A common question from the published writer is: will I ever earn out my advance? Recently I wondered: what about my stolen time? If I only ever wrote when I was “supposed to” (in periods of grant funding or, when else, on Sunday mornings in some bistro?) I would only ever have done a fraction of the work and, more importantly, would never have been able to establish a regular practice. This then led me to wonder: will I ever make more money through the writing itself than I did in the paid hours I spent at jobs, writing in secret? There are no firm boundaries around the “writing practice” nor the income made as a writer. This is the curse and the magic of the craft. There is simply no way to “just write” and yet, for me at least, it just keeps happening.
When I was younger it was my goal to achieve a level of literary success at which all I had to do was write. But what is “just writing”? Does it include the literary festivals, speaking on panels and leading workshops (and swimming in hotel pools)? Does it include pitches, meetings with agents, sitting at your desk waiting to hear back from publishers? There’s also the life that goes into the writing. Going to the wrong bar on the wrong night, dating the wrong guy, spilling wine on an inherited tablecloth, waiting all night in the emergency room, reading the right sentence in the right book, mishearing something said by a psychotherapist’s daughter on a subway car.
The “writing practice” to me is the most important part of it all, but also the hardest to maintain (or define). Much more important than, say, the polished debut novel or the published poem. I imagine there are some writers who agonize over every word, won’t release anything into the world until it feels perfect, and so on, but for me it’s all more nebulous than that. It is a movement inside of a craft, an exploration, a life. The more I write the more I establish my voice and identity and that naturally comes out on the page. Of course there is the editorial stage, some trimming, cutting and rearranging, but the ongoing learning about the self and about the art of prose are for me what makes effective and moving writing. The body of work more than the singular piece. This might be why I’d rather read some scrap from Joan Didion’s notebook than the novella some guy rewrote fourteen times after spending 8 years studying literature in the institution.
But, then, when does this “writing practice” take place? It’s admittedly not so easy to establish one if you follow any of the rules. There's not much money in it, whether from grants, schools, or publishers. Sometimes it will feel like the world doesn’t want you to squirrel away and work on your secret silent project. It probably doesn’t. First of all, unless you’re generationally or spontaneously wealthy, you will need to have a full time job. You’ll also need to maintain a household of some kind, keep up with friends and family, eat and drink and sleep, and on top of all of that you have to have save some time to actually relax or you’ll lose your mind and burn all the way out (like me).
Writing time, then, has to be stolen. When I worked an office job I sped through my work every day and did an hour or two of writing at my desk, or wrote through my lunch break, or locked myself in a bathroom stall and took notes on my phone. I felt like my job duties were a storm I was driving through with the wipers on high speed, and the road was my writing. This is not how to be good at your office job. Or how to construct a good analogy.
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In other jobs I’ve kept notebooks in my pocket to disappear into staff rooms and utility closets, written poems in walk-ins in bar basements, taught classes with no preparation because I had a writing deadline. No matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing, I will find a way to write, whether it’s in five minute bursts, frantically into a notes app on my phone, or through long stretches at my desk in the early hours of the morning before anyone else wakes up. I don’t know if any of this is good or healthy or if there’s another easier way, but this is how I’ve always done it. I've had to re-listen to out-of-breath voice notes on my phone, trying to make out half-formed thoughts that came to me while running through the cemetery by my house. I've written pieces of poems on napkins at family dinners. I make time for the writing and I scramble to hold everything else together, and everything else is always threatening to fall apart. So far it hasn’t.
My point is not that you should be a worse employee or skip lunch to work on your novel, but that writing has to happen around life. Around and through and beside and inside. The pay is impossible to define and so are the hours and so is the learning curve and the measure of success. But for me, it’s everything, and so it makes sense that it would run through everything. Don't wait for when you have the time—make it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Fawn Parker is a Giller-nominated author of five books including What We Both Know (M&S 2022), Soft Inheritance (Palimpsest 2023), and the forthcoming Hi, it's me (M&S 2024). Fiction and poetry have appeared in The Literary Review of Canada, The Walrus, and Maisonneuve. Fawn's official website has been surrendered to the great artificial intelligence and she is not in fact a gambling expert or addict.