially faster once I switched from dial-up just a few years back. Also, I’m now able to draft some blog posts ahead of time, and schedule them for publication so I don’t have to allow drafting time before work each morning. Those are just two examples. If you’re more tech-savvy than I am–and trust me, there’s an overwhelming likelihood that you are–technology will likely help you with your writing practice, too.

3) I do indeed check the same set of blogs/sites more or less daily, first thing. This may sound odd, but having accumulated a set of resources that I know and trust really makes my information-collecting life much easier.

4) I use my lunch hour for correspondence with editors, more Internet research, blog/newsletter work, etc.

5) I try to update my immediate to-do list each week (usually Sundays). I exchange a list with another practicing writer (a poet). I print out the list after I e-mail it and keep it in my organizer (see, I really am a Luddite–I use a leather-bound organizer).

6) I try to maximize and combine as much as possible. For instance, next month I’ll be attending a writers’ conference, where I’ll focus on fiction more intensively than I’ve been able to do for months. Said conference is in Paris, a city dear to my heart that I haven’t visited for years. Vacation time is especially precious now that I’m a 9-5 gal again. So being able to focus on my writing in a place I’ve been longing to return to makes particular sense for me. (Bonus: It turns out that I will overlap briefly in Paris with one of my best friends, a college roommate who shares my Francophilia; we now live several states apart, so I’ll get in some quality staying-in-touch-with-those-important-to-me time as well.)

7) I get adequate sleep. Although there was a time when I could function on relatively little sleep, that time has passed. I need my sleep, and I make sure I get it. That helps, too.

Finally, though I’m not about to recommend it as a “strategy,” I should acknowledge that I do not have children of my own. Although I do spend a lot of time with the precious little ones in my life (for which I am indescribably grateful; I know that my life–and my writing–is the better for it), I do not have the all-consuming responsibilities of parenthood. And I certainly recognize that that frees up quite a lot of time and energy. It also seems relevant to add that I’m in good health (knock wood); there have been stretches when I was less productive than I might have been because, frankly, I wasn’t. (This public declaration should hopefully encourage me to stop testing fate and start exercising more regularly and rigorously, not to mention getting a little more strict with myself nutrition-wise.)

That’s about all I can come up with right now. Yes, I could agonize over how “complete” this answer is, and/or try to revise it further. But I’m going to stop. And go on to something else.

Anyone else have productivity pointers to share? Please do so, in comments!

Goals and Priorities

Recently, one of my practicing writer friends, in what I’m sure was an effort to be helpful (since I was rambling on about various writing-related ideas and projects), asked me what my priorities are. I was stumped. Goals, I have a-plenty. But what are my priorities? And isn’t it possible that I need to identify them (the priorities) in order to accomplish those goals?

Here’s what I mean. According to the dictionary, a goal is “the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.” My writing goals have changed over time. When I was applying to MFA programs seven-plus years ago, for example, I wanted to see the novel I was working on then published. And I wanted a tenure-track job teaching creative writing. Now, those goals are simply not among my priorities.

Which is to say, they are not things “given special attention”; they do not have “the right to precede others [as in, other goals], in order, rank, privilege, etc.”; they do not have “the right to take precedence in obtaining certain supplies [like my time and attention], services, facilities, etc., especially during a shortage.” Between my full-time “day job” and my family involvements at the moment–two priorities that are without question at the top of my day-to-day mental list–and a couple of non-writing goals that should probably be priorities (like exercising more often and eating more nutritiously and exploring more fully all that New York has to offer), there is indeed a “shortage” of resources I can devote to my writing goals.

Clearly, I’m more committed to my current writing activities and projects than I am to that abandoned novel and job search. What’s not so clear to me is how I should prioritize all the pieces of my writing life, both those already under way (like trying to place the story collection many agents and independent presses have already turned down [most recently, last week]; maintaining this blog and the Practicing Writer newsletter; writing and revising new poetry and prose and submitting that work, etc.) and those goals that are still nothing more than ideas in my head (like creating some particular new resources for other writers and acquiring the skills and expertise to run my own small press, for starters).

Any tips? How do you prioritize your goals? This practicing writer needs to know!

Writing for a Good Cause (Part Two)

Longtime Practicing Writing readers may recall that last year, I participated in the New York Writers Coalition’s 2nd Annual Write-a-Thon, raising funds for this terrific organization. Time flies; the next NYWC Write-a-Thon is coming up very soon, on Saturday, May 17.

For those unfamiliar with it, the NYWC has quite an admirable mission:

NY Writers Coalition Inc. (NYWC) provides free and low-cost creative writing workshops throughout New York City for people from groups that have been historically deprived of voice in our society. We also publish our workshop participants’ writing and organize public readings of their work. Writing with others in an atmosphere of respect and acceptance, participants discover the value of their own stories, gain confidence and a stronger sense of self and become less isolated from themselves and from society. By creating a community of writers and leaders from diverse backgrounds, we galvanize the voices of the marginalized and create opportunities for all writers to connect with the larger community. NYWC’s goal is to create an inclusive city, one that is aware of the diversity of voices within it and honors the lives of all of its citizens.

By participating in the Write-a-Thon, I’m able to help the NYWC fulfill this mission–and I get some writing done in the process. So I’ve signed on to participate once again this year (the 2008 Write-a-Thon is slated for Saturday, May 17).

If you’d like to add your support, please consider making a donation. And if you’d like to learn more about the NYWC, you can do so here. Thank you!