The why is the how

So yes, I am grateful to be so busy: I am grateful for my job (or rather, jobs), grateful for my many friends, grateful for the opportunities of this vibrant and enticing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve struggled to get back to a regular writing schedule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a reasonable goal. But reasonable though it may be, it hasn’t been happening. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the keyboard in the chilly darkness of Monday at 4 am. (No time for writing over the weekend? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do people do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their balancing acts.

First to come to mind was Carolyn Edgar, a law school classmate who seems to do the impossible on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recipient of the Corporate Counsel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Association, she serves as VP of a Fortune 500 company—not exactly your typical low-key slacker day job. Outside of work, she’s a single mom and also manages to put in regular time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about relationships, politics, and parenting for sites including Huffington Post and Oh, and last month—just for fun—she completed the marathon NaNoWriMo, a challenge that I’d find daunting even with no job at all.

So how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the following day, bringing to mind the old adage that, if you really want something done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to your question. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am editing and formatting a blog post, dragging into the office the next day, and seeing only 3 comments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twitter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demanding, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more complete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writing fits into the tiny interstitial spaces in my life, between the conference calls and the drafting, between supervising homework and getting the kids off to bed. It often supplants sleep, but seeing people engage with the thoughts and ideas I share energizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Interesting, I thought. All of that resonates. But while I understand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Meanwhile, I heard back from Kate Gace Walton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fascinating blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who better to ask about juggling writing with a demanding job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insomniac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and my evenings are spent wrangling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My husband has a long commute and travels a lot, so unfortunately he’s not around to do much evening wrangling.) But sometime between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, posting, reviewing essays from contributors, and editing podcasts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tuesday night, the kids stay at my parents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record interviews without any shrieking in the background—and to catch up on various other tasks. I do a little bit on Work Stew over the weekends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my family can have a break from seeing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next . . . and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Carolyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two reasons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elaborate on point one: the three things I want from life are Connection, Flow, and Wonder. Work Stew allows me to connect with wonderful people in meaningful ways. Writing and editing are very reliable sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these different people are grappling with arguably the most fundamental and universal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s version of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of wonder when I think through the 100+ stories the contributors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s stories not only wondrous, but helpful. On a very practical level, Work Stew has helped me to think more creatively about my own (decades-old) work conundrums. I still stew, of course, but more productively and pleasantly than ever before. 

As I read this, something clicked into place. We can talk about time management and priorities and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bottom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it anyway.  You write because not writing simply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hardest time during my long stretch of unemployment was early on when there wasn’t a single solitary thing that I really wanted to do. Nothing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In retrospect, I can see that this was just part of my transition, but at the time, I felt myself veering towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it propels us into the how.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “The why is the how

  1. Oh, there are so many things I could say in response to this post, but I’ll stick with this one: I continue to stuggle with the why. Or more specifically, there is no one “why” that rises to the level of imperative. When there is never enough time, as you said, then choices must be made. I love to write, but every minute spent writing is a minute not spent having quality time with my wife or children. It is a minute spent performing a task with no reasonable possibility of return (financial or otherwise). I like doing it. I also like ice cream, but I don’t need to eat it for every meal. In order to justify going above and beyond, the activity (writing or otherwise) must be like life’s breath; you can’t survive without it. I’ve yet to collapse from lack of writing (or pursuing any other passion) so I stuggle with claiming that it is absolutely necessary. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    I can’t see what I can cut (sleep, job, family) to feed the “hobby”. Without the why, I just don’t see how.

    • I think what sticks out to me from this is the phrase ‘with no possibility of return (financial or otherwise)’. Although I don’t earn a living from my writing, and maybe won’t ever, I do get a lot of other things out of it, including satisfaction at doing something I enjoy, a strange sense of fulfillment, and the chance to meet and network with other writers and to feel like I am part of some sort of community of writers. Finding the time to write is hard, and writing itself is hard– but if it were easy, everyone would do it. If you got paid immediately for writing without putting in years of effort, then everyone would do it. When I get frustrated at the dismal, soul-crushing lack of immediate (or ever) financial gratification that writers face, I like to think about Kurt Vonnegut, working full time at GE while helping raise a family, writing story after story and amassing drawers full of rejection letters until his work began to find traction. If writing is something you love to do, it probably makes you a happier person– and you probably pass that on to your family and kids when you DO spend time with them. If it is your passion, maybe it’s something they would understand and support. Or maybe it’s not– either way, I can understand your dilemma, but I think writing is way better in every way than eating ice cream. Maybe you won’t collapse without it, but maybe your life is also better in a lot of intangible ways with it?

    • I totally get what you’re saying, Matthew — especially since it’s only been in the last couple years that I’ve come to have this relationship with writing. I wrote (& published) two entire novels without deriving a huge amount of satisfaction out of the writing part (though, by my lights, it certainly did beat practicing corporate law). How and when we come to they “whys” strikes me as such a mysterious thing — even a bit akin to the religious notion of grace.

      • Thanks Molly and Amy for your generous comments. I began keeping a journal when I was 18, so I’ve been writing off and on for close to 30 years, mainly because I feel compelled to. But I have, for many reasons, avoided identifying myself as “a writer.” Was that a mistake? Possibly. For one thing, I’ve never really clicked with the writer crowd, so I don’t have the sense of community, which makes the solitary path even more solitary. The internet helps, so we’ll see.

        Thanks for the info on Vonnegut. I too did not know that — I’ll have to learn more.

        I once heard John Updike speak, and he admitted that he really didn’t enjoy the writing process either (!). He said that he did it because he had to.

        It is all very mysterious, and I am still a pilgrim.

  2. This was a great essay and really spoke to me. As someone who writes and edits on the side and also works full time and just did NaNoWriMo for the 4th year in a row (but no kids!), I sometimes feel like I’m being crazy and I’m doing too much. But I have to echo the sentiments above; that I write because I love it and it makes me happy– so even though it seems like there isn’t time, of course there’s time; you make time.

  3. Amy, I stumbled upon your blog months ago. Congratulations on the job. Thank you for writing whenever you get to it. You have a gift. It’s the truth of your words that keep me reading.

  4. Kudos to these two women. I can’t think of anything harder than working
    full-time and raising largely by one’s self two children. I’ve done it all
    my life. Oh, there is something harder–blogging too. The beauty of
    blogging is that it feels like it’s FOR you, not just BY you. Hope you’re
    back on a regular basis again, Amy.

  5. I really like this perspective – the why leads to the how. Thank you for sharing these women’s stories and as well as your own. Very helpful for those of us who are also trying to figure out the how.

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