March 4, 2010

Building Better Balance ~ A Guest Post by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Our Cool Person Guest Blogger today is Kristi Petersen Schoonover. Much like Edgar Allan Poe, Kristi has a yen for the macabre and what it says about human nature. She has an MFA from Goddard College, and her short fiction has appeared in the Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, the Illuminata, and many others. She’s twice been runner-up in Toasted Cheese’s Dead of Winter contest, and she is the host of Dead Letters, a paranormal fiction segment on the Ghostman & Demon Hunter Show and the founder of Admit One Literary Theme Park, a website for grown-up Disney fans. Admit One: Tales from Haunted Disney World, a collection of ghost stories set in Disney parks, will be published by Pandora Ink Books this year. Kristi loves all things Disney, Titanic, and paranormal, as well as the Bronx Zoo, and she often goes to bed with the lights on. Her website is

Building Better Balance ~ How to pulverize pressure and plus productivity

I’ve just returned from a Norman Mailer Writers Colony Fellowship Residency—a month of living in beautiful Provincetown, Massachusetts, with nothing to do but write.

I left for the colony amidst chaos. I had so many demands on my time that my writing always took a back seat, and I was anxious to get there and dig in. I had grand plans for how much I was going to get done, and I was anxious about how much I’d actually finish. I was scared I’d come home feeling guilty I hadn’t accomplished enough.

Enter the tour of Mailer’s study, crammed with books, workout equipment, and a bed. While I was told he worked an extraordinarily long day, it included exercising (until he became infirm), napping, responding to letters, playing solitaire, reading, and research. There was balance in his writing life. Coincidentally, while I was there, the memoir Mornings with Mailer by Dwayne Raymond—Mailer’s assistant—was published. The book underscored this. “[Norman] rarely overdid his chocolate consumption, employing balance to it as he did most everything,” Raymond wrote.(1)

This changed the track of my experience. I did plenty of writing. But I learned to slow down and stop stressing about slogging through my piles. I got more work done than I would have had I gone someplace else. And I enjoyed it.

Coming home was culture shock. But I was determined to keep what I’d learned about the nature of the writing life going, and so far it’s been working. I’ll share what I learned and hope it helps other writers who have difficulty finding balance as I used to.

Prioritize. Writing is first. This doesn’t mean I blow off my life. It means I make time for writing around everything else. If I have a 2 p.m. appointment, I get up two hours earlier so I have writing time. I stopped resenting other activities because I’d rather be writing, and I stopped bowing out of things. I’m now engaged in the present and enjoy life more.

Everything counts. Today, we’re expected to write, promote, read, attend critique groups and conferences, run a website, edit journals, blog, teach, submit, and more. I used to feel I was only working if I was actively writing, and I’d feel guilty about spending time on these other activities. But a successful writer needs to participate in these things. According to Raymond, “[Norman] tried to answer every letter that came to him…At least six times a year he would spend an hour after lunch” on correspondence.(2) He considered those letters part of his work. So I reframed my definition: these activities are integral to my writing life, therefore, they’re part of “work time.” I have days when I don’t actually write a damn word and spend it reading. I’ve learned to say “I worked.”

Shorten the list. I stopped making huge lists of everything I wanted to accomplish. I now put down a couple of things I hope to work on. If I make progress on those couple of things, I’m happy with what I’ve done that day.

Be grateful. At night, I look at what I got done instead of what I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t finish that novella, but I posted a blog, promoted it, talked to two editors, submitted to magazines and read three short stories. Hey, that’s quite a bit!

Stop the torture. One project needed to be completed during my tenure, but my surroundings sparked so many exciting stories the project paled. I’d try to squelch the new ideas and stick to plan, but ended up wasting time, doing nothing (hours on Facebook come to mind). Raymond wrote that “Spontaneity was a kind of lifeblood for [Norman], not only in his thinking but in how he liked his immediate environment.”(3) Once I grasped this and gave the muse her moment, I found my enthusiasm for the aforementioned bore-fest returned. Yes, I got it done. As well as unplanned material. In the end, switching it up saves time and yields more.

One at a time. I juggle numerous projects, and it used to generate so much head noise I couldn’t concentrate—I’d be working on one thing and the back of my mind would be screaming, stop and jump over to X, Y, and Z. While Mailer’s office was crammed, the desk usually only harbored one task. I now put my “to do” pile out of sight, and the project in front of me is the center of my faculties. When I finish it, I put it away and get the next one. I learned to cease letting the pressure of what’s ahead of me interfere with the right now.

Take time out. Excursions generate ideas and inspire me, yet I used to “bow out” so I could work. The result was stagnating in front of my computer. At the colony, I accepted every invitation and even created a few social dates of my own. I found that these outings actually counted as work—not only was I emotionally recharged, I was rejuvenated. I’d come home with a problem solved, two or three story ideas and a couple of blog entries simmering.

Let stuff cook. I used to think a story idea was going to take off if I didn’t drop everything immediately and force a draft. But, as Raymond wrote, “Most writers need to let time pass while ideas fall in and out of line, marinate to achieve balance…When a writer is awake, he or she is often actively working, even if simply staring out a window.”(4) He was right. I learned to wait until my fingers were itching, and not only did I find the stories didn’t go anywhere, their first drafts improved.

It’ll be there tomorrow. I used to feel guilty about skipping chores in favor of writing. Guess what? The laundry will be there tomorrow. The dishes will be there tomorrow. And unless the supermarket burns down, it’ll be there tomorrow, too.

Frequent breaks. Taking a break is good—the brain needs to reset. I used to chain myself to the keyboard, and my concentration would wane. While at the Colony, I’d take frequent breaks to wash the dishes or sweep the floor. When I felt I couldn’t do any more work, I stopped for the day. I’d have a beer with the neighbor, visit the Mailer house, walk the beach, watch The Golden Girls, or grab coffee talk at the East End Market. I found that after I had time away from the screen, I came back refreshed—even if it wasn’t until the next morning.

1 Dwayne Raymond, Mornings with Mailer. (New York: Harper-Perennial, 2010), p. 289
2 Ibid., p. 197
3 Ibid., p. 69
4 Ibid., p. 251

Great advice, Kristi! Makes me want to drop everything and go. Thank you so much!


Rachel K said...

I've learned some of these same things over the years, though I have different terms for them. I too find that if I don't replenish my creative reservoir with reading and random non-writing-related creative activities, I start to run dry. And I too have to let stories percolate a while before I can write them, or I'll get stuck waiting for pieces to fall into place. But that "everything counts" idea of yours? Golden! I need to work on learning that one better. Great article!

Tamara said...

I'll let Kristi respond more fully, but I agree, Rachel! We can spend years waiting for everything to be just right, and if we don't give ourselves credit, who will?

What do you like to write?

Kristi Petersen Schoonover said...

Glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful! Yeah, the "everything counts" thing really did have to become inevitable for me, and it's helped me slow down and take my time. While I don't always get to things as quickly as I'd like, it's better than not getting to them AT ALL -- which was what was happening before I adopted that philosophy. Now, at least, I can count on the fact that many things I've promised people or other things I'd like to do WILL get done, and I won't get overwhelmed just pushing them aside in favor of something else.