Áine Greaney

Irish Author

Leading Creative Writing Workshops and Writing Stuff for 20+ years.

North Shore of Boston via Ireland

Filtering by Tag: writer with a day job

Going On Writers Retreat: It's An Art

My messy table at writers retreat

My messy table at writers retreat

I'm on deadline for part of a book and a brand new essay and oh, yes, I need to catch up on some emails.  So I did what always works: I packed up my notebooks, laptop, books, pens and sweat pants and booked myself a room at my favorite retreat for artists and writers. This is Day 3 and the last night of my short residency. 

I've been here before. And before. Fifteen years ago, shortly after it was opened, I was one of the retreat's first residents, and now I'm a frequent flyer. I've come here in winter, spring, summer and fall. I've come when I've been under deadline, under stress, under duress and, once, after a family bereavement, in that underwater silence that is grief and loss. 

I've done my best work here.  I am my best self here.  I am equal parts productive and contemplative and have often banged out 60 - 100 pages in one long weekend (O.k., so on those mega-output stints, the personal hygiene is .. ahem .. spotty). 

Tonight, I just had one of those great writer-retreat conversations.  

Downstairs, at our lamplit dinner table, the retreat 's assistant director was marveling over how resident writers just seem to naturally and automatically respect each other's space--much more so than, say, passengers in an airport or guests in a hotel.  

"Do you think there's some secret or art to this?" She asked. "To being on writers retreat?" 

"Yes,"  I said. "Yes. Yes. and, well ... um .. Yes." 

"You're sure about that?" she teased. 

I laughed. 

There is an art. It isn't enough to just book a flight or plug the retreat address into your GPS and "head west, young writer."  Whether you're booked for a week or a weekend or a month, you will need to be ready and prepared to ... well ... retreat.   

Based on 15 years' experience (I also write about this in my book, "Writer with a Day Job") here are my personal tips:  

6 Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Writers Retreat

1. Alone or with writer friends? This depends on the friends and what you're working on.  If you're collaborating on a project, then a few days away together works perfectly. But when you go on writer's retreat with a friend or friends, make sure to establish work time and socializing time and to stick to your mutual agreement. If you do go in a small group, respect the other residents (outside of your group). Unless you've reserved every single room, it's not your group's exclusive space. 

2. Writing materials: Pack what you will need (laptop, charger, thumb drive, printed manuscript with hand-edits, audio interviews, books, research notes). But leave yourself open to new possibilities, new sides of yourself. Bring a few paper notebooks and pens. Once you settle into this slower, complete-immersion space and pace, you may want to mix it up and try new writing tools and approaches.

3. Food: Unless the place includes a meal plan, pack some easy-cook or easily defrosted or ready-to-eat meals. Yes, it's fun to join in communal writer dinners. But you're really here to work, not perfect new recipes or waste time driving around looking for local restaurants. A must have: One ready-to-eat meal for that arrival day or night when you'll probably be travel weary and just getting unpacked and used to the vibe. 

4. Be open to new experiences, new people, a new way of being and writing: Especially if this is your first retreat, and especially if you're used to writing on the fly or snagging time in between parental or other family duties, the solitude may take some adjustment time. Be ready for that. Allow yourself at least one day to settle in. Resist the urge to call home and check in. Ditto for social media and email. And if you must check in at home, assign yourself one check-in time each day.  

5. Set a goal and have a plan: Yes, I know I said you have to leave yourself open and go with the flow.  But with all this unfettered, unpunctuated time stretching ahead, make sure you don't just waste these precious hours or days. Set yourself some goals. Have a loose plan for what you will accomplish by retreat's end.  

6. This is not like a professional conference: If you work a second, non-writing day job (and which of us doesn't?), expect a retreat to be very different from a professional conference.  For one thing, it's unstructured, non-instructional time, without breakout sessions or round tables or focus groups.  And for another, it's all about respecting your own and your fellow writers' space and solitude and silence. Although you may have fascinating or fun chats, the primary focus is on working, not NETworking. 

Are you extra or less productive when you write away from home or go on writers retreats? If extra productive, share you personal tips. If less productive, what does work for you?

Tax Preparation for Writers: Tips and Zen and Pain

If you haven't prepared your tax return yet, check out this great article on tax returns for artists, complete with an expense checklist for writers. This CPA's site and ebook have all the info you need (note: this is not my own accountant). I'm a lifelong math phobe. So tax season sends me trudging into the dining room for what I've come to think of as my annual tax Gethsemane.

I have my bag of receipts and canceled checks.  I have a clenched jaw, a tremble in both hands. I have a mountain of regrets for (1) My terrible childhood math teacher and (2) My conviction that numbers are really just a bunch of 9th-century hieroglyphics masquerading as 21st-century digits and invented to give us night sweats.

I've created my own homemade tax-prep technique.  Using my accountant's categories, I write said categories on a bunch of sticky notes and place the sticky notes in a double row along the dining table. Next, I unfold and assign each collected receipt to its appropriate stick-note category. Then, I total the receipt amounts and write that total on each sticky note. And finally, I write that amount on the appropriate line on the tax form.

numberblocks
numberblocks

Look, I know that it's second-grade math.  I know I'll never get into CPA school. But it's the only way that works for me.

Believe it or not, this tax-prep stuff has a saving grace. For a busy woman who often can't remember what she did last week, tax-prep season is a rear-view glimpse into the past year.

And it was a good year, full of blessings and surprises. On a freezing night in March, on the nights of my Gethsemane, I need to be reminded of that.

For example, here's a receipt from a dinner out with three other working women writers. Oh, yeah, now I remember that night. We yapped and chatted and chewed the writers' fat until the waiters started dimming the lights.

Oh, and here's a canceled check for a payment to someone named Daniel. Daniel? Daniel ... Webster? Boone?  Oh, Daniel. Yes, how could I forget that hipster who sold me the used desk and matching file drawers for my home office, my little writing haven?

Speaking of checks, here's one from my favorite writers retreat. Days writing in my room. Evenings sharing dinner and chat with one of my oldest friends. Seriously, does life get any better than that?

Oooh! Here's a fully intact MTA parking receipt from ... when? Christ, with all their tax-fare hikes, you'd think that the Massachusetts Transit Authority, the MTA, could print their ticket dates clearer? Just this once, MTA, couldn't you and your buddy Charlie be the men who actually do (tax) return?

Wait. It's coming back to me. The receipt is from that fall afternoon, a Sunday when I took the train into Boston to read and present at America's first public library.

And then ... (cue the creepy music) ... it's time for my annual attack of tax  paranoia.  Instead of this tabletop, karst landscape of sticky notes and receipts, I see every crack, every cockroach that skitters across the floor of my prison cell--as in, tax-evaders' prison cell.

Gulp!  And listen, why should I trust an accountant? Isn't she also in the hieroglyphics club? They probably all have their own secret social media page, all communicating and chortling away in that mad language that .... Yo, writer. Yo. Zen. Zen. Now.

Let's just log onto the IRS website to check and double-check these official allowances and write-offs.

"See the page on ..." "Read the addendum on ..." "Read our set and subset and footnotes of hieroglyphics for blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

And then, here's the flash point of sin or redemption for every writer during every tax season:  "Was this trip for business or pleasure?"

Phew. I've got the rest of my receipts. I've got my mileage amounts. So no final phone calls from the prison pay phone for me.

Okey dokey, what have we got here?  Oh look!  It's from my teaching stint at the Ocean Park Writers Conference in Maine. Hot summer days. Maine ocean breezes. Front-porch conversations with my students.

And it was all, all business (heh!).

Jodi Picoult, Luanne Rice, Glen Cook: Your writing tips, please!

Are these facts or urban legend rumors?  Novelist Luanne Rice writes a book per year. Ditto for Jodi Picoult.  And here's a definite one: I read that SciFi and fantasy novelist, Glen Cook has already cranked out 40 books during his career--most of them while he worked full time at General Motors. Fact or fiction, if these book-per-year outputs are all true, then pass me the paper bag--to put over my shameful head.

Actually, I'm not so much in awe of these writers' productivity as their dexterity in being able to complete one project and get stuck into the next.  Or is it an overlapping, relay-race process? In other words, as one book awaits publication, the author is already drafting the next?

I don't know. I wish I knew.

dance-240
dance-240

My second novel, DANCE LESSONS was launched on April 1, 2011. That's four months ago. In Rice and Picoult years, that's a third of a new book. Have I written a third of my next project? Hah!

Last week, I wrote a guest post on this topic for the wonderful literary blog, Savvy Verse and Wit. Until I sat down to pen that piece about the après publication period, I didn't realize just how strange and direction-less this fallow time actually is.

So I'm having a strange old fallow time. And in some ways, it's kind of fun. But scattered.

How about you? Can you effortlessly switch projects? Write in more than one genre at a time? Or is there a regrouping phase in between?

A More Palatable Sandwich--Writing, Parenting and Elder Care

This week, I have the great pleasure of welcoming Katherine Hauswirth, a working mother and professional writer from Connecticut. Katherine is the author of Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey, available through amazon.com or offthebookshelf.com.  As well as being a working mother, she writes prose and poetry, including a recent poem at Chronogram and guest columns on books at BiblioBuffet.com.  Lucky for us,  Katherine agreed to be one of the profiled authors in "Writer with a Day Job."  Now, she has graciously agreed to write on her expereience of being a member of the "sandwich generation"--those of us who are caring for our kids and our aging parents. Yes, all this, and writing, too. Welcome Katherine. 

Sandwich
Sandwich

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you find yourself a member of the “sandwich generation.”Or maybe not so hypothetically—a study sponsored by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that focused solely on women in their 50s and 60s found that up to one third of those in this age group are simultaneously caring for parents and children. The study was narrow. I know I’m not the only one in my 40-something circle affected by these dueling needs, and that includes men also encountering this challenge.

As medical advances continue to stretch the human lifespan and allow for delayed entry into parenthood, more and more adults find themselves caring for parents while trying to do at least as good a job parenting their own children. This might feel somewhat more manageable if a job and/or a significant other weren’t also in the mix. Add to this a desire to pursue creative dreams, and life becomes a super generous and quite complicated sandwich, almost too big to get your mouth around.

So what to do? Well, I learned two essentials while working in psychiatry, and they’ve been reinforced by my own experience as a working mom with an elderly mother who needs more and more care. The first: seeking help, in whatever form you can get it, is so important. That help might be a friend who listens; a priest, rabbi, or worship community; the local social services department; a sibling; or a good book on the subject.

The second essential is that outlook is so critical. There’s a reason the “glass half full or glass half empty” analogy is used so often. Of course, most situations can’t be reduced to a simple “look on the bright side” prescription. But there’s a whole, quite decently validated school of cognitive therapy in which re-framing a negative perception can have a noticeable impact over time.

For writers, it can be worthwhile to “re-frame” that looming sandwich from a different angle.

To take the metaphor a step further, what are the condiments of life that might make that oversized sandwich a more enjoyable experience? Well, for one, your sandwich has just presented you with a wealth of material covering a good chunk of the spectrum of humanity, whether you write prose or poetry, fiction or fact. Tap into it, whether from the pragmatic or the emotional perspective.

If new material is the mustard, the need to become more highly organized might be the ketchup. Ever hear that expression, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it?” The fact that you are in high demand can help you learn to break tasks down into manageable steps and to recognize what things you simply can’t manage, which can make room for a very efficient system of triage. Yes, there’ll be times where writing takes a back seat, but you’ll also know when you take that precious time to write that you really deserve it and will be sure to use it wisely.

Finally, we come to the relish. Stress can be the ultimate crucible for learning what about what makes you tick and what saps your strength. Pay attention to the lessons you are learning about yourself, because they do translate to other areas. I find that I tend to get cold and clinical when trying to discuss a medical decision with my mom; I can be just as distant when doing a writing assignment on this type of situation. What a great breakthrough it will be, in both cases, to let my heart show more.

So, advice for the sandwich you might find on your plate? Sit back, chew slowly, watch out for random toothpicks, and savor the opportunity.

How do you deal with stress--at work, at home or under writing deadline?

Our Just Desserts (Psst! No Calories)


9964-1009-freelinked
9964-1009-freelinked

When I published “Writer with a Day Job” (Writers Digest Books, 2011), I hoped that it would instigate us day-job writers to get chatting and sharing our strategies for balancing work with writing. Or I thought that some readers might comment on the book’s tutorials on the actual craft of writing narrative.

These have happened. But two weeks ago, one reader-feedback  really stopped me in my tracks. It was a note from a woman who said that her personal takeaway from the book was that we deserve to write. Like many of us, this woman is balancing a job, a family and some additional responsibilities for her extended family.

Here’s an excerpt from her very kind email:  

“Sometimes it's hard to justify writing even an hour a day when my job demands so much of me, and when the people I love need me so much. Your approach has helped me make an important shift: recognizing that it's writing that makes me a better person,  that this feeds everything else.”

For years and years (and even still), this “deserving” issue was the biggest block to my own writing.

In 1992, amidst an interstate move and  a few bad financial hits,  I took the first steps toward my lifelong dream of being a writer. I signed up for a master’s program at a college in our new town—a program I financed through a patchwork of cash `n carry jobs, credit cards, a research assistantship and a very large dollop of naiveté.

Three months before this, my husband and I had packed our things into a Ryder truck and rented our house (it wouldn't sell) and moved to this place where he accepted a lower-level position at his old company. It was this or take a company pink slip. I worked as a waitress and as a front desk clerk and as a college administrative assistant. Once or twice a week, I left that day's particular job and gobbled down an after-work sandwich en route to my graduate classroom where, supposedly, I would enter the writing life.

But in that classroom or, later, scribbling in a bagel shop on my lunch hour,  I believed that a girl like me—a new immigrant, a working wife, the child of working class parents—was an imposter.  Creative writing was for the believers. The rich. The leisured. The erudite.  Creative writing was for those who didn’t lie awake at night worrying about the mortgage, the in-laws or the credit cards.

Even when I did write or publish, I wrote with a certain timidity.  As I sat there scribbling in strip mall cafes, or when I researched my papers in the college library, I envisioned a grand American literate—an exclusive club of scribes who held the secret code to La Vie des Ecrivans. I would never be a member. I would never deserve it.

What a bloody waste.

Now that I’m middle aged, now that I’ve cleared my credit cards, I know that writing is as much about believing as it is about doing.  Above all, it’s about believing that writing is something that you deserve to do.

What about you? Do you believe, deeply, that you deserve the personal time out that it takes to write?  Do women come to believe this more easily than men?

photo credit: www.freewebphoto.com

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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