Guarding Your Time

13 Sep

All artists–whether you’re a writer, painter, musician–need to learn how to guard their time in order to focus on their work. That means saying “no” to a number of social invitations, although not everything (While it’s important to guard your time as an artist, you also need to know when to say “yes” to social events that are well worth the time and can even be helpful to your craft).

Guard your time.

Don’t give your time away.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, as a number of people have asked for my time in one way or another. Work is a major drain of my time and energy, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about are the precious few hours after work, when you’re at home in front of a laptop, easel or piano, and your email inbox is full of requests from people asking for help with their projects.

While I think helping others with their projects (in my case, writing) can help me be a more precise, more skilled writer, I think it’s important not to allow yourself to get pulled into projects or commitments that take you away from your art while offering little in return.

One example I can cite from my own life is a recent invitation to join a writers’ group of four to six former classmates that would meet once a month to critique each others’ stories. The group formed after our fiction workshop ended. I felt a lot of pressure to join the group, not only from the group leaders, but also from myself: they told me they wanted me to be part of their group because they liked my writing and my thorough critiques. It was flattering, and it’s hard to say no to a group of people who really want you to be part of their writing community.

But I had to keep my head clear and ask myself what I would be getting out of this significant time commitment.  I’ve been a member of writers’ groups in the past and I know from experience that they take a lot more time and energy than expected. I also knew that I would be taking another workshop at Grub Street this fall, and there was no way I would want or be able to critique all of that student writing without burning out. I finally said no to the group, and although it was hard to say no, I ultimately felt relieved not to have another commitment on my long list of things to do.

Since then, I’ve gotten other requests from friends, family and strangers asking for my help with various projects, almost all of them writing-related. It’s harder to turn down these requests, so I often don’t, the result being that I go weeks without writing or revising my own fiction pieces, much to my frustration.

It’s difficult because I want to be helpful. If I can write well, why wouldn’t someone who is struggling ask for my help? And how can I refuse?

I’ve learned that the best way to handle requests that you can’t turn down is to calibrate peoples’ expectations. For example, while I’ll agree to help a friend or family member with a writing-related project, I’ll let them know that it may take a few weeks for me to send my feedback or that I can only help to a certain degree. I can give suggestions, but I most certainly won’t re-write the piece. I can give a critique, but it might take three weeks.

There are occasions when you just need to say no. I recently received a request to meet up with a current student at my alma mater to talk about alumni relations. As much as I want to help this young man try to figure out why I don’t care about reunions or visiting the university campus or participating in alumni events, I don’t want to take a few hours out of my day that I could be spending on writing. Although I am thankful for my education and the experiences I had during my undergraduate years, I graduated ten years ago and have moved on in life. I have other interests and little time to pursue them.

In short, when you decide to be a writer or artist you need to guard your time, because no one else will guard it for you, nor will anyone but you care whether you write that story or paint that painting. Oftentimes, the people in your life may not understand how important the artistic work is to you or may not realize how long it takes for you to help them. The only one who knows all of these things and who can do something about it is you: the artist.

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3 Responses to “Guarding Your Time”

  1. Jennifer Stuart September 13, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    This was one of the most perfect things I could have read right now.

    I am struggling at the moment to find an appropriate balance between various writing jobs and my own work. At the moment it is difficult to pay the bills and also maintain my freedom and/or dignity. Sometimes a writing job that pays very little (embarrassingly little) is better than nothing, or better than a job that pays slightly more but takes away some of my freedom in the process. And yet it is a consistent sort of challenge for me to find the balance; it also seems that once I find it, something outside my control changes and puts me back at the figuring-it-out-all-over-again stage.

    Reading your post helped me to feel a sense of empowerment in a way, and a sense of respect for my craft. Thanks for that, I will let it digest and perhaps reduce some of my blogging time in order to give more love to my story.

    • E.M. September 14, 2012 at 8:54 am #

      Hi Jennifer,

      I was humbled to read your comment and am glad that my words helped you in some way. I think that respecting our craft is something that all writers struggle with in one way or another, particularly writers who are still finding their voice or are unpublished (like myself). Taking yourself seriously as a writer is the first step; when you take your work seriously, others will eventually, too. Struggling to make a living, a long list of responsibilities, child-rearing–all of these things can get in the way of our work as writers, but I think that carving out some time for yourself–whether it’s an hour or two a few evenings a week or 30 minutes every morning–is well worth it because you are nurturing something that is incredibly important: your creativity.

      Keep on writing! You can do it.

      Warmly,
      E.M. Santiago

  2. Tracy Staedter September 17, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    Great post. I agree that prioritizing one’s writing is essential to becoming successful. There are only so many hours in the day and if we’re not careful, those hours can slip away into the non-writing abyss. I also think that some writers agree to do other activities as a way to avoid writing. It’s subconscious, I think and we have to be careful that we don’t fall into that trap. We are so prone to procrastination! :0

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Tracy Staedter

Science writing, editing and workshops

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