How I Published a Novel, Completed my MFA, and Worked Full-Time While Losing Only a Portion of My Mind

This is it, the product of two years’ labor (and snacks).

People are always asking me “Hey lady, how do I get to Roberto Clemente Bridge?” to which I say, “I don’t know, I’ve been in Pittsburgh for literally three hours!” People are also always asking me “Blair, how do you write a book, complete an MFA, work full time, and still keep that devious gleam in your eye?”

I am not trying to be coy when I say: I don’t know. I am fantastically unorganized, I have no regimented schedule, I’m forgetful, I’m whimsical, I’m flakey, I’m distractible. Not to be all “???—profit” about it, but I am honestly not 100% sure how I made it besides just “doing a lot of things every day until those things are done and there are more things to do.”

HOWEVER, upon reflection, there are a few things that I think have made the last two (!!) years of book writing/MFA study/full time work possible, which I have compiled here for your edification. These are not the Secrets To My Success, but they did help.

My writing is my job.
This means that I can’t not do it. You couldn’t tell your supervisor at the coal-mining factory “nah, I’m not ~*inspired*~ to go into the tunnels with my pickaxe today, see you tomorrow, maybe.” And writing is not even that hard, I don’t think! (I’ve never mined coal.) Practically speaking, though, this means I not only have goals, targets, and aspirations, but I work at them. I hit the deadlines and respond to the emails and hashtag-hustle.

But I also do not approach it like a job at all.
Have you heard of the Results-Only Work Environment? It’s not exactly one of those Tim Ferriss-y, “bring me a cheeseburger in a tree and outsource everything” approaches to work, but it does save, if not time, sanity. The idea is that it’s not about the amount of time you put in per day/week/month, it’s about results, dammit. So if you complete projects on time, you can work whenever you want, at however long of a stretch you feel like. The great thing about writing is that there’s no Mr. Spacely ashing his cigar on your desk and demanding to know why you’ve put your feet up when there are four sprocket-making hours left in the day. All that matters is that, eventually, you finish a piece. Even better, until someone has paid you and you have a Very Firm Deadline, you can take as long as you need.

I work at like, crazy stretches at a time.
As in, I will take an entire Saturday and not leave the house and work from 9 am to about 7 pm, with occasional food breaks. I focus better that way and I refuse to let anyone bully me into the “write every day” crap. I don’t do morning pages, either. Suck it!

I’m investing up front.
I love Jen Dziura’s writing about the mythical “work-life balance” (and how it is basically bullshit, for the most part), but this one piece really stuck with me: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE. Here’s what she says:

“Balance” is not for the young and sprightly — instead, think of work-life balance over the course of your entire life. Do you intend to retire some day? Would you like to have a baby and invest substantial time in caring for it? If there is some phase of your life during which you will be working 15 hours a week, then maybe you should work 60 now.

This is very the case for me. One day I might want to spawn a coupla grubs and take longer vacations and just generally rest, whether on laurels or not. So I’m devoting all the youthful energy I can now, to getting published, to my editorial career, to professional and artistic development in an MFA. In ten years I will have all that under my belt and I will be where I want to be that much faster. And hopefully I will get some sleep.

I like getting up early.
NOT TO BRAG OR ANYTHING. But getting up at 6 (or even 5:30) allows me to do something before I go to work, whether it’s writing, answering emails, reading an assigned book, or—extremely rarely—exercising.

I made sacrifices, which, honestly, sucked.
They were not HUGE sacrifices, I will absolutely grant you that. But I nuked all my vacation time to attend residencies. I had to pay tuition instead of saving for a house or a car that doesn’t break down every fiscal quarter (for tax purposes). I had to pay out of pocket for book tour stops, promotional stuff, and on-campus luxuries like “food” and “coffee.” I rarely see friends (and they are being amazingly patient when I say “see you at Thanksgiving, sorreeeeee!”). Youthful “hit happy hour and then another bar and then maybe another” follies are not happening (not that they would, necessarily). I don’t exercise enough. I had to quit my church choir (which I love!) and I have exactly zero hobbies. I’m tired. But…

I have amazing friends.
Internet friends, IRL friends, fellow MFA students, assorted confidantes, parents, sister, suitor/swain/beau, dogs—these people are there for me, whether I need to be all “am I normal??” about the publishing industry or ask for a second read on something or just break down and cry for a hot second. I love them all to hell and back.

I love writing.
I do! It’s fun! The act of writing is enjoyable to me. I love making sentences that are quippy, crackling, and even (sometimes) elegant. I love dialogue. I love characters. I will actively choose to write over more conventional recreations such as television or “the net.” This does not mean I’m not distractible, especially not at first, but once I’m cookin’, oh baby, I will not stop for love or money. And I believe this is because…

I care about my projects.
These things matter to me. It’s not just about being famous, or being paid, or getting online pats on the head for being a published author, or anything external to the world I have created in my head. These books aren’t just tasks, they are projects. I have a mission to make them. This may sound as corny as the state of Iowa, but dammit, it’s true. The day I stop being earnest about my work is the day I put down my pen (or close my laptop, or whatever).

So that’s how I did it, more or less. If you wanna come talk more about my book, come see an event! If you want more writerly pep talks, you can sign up for my Morning Magic newsletter to get one delivered to your inbox every morning for a week. And if you’re a writer who wants to learn more about balancing life and writing and getting your stuff finished, you should check out my new online class, Writing Retreat in a Box, where I talk about and teach just that.

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