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The Writing Life Audit
How I'm thinking about how to proceed.
I’ve written recently about being in a little bit of a gap with my writing, and of course have been talking on the podcast about change—pivots and reinventions, especially. As I move into this next season of writing, I’ve been thinking about how exactly one starts to answer the question, “What’s next?”
Sometimes there’s one clear idea pulling you, but often there are many hazy ones. Here are some categories of questions I’ve been exploring as it all comes into focus. This is a longer one! Get comfy.
How Much Time Do I Have?
I mean this in both practical and existential ways.
On the practical front, how many hours a week do I have for writing? We all live within the limits of time (maybe?), and certainly within the limits of other resources like energy and money and attention. You may be familiar with the concept of a “time audit.” It’s like doing a financial budget, but instead of money you’re looking at how much time you have and where it goes. Time budget major line items would include sleep and work, family and home responsibilities, leisure, self-care, etc.
Depending on what you learn when tracking all this, you may have more or less hours in a week for writing than you think. There’s also the difference to consider between active writing time (sitting with your computer or paper and putting words down) and inactive writing time (research, staring into space, brainstorming).
The inactive writing time is important. I tend to give this a lower priority than I should, and then wind up spinning my wheels during active writing time and beating myself up for not being “productive.” So as I do my time audit, I’m making sure to build in that inactive or downtime.
How many hours do I have left in my life? I’m turning 53 this year, and in the big picture, like…who knows how many years are left? Thirty? Ten? Less, or something in between? Will I have my mind, my ability to type or dictate, the other tools I need?
I watch the Oscars every year and there’s always something I get out of it, whether it’s spectacle or entertainment or outrage or something else. This year’s felt good, warm, and inspiring. So many of the nominees and winners were people who might have thought they already peaked or never would, people counted out, women “past their prime,” as Michelle Yeoh put it, people who just stuck with the work at hand because it’s what they know and it’s enough. I can’t even think about Ke Huy Quan without tearing up, because I can so quickly imagine the eternal stretch between his appearance in 80s blockbusters to now, the pervading sense he’s described in interviews that his time was over or wasn’t going to come again.
The near sweep of Everything Everywhere All at Once was also a testament to the power of weird. Of going all out with the out-of-the-box thing that only you can do. Of just leaving it all on the page or the stage and seeing who it’s going to connect with.
I’m getting a bit off-topic, but not much. We’ve got limited time on earth here, and we don’t even know how much it will be. At a certain point, it gets silly to not take creative risks, or leap into something new with some other facet of your life, or keep on the One Thing you want like a dog on a bone, or let go of it and see what might turn up.
Not to get all what will you do with your one wild and precious life, but…really, what will you do?
That leads me to the next question…
What Do I Want To Say?
This is a big one for me right now. I have a lot of ideas. I look at each one and think, Yeah, I could write that. It could be successful enough to keep me going. But more and more (especially with the incredible glut of “content” in the world) I’m asking myself—does it need saying, and does it need saying by me?
Do I care? Does it add something to my or others’ experience? Is it reflecting something I want to reflect, asking something I want to know?
Now, I’m a pragmatist as much as an idealist, and I know not every project for everyone is going to live up to all of these probing questions—some simply pay the bills, and that’s a value, too. But the questions are still worth asking, especially before I jump into a new idea with both feet.
Can I Do It?
I’ve been thinking about my third book, Once Was Lost, lately, because it was inspired by the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. She was found alive 20 years ago this month. I started writing it seriously in 2002. It was published in 2009. And actually, I first had the idea in the 1990s. But in the 90s, in 2002, in 2003, I frankly wasn’t a good enough writer to execute the idea.
By the time I went back to it (in 2007, I think?), I had some novels (published and unpublished) under my belt, and a book contract, and a good editor. I felt ready…ish. It was still a huge challenge, but I wanted to face it.
I have ideas now that have been on the back burner because I wasn’t ready. I now feel ready enough to bring a couple of them forward. I think you should always have at least one that’s beyond your reach, but you also have to think about what you could reasonably attempt with your current level of skill and experience.
Who Wants to Hear It?
Having something to say and being sure you want to say it doesn’t necessarily mean anyone wants to hear it. That’s a hard truth about publishing and about life! I see it all the time with my MFA students, who may be doing great work that I love and they’re proud of, but it doesn’t find a market. Sheesh, capitalism!
So as I consider my ideas I also try to think practically about their potential in the marketplace. This is not “selling out.” This is career management. I’m sure that as the Daniels were conceiving EEAAO, they had no idea if their weird everything bagel would find an audience. But they didn’t need to know it would be a financial and critical success, they just needed one studio to put up the money.
It’s the same with publishing. The first audience is the editor and publishing house. And if you can get just one who agrees with you that someone wants or needs the thing you’re working on, that’s all you need to think about upfront. If you’re new, you can’t predict this, though an agent can help to try.
That being said, someone like me who has been around a while also needs to take an honest look at career metrics. Decent ones up my chance of getting sign-on from a publisher. Low numbers make it harder, though not impossible. So part of the “who wants to hear it” question applies to that very practical question: will a publisher pay for this? If so, will it be enough to carry me through the final work or will I need some other income stream?
What Does My Team Say?
Okay, “team” sounds a bit more glam and pretentious than my career warrants, but I do have a longtime agent. I trust his advice and guidance. Ultimately, he always says to follow where my strongest creative energy is leading. But if I have two or three things I’m considering and say “I’m thinking x, y, or z” and he says “x isn’t the best move right now,” I listen.
If you’re starting out, you may not have professional peers or colleagues. Maybe your team is a spouse or partner, a writing group, a trusted friend who really knows you. To the extent that the trust is there and you’re comfortable, talk it through. Sometimes people will respond in ways that line up with your thoughts, sometimes they won’t. I often find that someone trying to talk me out of something only strengthens my conviction it’s the right thing.
A caveat: if you’re someone who is very uncertain about your abilities, and now you’re easily thrown off your gut by other people’s input, it might be best to hold off on this stage. Build up your inner strength. Protect the creative idea or goal until you feel more solid in yourself.
If you’ve read this far and are at your own creative crossroads, I hope this has been helpful! I’d love to hear any other questions or concerns that go into the mix when you’re deciding what to focus on creatively.
This Creative Life is a book, a newsletter, and a podcast from me, Sara Zarr, about reading between the lines of a writing life. The newsletter and podcast are free; buying the book (and leaving a great review!) helps support them and me. Sharing the newsletter is a big help, too!