I’ve been thinking a lot about balance lately. The phrase work-life balance is hard to apply to writers, or most people in the creative industries, (or teachers, or doctors, or nurses for that matter). Actually it’s a pretty redundant term, unless you have recently been made redundant, in which case you have my utmost sympathy, especially as all that extra life you can now live is scant compensation for your loss of income. If it interests you, you could use this enforced leisure to start writing. It’s a time-consuming business but can be extremely fulfilling. I can’t guarantee it will replace your income, in fact it almost certainly won’t, but you’ll have had fun doing it and it may help keep you sane.
But if not writing, then why not reading? Do we read enough? What is enough? My husband commutes by bus, half an hour each way. He reads. His day is bookended by literature. He has read War and Peace and is now working his way through Proust. He is a gardener, running a project with learning disabled adults, so reading is part of the balance in his life. It is a contrast to his day job, which is active, participatory and involves him communicating and being alert to the complex needs of his team all the time. Reading is peaceful, solitary, still and takes him into other worlds.
Reading, for me, is part of my work as a writer. I need to read other crime writers in order to stay up to date with what is happening in my community. I am in awe of crime fiction fans, who are all much better readers than I am. I’m currently reading Nick Quantrill’s The Crooked Beat and I’m really enjoying his pacey prose and clean, crisp style, as well as the powerful sense of place. I also try to read the classics and the best modern literary fiction to positively influence my own style. Alice Munro and Hilary Mantel are two writers I love to learn from. I also love reading and writing poetry, it is like returning to the source of a river to look at where it all starts, small, clear and beautiful. Does this mean I don’t ‘read for pleasure’? Well, it is usually pleasurable, I promise you. It’s certainly not onerous.
This brings me back to work-life balance; for me work and life are hard to separate. I am fortunate to have made a leisure activity, writing, into my day job. Or should I say one of my day jobs. Most writers start writing while they are doing another paid job or doing the job of raising their children, or both. I started to write seriously when I moved from being a full-time working mother to going freelance. Initially, the paid work picked up slowly and at times was definitely part-time, and since then, as it is for most self-employed people, it has often been a case of feast or famine. When I worry about not having enough paid contracts, I console myself with the gift of writing time and as the writing has started to pay a little, over the last year, I have been able to shift more of my working time away from my freelancing and into my novel work. I say ‘novel work’ rather than writing, because there is another issue of balance here. The sitting down and writing of chapter after chapter is only part of it. The thinking, editing, re-writing, cutting and re-imagining takes another huge chunk of time. Marketing, social media, book group talks, library events, radio interviews are also now part of the essential criteria of the job description of novelist. They are a part I really enjoy. I’m an extrovert and without the social contact of going out and talking to readers, I would be much less satisfied as a writer.
Working outside the novel work is important too, because it means I get out from behind a desk, (and it pays the bills). I meet people on the way to work. I sit on trains and overhear conversations. In my debut novel To Catch a Rabbit, Karen has a couple of train journeys and there is (at least) one event that I have lifted from own life. In one case I’ve finally got my revenge on a man who was really grumpy on a train several years ago. It’s near the end, so let me know if you spot it, but I had the joy of giving Karen the words that I wish I’d said at the time. It’s not a deal breaker to the story or the plot, but just a little something I had fun with. Train travel has also proved crucial to the story of Bones in the Nest which is out in July. (See the cover and read the synopsis on my Books page).
Balance is more than just balancing different activities, it’s also about focus, and sleep, and the chemicals rushing around our brains. So I must end here and balance my blog-writing with some coffee drinking and a brisk walk in the sunshine, before I sit down and start writing made-up stuff again. It’s not a bad life, even if it is all work!
p.s. The coffee mug above was a gift from the lovely people at Castle Hill Books, in Richmond, North Yorkshire, where I’m going to be a guest again this autumn, as part of the Richmond Walking and Book Festival. Keep an eye on my Author Events page for more information as it comes available. There are also details there of the reading I’m doing with Nick Quantrill and two other Yorkshire crime writers, Alison Taft and Nick Triplow, in Leeds on March 15th.