Work-Life Balance? Pah, what’s that? by Elli Woollard
Work-life balance? Pah, what’s that?
In many ways the question of a work-life balance is a bit redundant when it comes to writing. Imagine for a minute that you’ve got a ‘proper’ job. The sort where you go into the office for hours, slave your backside off dealing with pointless facts and figures, try not to snore through countless meetings and occasionally stagger home, bleary-eyed, to find that the child you left as a baby has now graduated from university. Or the sort where you breeze into the office sometime around 11am, spend the entire day having tea breaks and planning the work Christmas party, and then come home before 5pm to watch every single episode of Breaking Bad before going out clubbing for the rest of the night.
If you’re a writer, it doesn’t work like that.
People still sometimes have an image of authors starving in garrets writing desperately to the light of a candle-stump while rats run about their feet, and in some cases this may be true. I certainly know writers who claim not to have left the house for weeks due to deadlines. At an event I went to recently, Lauren Child said she actually left her family home and went to stay in a hotel for a few weeks just so she could get her books finished. This sort of stuff happens.
But it’s not really a question of work-life balance, because if you’re a writer the distinction between work and life becomes much more muddy. And this is probably especially true if, like me, you write primarily picture books.
Picture books, to state the obvious, aren’t exactly chock-a-block full of words. Around 500 is the norm. And there are only so many picture books you can publish each year before you start cannibalising your own sales, so a lot of what you do as a picture book author isn’t actually sitting writing (author/illustrators, on the other hand, spend a lot more time at their desks). But that doesn’t mean you’re just swanning around doing nothing.
Because writers, whether of picture books or longer works, have these little writing antennae on the tops of their heads. You may not be able to see them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. And these writing antennae are rarely, if ever, switched off. Of course they’re often on standby – writers don’t spend their entire time actively thinking about what to write – but they’re always ready to swing into action, picking up ideas, thinking up new plot lines, re-working phrases to make them better. So you might be doing the most mundane task – watching TV, say, or doing the washing up – and suddenly ‘ping’! You’ve had an idea! And you have to write it down AT ONCE, even if it means standing in the middle of the street with a notebook looking like a complete and utter weirdo (I may possibly have done that), because writing antennae don’t appear to come with a very good playback facility.
OK, so the bit about the antennae is (slightly) b*llocks. But the wonderful thing about being a writer is that you can make up stuff like that and use it to justify what looks (to those with ‘proper’ jobs) like doing nothing. And it’s true that you’re often at your most creative when you’re doing stuff other than sitting writing. Many of my best ideas have come to me while cleaning out poo from the guinea pig hutch.
But most importantly, when you’re a writer the definitions of ‘work’ and ‘life’ can get inverted. Unlike with a ‘proper’ job, writers don’t do it for the money, but because there’s a little writing demon inside them compelling them to write. Even if they didn’t have an editor shouting ‘Deadline!’ at them, they would be writing. With lots of procrastination, doubtless, but they would still be doing it. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, but for me the ‘work’ I do is my day job and the housework (on the rare occasions I can be bothered to do it), whereas the writing seems more like pleasure. And because the number of words needed to write picture books is relatively low, fitting in writing round my other commitments is seldom a problem. (If you’re a writer of longer books, please don’t shoot me.)
Writers have the most gloriously, wonderfully ‘improper’ jobs in the world. I still can’t believe that I’m writing stories about dragons and elves and that someone is actually paying me for it. Or that I can fully justify inhabiting a world populated by giants and knights while I’m doing the hovering. For me, my writing work and my life aren’t that distinct, and I love it.
Oh, and writers also spend an awful, awful lot of time on Twitter. But I wouldn’t know about that. Honest.
At the age of four Elli wrote her first picture book, involving her best friend, a tricycle accident, blood everywhere, and the author emerging as the hero. Several years later she completed an MA in social anthropology, moved out to Thailand, taught herself the language, and has since worked variously as a Thai to English translator, a copywriter for a domestic appliance insurance firm (about as interesting as it sounds) and an assistant editor in academic publishing. She now lives in London where she combines writing with freelance translation work, looking after her four children, butchering nice music on the piano and being dictated to by her deranged cat.