FAQs: Writing While in School
Every so often I start to notice trends in my e-mail/tumblr inbox/etc., and since I’m not able to personally respond to each question, it seemed best to do a more general answer here. One of the questions I’ve been asked a few times recently is how do you write while you’re busy with school?
I was just talking to a friend the other day about how amazed we are that we survived high school, strictly from a “how did we have the energy for it?” standpoint. In order to get to school on time, I woke up at 6:30AM (a time with which I am no longer remotely familiar). School started at 7:25AM. There were eight class periods, including lunch, gym, choir, and five academic classes. School let out at 2:40PM. After school I did debate once a week and sometimes choir. Then I went home and did up to five hours of homework. Honestly, I’m exhausted just thinking about it, and I remember feeling, at the time, like I wasn’t doing enough, because the people around me had more extracurricular activities, or they were taking an extra class instead of a lunch period, or they had a job, or they played three sports, or what have you.
So first of all, if that sounds at all familiar to you, you have my deepest sympathies.
During this time of overwhelmedness in school, writing was an extremely relaxing activity for me. Some people, even people who love to write, don’t feel that way about writing, and that’s fine– everyone has a different relationship to it. But it was relatively easy for me to write while I was in school because I didn’t find it at all taxing at that time in my life. I would write when I finished my homework, or during particularly boring classes, or even during slow lunch periods. I didn’t worry about how much I was getting done or whether I was finishing the story or what my writing could one day become. I can honestly say that the hypothetical fruits of my labor did not once cross my mind when I was younger. I did not have plans to be an author, in so many words. I simply knew that I would write for the rest of my life because I enjoyed it so much.
I feel like there’s a lot of pressure these days to channel your beloved hobbies into P R A C T I C A L T H I N G S S S S S S. And I get that. But I also think it has potentially negative consequences, like teaching you that you can’t just do things because you like them.
The world in which young people live sometimes feels, to me, like this INTENSE PRESSURE COOKER in which YOU MUST HAVE IT ALL FIGURED OUT BY AGE 16 and YOU MUST BE GOOD AT EVERYTHING and YOU MUST BE CONSTANTLY BOMBARDED WITH INFORMATION and YOU MUST SHARE EVERY MOMENT ON THE INTERNET and YOU MUST HAVE CLEARLY DEFINED REASONS WHY YOU LIKE THE THINGS YOU LIKE AND DON’T LIKE THE THINGS YOU DON’T LIKE and YOU MUST BE SUCCESSFUL AT A YOUNG AGE, ETC. So whenever I see young people I have this intense urge to tell them to take deep, cleansing breaths, even if they don’t look stressed out.
I’m telling you all this to put it into context when I implore you not to be so very worried about not having much time or energy to write while you are in school. Do it if you like it. But for the moment, it’s probably more important that you survive the shitstorm of homework and pressure and weird social situations that surround you. You do not need to be one of those people who finishes a book and gets it published at a young age. I realize this is rich coming from one of those people, but I swear it’s the truth. There are many many years (God willing) to learn how to finish stories and to see what you can do with them. It doesn’t feel like that when you’re young, sometimes, but it’s true anyway. Study hard, sure, and be practical (i.e. do prepare to have a day job, most writers do even after getting published!), but for heaven’s sake, find as many ways as possible to enjoy your life, because being exhausted and perpetually stressed is not a great way to spend your youth. Or your adulthood. Or any stage of your life.
Northwestern University, where I went to college, was full of intense people. That’s still the word I would choose to describe them– and myself. I use it very fondly! I love intense people. I like that I am an intense person. The reason I mention this, though, is because it will help you understand that only in a world of very intense people could I possibly perceive myself as laidback. I wasn’t double majoring (most people around me were), I didn’t always take the most challenging classes available, I didn’t get straight As, I didn’t usually do all my reading for class. (lol even the thought is amusing.) If I asked anyone else how they were doing on any given day, they would say “stressed.” But I was not perpetually stressed!
I made good friends that I still hang out with today. One of them became my husband. I made time to exercise. I got at least seven hours of sleep a night. (IN COLLEGE!) I spent time on my hobbies. I took naps. I watched movies. I was less anxious in college than I have been at any other time in my life.
You can’t do all the things. You do not have the time or the energy. And if you try to do all the things, you will just end up doing all of them halfway. But you can do the things that matter to you.
What’s important is to A. figure out what your priorities are, B. commit to them, and C. accept that when you do that, you will sacrifice other things.
This is not an “I figured it out and now I’m set” kind of thing– it is a process of trial and error that spans years. I did well in school, and I had friends, and I wrote a lot, and one of the things I wrote turned into Divergent, and that’s awesome. No actual regrets here. But let’s be real: sometimes I look back and wish I had taken more challenging or more interesting classes outside of my writing classes. Or that I had kept up with choir and voice lessons. Or done all the reading. Or gone to at least one party. (I had friends, yes, but didn’t go to parties. It’s a whole…thing.)
But mostly, even though there were some things I missed out on, I’m happy that I had a clear understanding of what I valued: writing, friendship, and my overall well being. (SLEEP!) You will never live life perfectly moving forward. There are many possibilities for your life that you have already missed out on, and there will be more. But it’s okay, because there are still a crapload of possibilities in front of you, and you should pursue the ones that interest you most. You should keep in mind that you can veer sharply to the left if you realize you don’t like the road you’re on. You can double back. You can change your mind. You can just barely make ends meet for several years while you figure out your shit. You can disappoint your parents and wait for them to get on board with your unconventional life plan. You can disappoint your parents now but later make them proud. You can be the one falling behind while all your friends and loved ones surge forward in worldly success, because you are still confused about what to do. You can make big mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and rebuild your life. I have done some of these things, and I have watched others do some of these things, and all the lives I have observed and lived are rich in value and worth.
This is a far different answer than the people asking me how to write while in school were anticipating, I’m sure. But if you figure out why you’re so stressed out about writing while in school, or what you hope to accomplish by writing, or what you are willing to sacrifice to make time for writing and the potential consequences of that sacrifice, I promise, you can answer this question for yourself. I have no recommendations for you because we likely don’t have the same priorities or put them in the same order. I have no judgments about whether you should value your writing more or less, because I don’t know how much you love it, or how good you are at it, or how much you value career stability, or the answers to a myriad of other questions that are relevant to this discussion.
What I will say is that I believe you are capable, question-askers, of guiding your lives to where you want them to go, even if it takes a couple tries. I believe you can be resilient. And resilience has been more valuable to me than all the ambition or strategy or intellect in the world.