Writing as Vocation and Avocation: Follow the Shiny Thing
It’s 11 a.m. on a Thursday and I’m polishing a short story I’m submitting to an anthology. I wrote it months ago, but I’ve been making tiny edits to it for days ahead of the deadline—now, of course, it’s down to the wire.
My cell phone rings. A client wants to know when I can edit the documents he just emailed me. I’ve had this client for 15 years, a CEO who has me on retainer to edit his speeches and articles. One of my most consistent paying gigs. I tell him, “Give me half an hour.”
But my short story pulls me back in. A comedic piece about a cat that persuades its owner to commit a murder. I’m trying to make it funnier. Hence, all the tweaks. Comedy is a game of finesse.
My phone buzzes, a text. My son says he “really wants a chinchilla.” He sends me a video: “10 fun things to do with a chinchilla.” I watch the video. It’s adorable. Now I want a chinchilla too, I text him. I copy my husband.
There’s a typo in my story. How many times have I read it over? How is this even possible? “Portuguese” should be “Portugal.” Good lord, what else is wrong with it? Now I have to read the whole thing again.
My computer dings. An email from a reporter who writes articles for my website, TeachingKidsNews.com. Do I want her to cover Stephen Hawking’s death? I’m lucky to have her as a volunteer; if she’s kind enough to do it, I’ll take her up on it, immediately. I write her an email response.
Shit. What time is it? I have just 15 minutes for my client’s documents. Thankfully, they’re all short. While I’m working on them, I somehow manage to ignore the texts my son and husband are now having about baseball (ding! ding! ding!). I keep ignoring them—okay, I read them, but I don’t respond—that’s something, anyway. The clock is ticking on the submission deadline, so I turn back to my murderous cat story, hoping I can make it nothing short of brilliant before 17:00 UK time.
This is a typical morning for me, and lots of writers like me who make a sort-of living, pieced together from many varied writing and editing jobs. The mantra for freelancers is “never say no to a job,” because the well can run dry fast in this business. So you end up with a patchwork of work that’s dizzyingly varied and always due tomorrow.
When you’re sitting at a computer the whole day writing, your mind is often the only thing that gets exercise—jumping from journalism to surreal creative writing, to well, I don’t even know how to describe corporate writing, but it usually pays the best.
At some point, I tell myself that I should block everything out and just focus on my creative writing. Give myself two or three good, solid hours. Like all the writing advisors on Twitter say to do.
But which interruption will I ignore to do that? The client who pays my bills? The volunteer who’s going to take a big article off my hands? My kid? Okay, maybe the chinchilla video—but that was what, two minutes?
Yeah, well, all the interruptions these days are two minutes, aren’t they? But that two minutes is bookended by five minutes on either side, as you figure out where you were and get your head back in the game. Where was that mention of Portugal?
The average income for a children’s author in Canada is $13,000. While there are some who can make it on royalties alone, that number is small. Very small. The rest of us find a job either in writing or as far away from it as possible. I was trained as a journalist and it’s what I know how to do, and what I love.
So, I’m not complaining. But it is challenging to work on a corporate brochure and then switch to a story about a talking cat. Not just challenging—it’s kind of crazy-making, almost. Your writing-mind is in a state of constant whiplash.
Children’s author Eric Walters once told me that, “we only have 2,300 words a day, so we have to spend them carefully.” I get what he means. Even the most prolific writer (and he’s one of the most prolific in Canada) can only write so much in a day. Then, things get sloppy—or sleepy—or both. He says that every word you write online, in emails, blog posts, tweets, shaves away at the number of words you can put into your novel.
While the specific number of words may vary from writer to writer, what he says probably holds true for most of us. There’s only “so much” I can write in a day, no matter what the medium or the subject matter. And I do keep that in mind. If I have a big deadline—for a creative or a corporate project—I need to prioritize and put some things on a backburner.
But somewhere along the way, I had another epiphany that I have found incredibly liberating: “Write what you’re excited about, right now.”
It’s not how we were brought up. You don’t eat dessert first. You do your homework before you go out to play. You put your head down and finish one task before you move on to something else. So, it took me a while to figure this out and to give myself permission to work on the shiny project that catches my eye at any given moment. But once I did, my writing became not only better, but more satisfying.
Let’s say I have a deadline, 1,500 words for a brochure, due Friday. Some days I’ll wake up with an idea for my cat story that makes those 1,500 corporate words seem unconquerable. On those days, the cat comes first. I’ve learned that once the cat has been satisfied, the brochure will become more interesting to me. My writing will be easier and better.
I’ve also come to learn that there are days when the brochure seems more interesting. I’ve thought up a way to make the client’s product sound good, or whatever, and that excitement elevates my corporate work. Even the cat comes second on those days. Lots of journalism stories will do that; when Viola Desmond was put on the $10-bill, it was all I wanted to write about and the cat took a backseat until that article was finished.
Through it all, though, I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to earn my living at writing. To have published books. And to have had all the ancillary experiences—meeting my literary heroes, travelling across Canada on a book tour, learning from so many smart people in the industry, inspiring schoolchildren to write—that come along with it.
Yes, there are days when I think that I’d like to work as a barista in a coffee shop and the only writing I’d do is the creative kind. But then, Viola Desmond would get on the $10-bill and I’d be wishing I could write about that. Also, I make terrible coffee.
Writing and writing and writing and writing can be a lonely business. There are work-arounds for that, of course, but in the end it’s still mostly you and a keyboard. All day, every day. And when the corporate brochure is due, sometimes into the night.
But there’s one thing that has never (knock wood) happened to me. There has never been a single day that I can remember when I haven’t woken up wanting to write something. It might not always be what will earn me the most money, or the project that is the most pressing. But every day there is something I’m excited to put into words, to explore with language, to persuade someone about, to document.
The only difference is that now I follow that shiny thing and I write it, first.
And it seems to be working.
By the way, the cat was framed.
JOYCE GRANT is a freelance journalist and editor and a children’s author, living in Toronto. She has three picture books and two middle-grade novels. Her latest novel, Sliding Home, was published in April 2018 (Lorimer). Joyce is a co-founder of TeachingKidsNews.com, which publishes kid-friendly news. She is currently working on her first novel for adults and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Creative and Critical Writing through the University of Gloucestershire.