Writers and Workaholism: The Importance of Balance

I'll never forget a conversation I had with a friend of mine a couple of years ago. She asked Mark and me to come to her annual Superbowl Party, and I said "well, we might, but he has to work on his thesis, and I have to work on my novel." She smiled and said a couple of other things, and then said "well, I had to ask you, but I know you guys are workaholics." Her words stung, and it wasn't the first time, nor with that particular friend. In fact, ever since I slipped into the abyss that is known as my novel, I've been saying "no" to almost everything.

Some of these nos have been necessary; some have been a long time coming. Getting serious about my writing forced me to quit activities I wasn't really enjoying and to end friendships that no longer made sense. In general, it's forced me to evaluate how I spend my time, almost down to the minute, and to realize that every time I say yes to something, I say no to something else.

The problem is that now I think I've gone too far the other way, and I'm a little bit worried. I hardly ever meet people for a social activity, and I shy away from groups. Part of this is because although I love people, I am highly empathic and tend to soak up their energy, which means that if that energy is negative, I will leave feeling exhausted and drained. But another part is that it is just really hard for me to explain my life path right now to people who aren't writers, particularly since I'm in a state of transition. So my default pattern now is to say "no," when before I began the novel it was almost always "yes."

Ideally, I'd like to add at least a couple of things back into my life, now that I've defended my dissertation and at least that hurdle is over. But I'm wary, until the book is done. I still have a day job, and that day job demands a lot of the same mental energy that I give to my writing, so I have to be self-protective. On the other hand, over Spring Break when Mark and I had a heart to heart, we realized the last time we took an actual, honest to God vacation was August, 2004.

It was before I started my comprehensive exams (and I did actually lay on the beach and study for those while I was there) and before he started his master's degree. It seems a little crazy that it's been that long, particularly when I theoretically have "summers" and "breaks" from school. But I have been cramming tons of writing hours into those "off" days, which means that it's been a really long time since I had a mental break. And my mind and body are starting to tell me that.

Over on academicladder.com, Gina Hiatt has this recommendation for people like me: She recommends creating a balanced life chart. On and off during the dissertation process, I used it, to help me remember not only to prioritize my writing, but to keep it from soaking up my entire life. I mention it here because I think this is something we all struggle with, whether we write or not, but I think it's particularly hard for writers. A friend of mine argues that a writer's life is necessarily overextended, because there's always going to be what we do to pay the bills and what we really do. But as several people have reminded me lately, this life is a marathon and not a sprint, and I am only one person.

And last year I did go to that Superbowl party--and had a blast.


Joy said…

Your blog is a ministry that is aimed directly at people who serve in our capacity. Thank you for sharing your life and your life lessons with us. You are a true blessing!
Annie Mac said…
Kathryn, I love this. I'm not even working, yet never leave the house - a slave to the muse. Friends snipe. The empath element also makes for a great degree of difficulty in my "socializing," as well. You nailed this. You awe & astound me: Kathryn so brave and strong and devoted - balance will be restored; all will be rewarded. And I bet you can recall that Super Bowl like it was yesterday... ;)
Thanks, you two. I don't really mind the "imbalance" as long as my health and really important relationships don't suffer. But lately, more because of the teaching than the writing, I've not been getting enough sleep, and that wears me down, particularly when I have a chronic illness. After this crappy set of student essays, I'm going to have a tiny bit of a lull before the next set, and I'm going to HAVE to make some time for my writing and for ME!

I also want to point out that this is not my personal blog, but a group blog, and I am lucky to be here. Sometimes I feel like the Boxing the Octopus women swooped down and saved me.
Joni Rodgers said…
I'm about to leave for Sicily and take actual days off for the first time in 13 months. I have to admit, I'm feeling a little panic about it. Not sure I even know how to vacate, but I'm going to do my best. My Kindle is loaded with books I actually want to read. My email is on autoresponder. My wardrobe was selected for jammy-like comfort with modest bralessness.

Sicilian words of wisdom: Leave the gun, take the cannoli.
Have a wonderful trip, you big slacker, you!

Ow! I was just struck by purely-coincidental lightning!

Enjoy! And bring us back a cannoli!
You two are so funny, Colleen and Joni. I love both of you (and Mylene too!). 11:15 and I'm STILL not done with the essays . . .
I'd scrape my finger at you, Kathryn, but I'm just finishing up work at 11:30.

It's been quite the week...

Off to bed!
blossoming said…
This is a wise and timely post. Last night I left the piles of grading to stew in their own juices. I plan to ask my students to give me the same kind of patience I give them when I allow them to rewrite and rewrite their drafts, because I need time to rest this week.

Lesson learned? Next time, assign less work to students - which means less grading for me!
Dr. Dre said…
Wow. This is all so true.

And Joni, I giggled out loud in my office and the entire floor had to come and see what was so funny. My new goal in life is "jammy-like comfort with modest bralessness". :)
Sigh. I already assign the bare minimum for this darned research class. In fact, this semester, due to having to add in the new unit, I even abandoned the long research paper. But even 6-8 paged papers take forever to grade, especially when I have to check all their sources. Seriously--one paper with plagiarism can take me five hours. I think the minimum I've spent on a research paper is 30 minutes. Sure, I could just grade them for wording and use of in-text citation, but whenever the wording gets a little too smooth, I always go back to the original source, and nine times out of ten, they've cited incorrectly.

My saving grace is that summer and fall terms, I'm going to be spared from a lot of this, as I won't be teaching that class.
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molly said…
I so identify. I've given up nearly everything for me writing. Though I need friends, I fear their demands on my time. Also my husband is fed up.

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