Friday, May 21, 2021

Ebb and flow or tidal wave and creek, by Josh Stallings

Q: Balancing work and home life, do you work set hours, or do you find the writing work flow demands different time from you depending on where in the process you are?

A: I have been writing around the clock for the last month. BALANCE, nope.

But if I widen the lens out to a year, it looks much more balanced. Every creative project has its ebbs and flows.

In the beginning of a new novel, I need gentle time to dream. I find gardening, walking the terrier beast, chopping wood for the winter, digging ditches, all work well during these times. I give my body work to do so it leaves the brain alone. These are also tasks that need to be done to keep the house running, so it combines thinking time with household chore time. 

Then there is the writing/researching part of the project. The early chapters start to take form. I’m searching for the bell tone of the book. 

My Agent: “How’s it going?”

Me: “I have a sentence or two that don’t suck.”

My Agent: “Good, keep going.” Luckily she gets how I work. 

A bell tone is the few sentences that don’t suck. That tone set against any new work will tell me instantly if what I’m doing fits with the book I’m writing.

Tone found, research mostly done, I enter a steady work time. 4 to 5 hours a day typing, a few more hours a day on the business side of my career, hopefully five days a week. With added driving and dog walking time for my dreamy brain to do its work. For a good part of the process this works well. Balance achieved.

Writing with velocity. A term Charlie Huston uses to describe that how you write effects what you write. Writing fast, typing with abandon, pushing myself to exhaustion, delivers prose that feels driven. 

The last third of my current MS needed to be driven beyond sanity. To achieve this I needed to type fast, pound keys until they break, swap in a new keyboard and keep going. I fell ill in the middle of this, sinus infection, fever, kept writing around the clock. During this last month, Erika has picked up the pieces that I dropped. If this was our year around life, you would have heard by now that Josh Stallings died in his sleep of pillow asphyxiation. 

We’re lucky to live very busy lives at present. We are part of the team that cares for our intellectually disabled son. Erika’s 92 year old father is needing more help with his life, she spends multiple days with him every week. The work at home largely falls to me. When coming into a heavy lifting/writing with velocity period, I am learning to let my partner know. “I’m going to become very protective of my writing time.” Translation, I’m about to ghost my family.

She’s also my first reader and editor, so it forewarns her of a storm heading her way. We batten down the hatches and get it done. It’s never easy, but it’s exciting. 

I know many writers whose books I love and admire write a set number of hours, at a set time every day. I respect them, and I have tried to emulate them. But my brain demands a more fluid way of working. To pull that off clear communication between me and Erika is absolutely essential.

When I was a young film editor I would call home and say, “Don’t worry, I’ll be home soon…” I’d make the same call every couple of hours until Erika said, “I’m going to bed, stop calling.” It took me longer than most to learn to be honest about what the work needed from me. I learned it was better to say, it’s going to be all night. Leave it at that, then if I made it home before sun up, she was pleasantly surprised.

At 2:45 AM last Monday I sent the draft to my agent… she sent an email: “Thanks! Wow. Will be in touch later this week. Now you can take a break! A”

With that in mind I worked in the garden, planted lupin and columbine. I cut down five small cedar trees that were crowding out a stand of young black oak. I sawed the cedar trunks into logs to season for next winter. I started vaguely dreaming about the next book, fighting to keep my head off the coming edits.

For this moment, balance is achieved. 



Brenda Chapman said...

Great post, Josh. Thanks for sharing your creative process and best of luck with the new manuscript.

Catriona McPherson said...

Wonderful post! And I did laugh, because Neil says "It won't take more than an hour, I think" before night-work that last anything up to 5am.

Susan C Shea said...

I love your descriptions of your working life. And it's not possible to sprinkle more stardust on that wonderful wife of yours, Erika!