The Theft of Time

Posted by Dennis Palumbo on

A particularly arrogant film producer once said to me, "I could be a writer, too, if I only had the time."

Which implied, I guess, that if he didn't have to attend meetings, deal with studios, manage production budgets--in other words, if he didn't have a real job--he too could just sit around, effortlessly knocking out compelling narratives and crafting pithy dialogue.

Yet for most writers, time is exactly that thing they can't seem to get enough of. Certainly not without carving it out for themselves, strenuously hewing a private space for their writing from a dense forest of financial and familial duties. Most writers understand that they must somehow demand the time to write; that, in many ways, writing is a "job" like any other, requiring diligence, constancy and commitment. But getting others to understand this is not always so easy.

Robert Frost said that the one thing all nations on earth share is a fear that a member of the family will want to be a writer. There are a lot of reasons for this, from parental concern about a child's ability to earn a living, to legitimate desires to spare the would-be writer the heartbreak of rejection and disappointment, to irrational fears about the aberrant life-style that writers are stereotypically known to indulge. Next to announcing that you want to be an actor, proclaiming your ambition to write is guaranteed to strike terror in the hearts of parents, siblings, and spouses. Especially spouses with whom you've had children.

The pressure to provide for a family is acute for most people, but even more so for writers, often struggling with both the difficulties of their craft and the insecurity and fickleness of the marketplace. Finding time to write is hard enough when you have a writing job--on staff at a TV series, say, or developing a screenplay for a studio. At least then you can justify the time spent away from the family, lost in your thoughts, scribbling notes on coffee shop menus, banging away at the keyboard at all hours.

But if you have a non-writing job, some 9-to-5 gig to pay the bills, any time you might need for writing, for pursuing a writing career, seems a selfish luxury. It's time seemingly owed to personal obligations, to the tasks of running a home and raising a family. In such cases, "demanding" time for your writing carries with it the possibility of frequent relationship strife, as well as a significant burden of guilt.

In my private practice, many of my writer clients deal with this guilt constantly. They feel an obligation both to the demands of their creative ambitions and to those of their families. Even when their spouse or partner goes along with their need for time and solitude, many of them still feel guilty. Often it increases the pressure to achieve quick financial success. It affects their decisions about what kinds of things they should write. It makes them feel that every second spent writing must "count."

More than one writer has said to me, "What if my script doesn't sell? I've spent all this time doing it, obsessing over it. I've been distracted and impatient with my kids. Totally unavailable to my wife. What if it all turns out to be for nothing?"

Sometimes the fissures in the relationship at home become wide enough to cause panic. "I've made a deal with my husband," another writer once told me. "If this spec doesn't sell, I'll give it up. I mean, how long can I keep doing this, banging my head against the wall? I'm not getting any younger. And I don't want to lose my marriage."

Even successful writers, those who make a living at their craft, find it difficult to continually justify to loved ones their need for private time. "Unless my kids hear the keyboard clicking," one noted screenwriter confided in me, "they feel okay interrupting me. You ever try to explain to a four-year-old that you're working, when all you're doing is staring at the ceiling? Hell, sometimes I have a hard time convincing myself."

Regardless of the degree of success, or the amount of material a writer churns out, at some level most writers feel ambivalent about the time they need for writing. I think some of this is cultural, in that society validates us in terms of our contribution to the maintenance of its institutions, or to the welfare of others. After all, we know what doctors and lawyers and teachers and firefighters do. We value and honor parenting, working for social justice, volunteering for Greenpeace.

On the other hand, how writers (and other artists) contribute to society is often misunderstood, if considered at all. Their function as story-tellers, explicators of the human condition, champions of our hopes and yearnings, is routinely under-appreciated. At this macro level, it's hard for the individual struggling writer, just trying to turn out a decent "According to Jim" spec, to justify his or her need for large amounts of private time.

More oppressive than this cultural bias against our feeling entitled to take time for writing are the lessons we learned as children about our intrinsic lovability and sense of worth. In many families, children are reared to be suspicious of their creative instincts, to concentrate instead on interests that will pay known dividends in the "real world." When I was a kid, spurred by my middle-class parents to achieve, the career options laid out for me were pretty specific: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or--the usual fallback position for a Catholic--priest. Predictably, my subsequent decision to pursue writing as a profession caused huge familial strife.

These kinds of messages leave a lasting impression, as I see every day with the writers in my practice. Taking time for yourself to write, to pursue seemingly nebulous artistic ambitions--especially in the face of real family obligations--feels selfish, unwarranted, and impractical.

And for a very good reason: writing is selfish, unwarranted and impractical. As a career option, it's highly dubious. The risks are high. Success is uncertain. And this is all true even if you happen to be talented and hard-working. (If you're not, magnify the difficulties accordingly.)

Therefore, the last thing a writer should try to do is "sell" the wisdom and virtue of his or her ambition to mates, children or parents. In my experience, it's far more important that you accept your desire to write, and to own this desire as your birthright. Or, if you prefer, as your particular blessing or curse. The point is, for whatever reason, you want to write. Need to write.

Which means, I believe, that you have a responsibility to your writing talent. A responsibility that co-exists with that which you have to your loved ones. In other words, sometimes your need for time to write will clash with the needs of your family.

Is there a one-size-fits-all solution to this dilemma?

No. Every writer has to negotiate the context of his or her life. Every writer has to balance the requirements of writing with the needs of others. This means conflict, heartfelt discussion, and, hopefully, compromise. This also means that sometimes the writer feels guilty--which, like envy or desperation, is just another of the psychological burdens borne by every writer I've ever known.

The good news in all this is that when you do take the time to write, when you make this a consistent and unwavering part of your daily life, you're honoring the gift of your creativity. Standing up for the legitimacy and integrity of your ambitions.

It's more than just taking your writing seriously.

It's owning who you really are.

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