Taking Out the Garbage: How to Protect Your Work and Get Your Life

When I was first thinking about running for PAN Liaison, I talked to a friend of mine, a very smart, very successful, very succinct romance novelist whose opinion I value highly. “It’s only for a year,” I told her. “What do you think?”

She shook her head and said, “Protect the work.”

I told her that there were RWA presidents who’d done four novels during their terms and at least one regional director who worked full time, was raising teenagers, and still produced great books. It could be done, I argued.

“Protect the work,” she said.

“Well, maybe I’ll be defeated,” I said.

I ran unopposed and the rest is history, including the fact that she was right.

Don’t misunderstand me; given the example of those on the national board, it’s perfectly possible to both serve RWA and protect your work. I’m just not very good at it because I’m still working on getting my life. That is, I’m still honing the skill of figuring out what’s important to me and ignoring all the noise that doesn’t matter. It’s a skill we all need to learn and relearn because until we understand what’s important, we’re not going to be able to protect our work or our lives.

The first time I truly understood this concept was fifteen years ago (yes, I’m a slow learner). My life was in upheaval and I was trying to start all over again, and I wasn’t at all sure how to do that. So I got a book called What Color is Your Parachute? It’s a terrific book for people considering changing jobs, but it’s also a book for people who are trying to get a grip on their lives. At the back are several exercises, all of which are excellent, but one of which, in particular, made a huge impression on me.

Following instructions, I started by listing the ten things in my life that were most important to me, and then I put them in order from most important to least important.

Then I went back over the previous week and figured out how I’d spent my waking hours, how many minutes I’d spent cooking, teaching, talking to the family, saying no to telemarketers, and so on. Then I added up the hours for the entire week and ranked the top ten activities from most time to least time spent. Then I compared the lists.

At the time I did the lists, I was a public school teacher. My highest priority on the first list was my daughter, but she came in about seventh or eighth on the second actual-time-spent list. My top time-investment? Cheerleading advising which, I assure you, wasn’t on my first list at all. It was a real mind-bender and it changed my life in a number of ways, not the least of which was that I resigned as cheerleading adviser and went to grad school. Pretty good for one little exercise.

But the biggest change was that I learned that if it wasn’t a priority for me, I should let it go. Did I get any pleasure out of a spotless house? No? Then as long as people could still get to the exits in case of fire, I wasn’t going to spend much time cleaning anymore. Was my teaching important to me? Very. Then it wasn’t a terrible thing that I spent most of my free time working on that. My daughter, my teaching, my friends, those were the things that mattered, the places my time should go. Eight years later, I decided I wanted to be a writer, and that joined the list of priorities near the top.

Then things got hectic and I lost my grip and forgot.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a column in which I said anyone who was going to spend time agonizing over being an associate PAN member should get a life because the only thing she was being denied was voting for PAN Liaison. I got two letters hotly informing me that the writers had lives, thank you, and they were still distressed over not being respected by their own organization. My only thought was that their priorities must be really whacked because they’d spent time they could be writing fiction yelling at me. Then somebody wrote an e-mail to the general membership that libeled me and the rest of the board, warning people that some of us were liars and spoke “with forked tongues” (no, I’m not making this up), and I frothed at the mouth for almost a week.

Unfortunately, it was a week during which I had to write a proposal. Unfortunately every time I sat down to write it, I thought about that e-mail and fumed as I typed. Unfortunately, the proposal turned out lousy, and my agent said, “Uh, I don’t think so.” Fortunately, the light finally dawned.

The problem with being a writer (one of many) is that it’s all in our heads. It’s not like ditch digging where you can fume all day and still have a perfectly good ditch when you break for dinner. The time-spent list for writers isn’t what we’re doing, it’s what we’re thinking. If we’re stirring spaghetti, for instance, we’re not cooking (unless we’re obsessing over al dente or worrying about salt); we’re doing whatever occupies our minds. If we’re thinking about why the heroine didn’t tell the hero about that secret baby, we’re thinking about writing. If we’re obsessing over RWA business or that lousy review or how unfair it is that a crummy writer just got a better contract than we did, we’re thinking about an organization or somebody else’s opinion, or somebody else’s career. If those things are high on our priority lists, then we can fume virtuously, knowing we’re putting our energies where we want them. If not, we need to do some reordering in our lives because we can’t do good work if we can’t give ourselves to the work, and we can’t give ourselves to the work if our heads are filled with this kind of noise.

To start reordering, we have to recognize what’s vital to us and what isn’t, always remembering that one person’s passion is another person’s garbage. It’s awfully easy to get swept up in somebody else’s priorities if we don’t have clear idea of what ours are. So right now, write down the top ten mental priorities in your life, in order, the ten things you want to spend your mind on. Now write down what occupied your mental energy in the last week. Did you let worrying about what the neighbors/other parents/relatives think invade your writing mind? Did you stop writing to listen politely to a telemarketer/friend/relative who knew it was okay to call you because you work at home and have plenty of time? Did you get caught up by somebody else’s indignation on the Internet, firing off e-mails of your own and fuming at the unfairness of life instead of writing about it? If that’s where you wanted your emotional and creative life to go, you’re in good shape. If it isn’t, get over whatever it was that stole your mind and get back to where you want to be. Once I realized that “indignation over what strangers say about me” was not on my priorities list, my e-mail snit was pretty much over. I’d given away enough precious energy and emotion to garbage. Time to get my mind and my work and my life back.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my own mind I’d wasted. I’d e-mailed three close friends when the forked tongue letter went out, and they were furious for me. We talked about it for days, time we could have spent cheering each other up, talking about our books-in-progress, sharing dreams and good news, dealing with real problems. I’m eternally grateful they were there for me, but slightly shamefaced that I dragged them into my own tailspin. When I think about all the anger expressed on the links and in e-mails, most of it caused by misunderstandings or obsessing over problems that calm and common sense could solve, I see hours and hours of productive time wasted, spirit and energy drained, and the general joy of day-to-day living smothered. We have a duty to our friends and colleagues not to over-react, to save the gift of their outrage for the important stuff, to protect their work, too. Our energy and our emotion and our words are our stock in trade; we have to be careful not to steal that stock from others.

“Protect the work,” my famous friend told me. “Get a life,” I told people in that earlier column. But what we really have to do is learn to tell ourselves those things. If we can figure out what’s important to us as individuals, if we can isolate the things we must cling to no matter what, and if we can reject all the noise and the garbage that try to bury those things, we won’t have to worry about getting lives. We’ll have them.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. PAN Column Vol. 18 Number 9, Sept. 1998: 44-45.