On Putting Time Into Creative Work

If my blog posts have felt a little short and hastily-dashed-off as of late, it’s because I am full-in on MYSTERY BOOK and giving all of my extra writing time to that project.

That said, YouTube recently recommended a two-year-old video from VideoGameDunkey after I watched Dunkey’s Untitled Goose Game video like, seven times, because I swear it is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.

In fact, let’s just start with the goose video. It’s five minutes long. It still makes me laugh, every time.


When you’re done with that, watch this other video, in which Dunkey takes us through some of his earliest creative work and explains the value of both putting time into a project and completing multiple projects over time.

(Be aware that some of Dunkey’s earliest work is not safe for work.)

As a person who’s created a lot of stuff over a very long time, and who is currently writing a book in which one of the overarching themes is that the details matter, this video resonated with me SO HARD.

So I hope you enjoy watching it while I get back to writing. ❤️

Three Articles on the Creative Process

Here’s what I’m thinking about, right now (in addition to my freelance work and my mystery novel and body budgets and the nature of magic, which… um… we’ll get to the latter two topics later, I promise).

The Independent: Lee Child on Jack Reacher: How the best-selling author writes his mysteries

“This isn’t the first draft, you know.” He’d only written two words. “CHAPTER ONE.”

“Oh,” I said. “What is it then?”

“It’s the only draft!”

Right then, he sounded more like Jack Reacher than Lee Child. More Reacher than writer. “I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay. It’s like one of those old photos you come across. From the 1970s. And you have this terrible Seventies haircut and giant lapels on your jacket. It’s ridiculous – but it’s there. It is what it is. Leave it alone.”

Maggie Stiefvater: The Gift of Penciling It In

I used to wonder why I always began every novel so wrong. My process generally goes like this: for months, I arduously research and plan. I begin to write. I amass ten or twenty or thirty thousand words of novel.

Then I throw it away.

The New York Times: The Mister Rogers No One Saw

Fred and I commiserated about the creative process. We would often sit and talk about confronting the blank page, the blank canvas, the blank song sheet. That place of vast possibility and bottomless terror. “Why is it so scary?” he would say. “It’s so hard.” He told me he would sometimes freeze before being able to jot down a word. He had a writing room, away from the office, away from home, where he showed up on writing days no matter what. Take it on. Enter it. Sometimes in Studio A he would show me how he worked out his doubts about himself and his emotions at the piano. Banging out anything angry or anything glad. He said it helped. I told him my outlet might be something more like shopping or maybe napping. He said either of those could work.

And if you want one more thing to read (that isn’t necessarily about the creative process), go check out John Scalzi’s thoughts on the things you outgrow. ❤️

Three Quotes on the Way Your Life Changes as You Get Older

I have been 38 for a week and a day, and in the past week I read (or heard) these three quotes that—well, I agree with the first two full stop, and the third one makes me feel a little grody inside, but here they are:

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, age 34, in Vogue:

I think the first half of your life, you’re trying to find out who you are, and you’re kind of knocking yourself against things, and testing things the whole time, to help kind of sculpt yourself. Then later, when you’ve got as close to sculpted as possible, you’re like, Don’t touch anything, in case it changes me.

Maggie Stiefvater, age 37, in a Reddit AMA:

I hit the NYT list with my third book (Shiver), the second year of my career, and I had to completely rethink the way I thought of my life shape. Because it is a very different thing to KEEP success versus GAIN success. It’s an entirely more disagreeable thing, I think, because the opposite of KEEP is LOSE, unlike the opposite of GAIN, which is really just STRIVE, which you can do forever quite happily, I think, or at least I can.

John Green, age 42, in the Dear Hank and John podcast episode Crime Dentures:

One of the things I love about being 42 is that people are accusing me of being a Baby Boomer. It’s almost like all these things are made up, and what really happens is that as people get older, they seek to conserve the power that they have acquired or have had handed down to them, regardless of what the name of their generation is.

Remember how I wrote that adults don’t realize that adulthood includes specific developmental phases, just like childhood? This seems to be the phase I am currently in—for at least the first two quotes, anyway. I don’t feel quite as aligned with John Green’s quote about conserving the power I’ve acquired, though I am very conscious about the way I spend my time and my energy and my resources.

I mean, I don’t really want power—and I hope I don’t start wanting power when I turn 42, although the future is consistently unknowable. I want a balance of contentment and discovery and creative fire. I want a small, comfortable home and the opportunity to build friendships with good people. I want enough money that I’ll never have to be a telemarketer or live in a moldy apartment ever again.

I also want to visit every Disney park in the world, which is the kind of goal that can be achieved with budgeting and scheduling and patience, and I secretly want to create something extraordinary someday, though the majority of my work (including this current MYSTERY NOVEL) is about coming to terms with the idea that you can be creative and ambitious and interested in the world and still be, like, ordinary.

And now, because I’m in my late 30s and have spent the past two years becoming part of the Cedar Rapids community, I’m thinking about how to maintain the life I’ve built so far (which is very different than when I was younger and thinking about the life I’d like to have someday).

So that’s what I’m thinking about, a week and a day after turning 38—and it looks like I’m not the only one. ❤️

On Writing for Yourself and Writing for Money

I don’t know if you read LitHub, but last week they reprinted a 2001 New York Observer essay titled “Will Write for Merlot: The NY Curse” under the headline The Media Went Crazy When I Made $20,000 in a Week For Writing.

The piece is by the late Glenn O’Brien (whom I know very little about, apart from this essay and his Wikipedia page), but apparently at one point the internet of 2001 was as eager to discuss the week he earned $20K as this year’s internet was to discuss that Taffy Brodesser-Akner earns $4 a word for some of her work.

During the week in question, O’Brien had been given the task of drafting all of the copy on a new ecommerce site:

Never mind that I actually wrote everything on the site in that week, edited all the automated responses, gave a charming voice to their animated “personal shopper” Miss Boo, who, by the way, had several top hairdressers flown in to redesign her cartoon hair. Never mind that the company had purchased warehouses full of time-critical merchandise for inventory. I don’t think it was mentioned that even after their way-delayed launch Boo.com was not accessible by Macintoshes.

So yes, if you asked me how much I would charge to write every word that appeared on a new website, $20,000 might seem fair. (Of course, it’s two decades later, so technically I should charge more.)

But that’s not why I wanted to share this piece with you.

This is why:

Perhaps the worst indignity for someone like myself, who writes poems and the occasional side of a bus, is when someone says, with all good intentions, “So, are you getting to do any writing for yourself?”

What is the answer? “I only write for the others.” “I’m writing for Christ.” I wonder if that’s what got to Andy Warhol when he was drawing shoes for I. Magnin? “Doing any drawing for yourself, Andy?” The genius was that Warhol did every ad like it was a painting for the Met (and maybe vice versa.)

We have to find a way to make people accept that working for food, even Beluga, does not invalidate one’s Parnassian credentials, that writers deserve luxuries too. Writing tag lines and care instructions or e-commerce caveats does not detract from my sonnets or essays. 

Now, I’m not sure that’s true for everyone. You might remember Michelle Song’s guest post from last week about how she can’t do corporate writing and personal writing at the same time:

“Just write in your free time,” they say. “Do both. Keep your day job and invest in your creative pursuits in the evenings and weekends,” they say. Right. Perform at a level that keeps you employed at a top consulting firm, at a job that squeezes the work and life out of you, and re-energize yourself afterwards to squeeze more blood out of the stone. 

And I had to get very very strategic about my schedule and my sleep and my meals and my energy in order to both keep up my freelance schedule and draft my mystery book (current word count: 20,488).

But if you’ve read my novel The Biographies of Ordinary People, you know my feelings on the “write for yourself” thing:

Then he asked the question. “Do you do any writing for yourself?”

“It’s all for me,” Meredith said, keeping her hands still and steady on the table and looking right into Travis’s eyes, forcing him to see the idiocy of his question.

“No, no,” Travis said, “I meant for fun.”

Meredith kept her gaze. “It’s all fun. I mean, there’s work in it, it’s not easy, but you don’t write three thousand words a day unless you love it. You don’t start a magazine.”

“I guess I meant”—and Travis looked like he could not decide whether to apologize or double down on whatever power he had hoped to command throughout the evening—“I meant fiction.”

“I write fiction for Effable,” Meredith said. “I’ve written fiction for a few other sites as well. I get paid for it.”

She also wrote diary entries, the occasional half-sentence scribbled across a notebook in the ten minutes before sleep just because she found the phrase beautiful, and the novel she was working on nearly every night, after the three thousand words. She wouldn’t be able to work on it tonight, because she had gone on this date. There wouldn’t be time.

It’s been a few years since I wrote that and it’s still all for me. I mean, it’s obviously for my clients, to their specifications, but my freelance business— and my decision to stay in this business—is for me.

It’s also for the reader, which is to say that I’m writing as performance instead of play, which might be why part of my meticulously crafted schedule includes time to bang on the piano or play puzzle games on Steam. That kind of stuff is for me in the sense that nobody sees it but myself (and, I guess, the people who keep track of Steam achievements). It’s for me to take and keep, not for me to shape and polish and give back to the world.

WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT is that what people mean when they ask “are you doing any writing for yourself?” Are they literally asking if we’re all doing writing that isn’t designed for any eyes besides our own? If we’re making time for play as well as performance?

I always assumed they were asking me whether I was writing fiction, because that’s supposed to be the “fun” kind of writing (spoiler alert: fiction is just as fun, and just as challenging, as writing a post for Lifehacker or Bankrate).

But maybe I misunderstood the question, all these years. ❤️

Go Read This Verge Article About Indie Games and Money

We were going to have a guest post today, but it looks like it’s going to run next week instead—so in lieu of writing something substantive myself, I’m going to suggest you read Lewis Gordon’s Indie Game Makers Open Up About the Money They Actually Make.

The lucky ones are able to make a living from their work but often carry deep funding worries. Others supplement game making with side hustles or entirely avoid the pressure of financial success by making games in their spare time while building other, potentially more stable careers.

You already know that I loved playing Arvi Teikari’s Baba Is You, so I hoped he would be one of the indie game makers quoted—and he is.

I was working on Baba Is You an unhealthy amount. For me, the dynamic was very often my day job, and then when I got home, I relaxed by working on Baba Is You.

Which… on the one hand, that’s kind of how the creative process goes, especially for the significant percentage of people who don’t earn a full-time living from their creative work (no matter how popular or highly regarded). You might remember me writing about how work-life balance for creative types is more like work-work-life.

On the other hand, it would be nice if it didn’t have to be that way. Or if the third-party services through which we purchase these creative endeavors didn’t keep changing the game (PUN INTENDED) on all of us. Apparently indies on Steam are making less money than they used to, thanks to THE ALGORITHM; meanwhile, new subscription models mean individual creators get less money, and so on and so on and so on.

Anyway… go read it, and feel free to share your thoughts and/or your favorite indie games in the comments! Currently I am playing Cosmic Express, a sokoban-esque game about space stations, cute alien critters, and the inefficiencies of public transportation. ❤️

Two Stories About Waiting

These pieces harmonize in an interesting way—not the part where the Baffler piece gets nostalgic about My So-Called Life, but the idea that there are certain stages of life that involve a lot of waiting, and that we can still make choices about what we do while we wait.

LitHub: Kate Mulgrew on the Work of Waiting, in Acting and in Life

As I climbed the stairs bearing a tray on which rested a glass of ice, a washcloth, and a can of Ensure, I realized that my father’s imminent death had filled me with a purpose not unlike the two-hour one-woman show I had been performing for more than a year. The process was surprisingly similar: both were physically as well as emotionally challenging, both called on certain unique skills, and both promised a closing. I could address my father’s dying with the same concentration I brought to playing a difficult role, a discipline acquired over many years of practice. Most important, the waiting was ameliorated by the intensity of my daily workload, self-imposed or otherwise.

The Baffler: Girl, Uninterrupted

In the pilot episode of My So-Called Life, Angela spends an evening in the parking lot of a cheesy dance club, waiting for someone named Tino—who, Rayanne vouches, can get them past the ID-checkers at the door. Waiting for Tino, Angela, Rayanne, and Rickie pass the time laughing and gossiping. Hours later, the girls try on each other’s shoes to entertain themselves. Tino never shows. Monday, at school, Rayanne boasts about their amazing night out as the chords of the show’s theme swell. “I’m telling you, we had a time. Didn’t we? Didn’t we have a time?” Angela smiles in return, “We did. We had a time.” The scene closes on Angela’s beaming face, the music cresting. It’s a brilliant dénouement—the teen years are mostly about waiting, and elevating the mundane to high drama.

Two Links on What to Keep and What to Let Go

Longreads: On ‘Art Heroes’ and Letting Your Idols Be Human

[Nick Cave’s] musings on grief are, as they have always been, profound. The Red Hand Files, which usually arrive early in the morning, here in Eastern Standard Time, often feel like letters about all that make being human worthwhile to me — art, love, loss, tenderness, and introspection. I read them at 5 or 6 a.m., often reveling in the gift this artist is giving us all.

Except for when he’s not.

Because there have also been times when I’ve been so disappointed with Cave and the project that I wanted to unsubscribe.

99% Invisible: Weeding Is Fundamental

For the sections [of the library] that do have to get weeded, weeding is generally a touchy subject. The reason why is probably already clear to you: people don’t like the idea of books being thrown away. We love books. And no one loves books more than librarians. It can be hard for them too. 

Weeding is normal and necessary, but the big problem was that after the earthquake, the San Francisco Public Library started getting rid of an unusual amount of books. The librarians were told to move quickly. And they didn’t use MUSTY. Or any sort of comparable system.

I Am SO EXCITED to Read Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame

I’m pretty sure I got to be the first person to check out Seanan McGuire’s new book Middlegame from the library, because it is in my apartment RIGHT NOW and also because I put a library hold on a copy four months ago.

Here’s the blurb:

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

And here are the two related articles you should read this weekend:

Whatever: The Big Idea: Seanan McGuire

This is the book that took me ten years of writing basically constantly before I could call myself good enough to write it.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best thing I’ve ever written, or that it’s going to be anyone’s new favorite, although of course, I hope both those things are true. It just means that from a sheer craft standpoint, it took me a very long time to get all the skills necessary to write what is essentially an alchemical superhero story about family, connection, and time travel. Juggling the various timelines this story required a level of precision that I had to work my way up to. I’m still a little stunned that I was able to manage it. And as the reviews have come in, even the ones that didn’t like the book have been forced to admit that I managed my timelines well, which is really all I had any right to hope for.

Tor: “Sit down, write, keep writing” — Seanan McGuire on the Daily Process of Writing a Novel Like Middlegame

This is my process: I get out of bed, having already assigned myself tasks for the day which include which projects I will be (need to be) working on; these assignments are based on my deadlines, unless I’ve managed to get far enough ahead of deadline to buy myself some free time. When I have free time, it’s less recess, and more free study: I get to work on projects that haven’t necessarily been sold yet, or aren’t slated to be, like the free short stories on my website. The words happen every day that it’s possible, and some days when it really shouldn’t be (Disney World or San Diego Comic Con are both environments that are very antithetical to getting actual work done).

And here I am telling myself that I’m not going to work on NEXT BOOK while I’m at Disney World. Now I might have to tell myself to live up to Seanan’s example. ❤️

One More Thought on The Hustle

Look, I’m not saying I agree with Danielle Steel, but this is an interesting piece of synchronicity:

Steel struggles with the idea of burnout culture, the “millennial affliction” of being completely exhausted by work and the world. She recounts a conversation with her son and his partner; both are in their twenties. Her son told her that he never works past a certain time at the office, a model of that elusive work-life balance. Steel balks. “They expect to have a nice time,” she says. “And pardon me, but I think your twenties and a good part of your thirties are about working hard so that you have a better quality of life later on. I mean, I never expected that quality of life at 25. I had three jobs at the same time, and after work I wrote. Now it’s a promise that it’s all going to be fun.”

Read the full article at Glamour, just because it’s great (Danielle Steel writes at a desk shaped like giant Danielle Steel books, for starters), and then… um… think about how that quote ties in to everything else I’ve published this week:

Brandon Stanton’s thoughts on when to hustle and when to ease up

My review of Juliet’s School of Possibilities (and its reference to my review of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You)

Em Burfitt’s guest post on why she likes writing for content mills (for now)

There does seem to be an unexpected theme here, even though I am also very very very very in favor of work-life balance. You hustle better if you give yourself time to rest between sprints, after all. ❤️