When Writing Interferes with Life (and Vice Versa)

Quote from Kurt Vonnegut Letters Book edited by Dan WakefieldThese days, Americans lucky enough to have jobs in this dreadful economy are working long days, taking little vacation, and retiring late in life, if at all. To make matters worse, many employers are requiring employees to be connected to the workplace outside of the office: checking work email at home, using personal Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to further their professional profiles, and responding to work-related phone calls on the weekend and after-hours. Employers often require these additional duties without providing any increase in pay or job security.

Under these circumstances at work, there is little time left to engage in the activities that make up the “life” part of the work-life balance equation: raising families, maintaining intimate relationships, and participating in hobbies… Oh, and sleeping and doing household chores, but I don’t know anyone who still has much time for either of those.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American (gender neutral) between the ages of 25 and 54 with children has only 2.5 hours a day of so-called leisure time, which is hardly enough for the unlucky writer who isn’t able to quit his or her day job. For these folks, writing isn’t just a hobby. It’s an investment in a future career; at least that’s the hope, even if the dream rarely becomes a reality. Considering the importance of having time to write, what is a writer to do when someone encroaches on the few hours of the day available to spend on their craft?

I’ve been thinking about this topic ever since this Google search led someone to my blog: spouses who interfere with writing time.

I wonder whether the person who googled these six words has a selfish partner who takes up his or her precious writing time, or whether the googler is the selfish one because s/he lets their writing interfere with their household responsibilities, making the partner pick up the slack. In either case, it’s tough to fit in family life and household responsibilities when (presumably) working a day job and writing (with the hope that it will pay off down the line).

This topic reminded me of an amusing “contract” between Kurt Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane Cox Vonnegut, from 1947, a time when few women worked outside of the home and few men were expected to perform household responsibilities (the balance remains uneven in many households today). I’m not sure to what extent Kurt, if I may call him by his first name, was writing at this point in his life — I believe he was still an Anthropology grad student — but this letter suggests his willingness to engage in household matters under certain circumstances. While his wife was expecting their first child, Kurt agreed, if his wife promised not to “nag, heckle, and otherwise disturb [him],” to:

Scrub the bathroom and kitchen floors once a week, on a day and hour of my own choosing. Not only that, but I will do a good and thorough job, [which means] I will get under the bathtub, behind the toilet, under the sink, under the icebox, into the corners… [and] while I am undertaking these tasks I will refrain from indulging in such remarks as ‘Shit,’ ‘Goddamn sonofabitch,’ and similar vulgarities, as such language is nervewracking to have around the house when nothing more drastic is taking place than the facing of Necessity… [among other chores]

The editor’s note to this contract in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters indicates that Jane took on a supportive role in her husband’s writing career, including editing his manuscripts. While their marriage didn’t last the duration of the Vonneguts’ lives, at least in the early years, it seems they had worked out a pretty good work-life balance for themselves.

In my case, I’m lucky to have a flexible full-time job, support from my extended family, and, most importantly, an extremely supportive husband who also works full-time while shouldering an equal share (and sometimes more) of the parenting and household responsibilities. Insomnia and caffeine help, too.

For those of you who are writers, how are you balancing work, life, and writing? (for those of you in other countries, I’m curious to know whether my description of the American work-life (im)balance fits your country, too).

*Today, over at Litigation and Trial, Max has written about employer encroachment into our personal time in When an Employer’s Social Media “Encouragement” Becomes an Overtime Wage Violation


  1. If it’s important, you’ll make time for it. Sometimes when you have too much time, there’s no pressure. I write more with a FT job and kids than I did when I was single. But maybe that’s just me. 🙂

    1. That’s true! I have a tendency to procrastinate, and so having too much free time can be a problem. Still, I’d like to have a little more free time than I do right now.

  2. Wow, does this post ever hit close to home! I’d love to have time to do my own writing, but between working, commuting, and family, I barely have time to breathe. I usually choose reading over writing in my spare time, but lately I’ve been trying to squeeze in more writing. My husband is incredibly helpful with housework and baby care, so there’s that – no Vonnegut-style contracts needed (although I LOVE the clause about not cursing while doing household chores… might consider making a contract just related to that…). Great post!

    1. Hi, Jaclyn- I usually choose reading over my WIP, too. It takes less concentration, and I’m ready to relax by the time my kids are asleep. It’s particularly hard to focus on writing while parenting an infant (they are adorable, but demanding!). I could barely get anything done when my girls were Peanut’s age. It’s easier now. I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

  3. I make verbal contracts with my family members routinely. They work for the most part! I like this Kurt dude more and more! I think I would have just let him cuss though. He probably would clean better!

    1. It’s hard to control the cursing while cleaning! As long as the kids are out of earshot (my little ones love to repeat those words), it’d be fine with it, too.

      I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

  4. This is a great post! I definitely used to struggle with balancing writing time with time with my husband. It took him a while to understand that he is a much more social person than I am, and it wasn’t just that I preferred to stay home and write rather than go hang out with his friends, I needed to write or I’d go crazy. It’s compromise and negotiation and balance, just like any relationship, I suppose.

    1. “I needed to write or I’d go crazy.” Exactly! It’s important enough for us to find time for it, and it’s a problem when the people in our lives don’t recognize it. I’m not very social either. Even as a kid, I spent more time with fictional friends than with real-life ones. My husband is similar.

  5. I am not a writer, but an artist in my free time (which is 0 normally). This is because, unlike you, I do not have a helpful or supportive husband. He lives in the era that his parents lived in the late 1950’s, where everything is expected to be done by the wife – working or not. Being the third borne child in the litter, he has no responsibly other than going to work. Had I realized this soon enough, he would not have been my choice. I am just glad he actually goes to work, because I guess quite a few don’t.

    1. I have no idea how you find the time for everything you do, including writing an outstanding blog! It must take quite a bit of effort to craft such thoughtful and beautiful posts (on top of everything else!), and it must be particularly difficult when your partner isn’t supportive. I hope the situation improves for you.

  6. I use Saturdays often to catch up on a lot of writing, but basically it’s just squeeze it in when I can. Last year I was pretty good about getting up early and squeezing in 1.5-2 hours before work of solid writing. Lately the snooze button has been winning. 😉 Sometimes it’s an hour or so after work.

    I liked reading about Kurt’s contract. Seems like the prudent thing to do to decrease the chance of major arguments and blowups from the get go. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for a certain amount of time for creativity for both people, especially too if children are a part of the equation. We need the time to be creative in order to be there somewhat refreshed for our loved ones.

    But it’s been interesting to see for me, if I want to write, I’ll find the time and I’ll make the time. If my passion isn’t behind it, it’s more challenging.

    1. The Vonnegut book is full of gems like that contract. It was a fun read.
      I’m impressed you were able to write for 1.5-2 hours before work! We’re not morning people, but I think you’re exactly right about finding the time. I’ll stay up later to finish writing something if I’m in a creative mood. I hope you’re having a fun (and productive?) Saturday!

      1. Lol, I wish it had been more productive. Kind of a busy Saturday with an alumni event and a wedding (not mine). But I did spend a lot of time thinking and that’s always productive. I’m hoping this coming Saturday will be more productive. Perhaps tomorrow in the AM.

        And by the way, I’m the last person you’d ever label a morning person, but I had a friend tell me she believes the best writing comes from the morning always. Well, last summer when I rewrote my novel, it was all early morning stuff and I did come out with something much stronger. I’m not saying it’s necessarily linked to morning, but… Well, I’m more of a believer now. Even though I usually started a bit bleary-eyed, it was pretty easy to get going as though I had the full capacity of my mind all to my writing. *shrug* I’ve got nothing scientific about it though. 😉

  7. It’s an ongoing problem, finding time to write. And you’re correct: I look at writing as an investment in future income, however minuscule that might be. It’s been well over two months since I’ve written more than a handful of pages. The move (and the packing before and unpacking after) derailed me badly. And now I am buried in work again, to the point where, when I quit in the evening, I’m too damn tired to think about doing anything creative. I just want to lounge on the couch and stare vacantly at something streaming from Netflix.

    I am not happy about this, but I can’t see a way to change that anytime soon. For now, I’m stuck “wanting” to write rather than doing the thing itself.

    1. It’s tough with life interferes too much with writing! Hopefully, you’ll find more time to write when you’ve settled into your new place. I hope you’re having a nice weekend! Has the weather improved? It’s in the upper 50s and 60s here, an improvement over the 80s last week.

  8. I quit my full-time job and started my own dog walking business almost 2 years ago so I could have more flexibility. I don’t make as much money, but I do have more time to write and read, and I love my work. 🙂 I also try to get up really early in the morning, anywhere between 3-5am (depends on how often I hit that snooze) so I can guarantee myself some solid writing time each day. I’m hoping to get into that habit before we have kids because I hear they take up a lot of your time… 😉

    1. It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to develop a business that gives you that type of flexibility! I’m also impressed that you get up so early each day. I’m usually up around 3-4 am, but only because that’s when Zayla typically wakes up and needs some comforting. I do my best work (whether it’s creative or for my job) at night, 9 pm – 1 am. Ideally, I’d go to bed at 1 or 2 am and wake up at 8 or 9, but we have to up earlier than that to get ready for work and to get the kids to school/day care.

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