On writing when you program for a living

So, the TL;DR of this whole thing is this: if I’m not deeply engaged in what I’m writing, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing outside of that. The writing simply won’t happen unless I’m emotionally invested in the story I’m telling.

Okay, so that being said, it does not matter one bit if you are writing original fiction or fanfic. The only real differences between them are what you can do with the finished product and whether you need to create everything from whole cloth or not. If writing about your favorite character is what gets the juices flowing then go with it. It’s still ‘real writing’, just not something you can publish for money.

As for fitting the writing into everything else, I don’t subscribe to the theory that to be a ‘real writer’ you MUST WRITE EVERY DAY. No. Not true and, for those of us with non-writing jobs, not practical or possible. Personally, when I am deep in a story, I do write every day. I try to capitalize on that time and will reprioritize other responsibilities to make sure the words get out, especially on weekends.

And when work or other things get in the way, I do what I can to keep my hand in my story. I’ll stay up later than usual to work on it, even if it’s only a paragraph or two. I use my commute to think about the story, rather than planning or worrying about other aspects of my life. On those drives, I’ll keep a voice memo open so I can dictate thoughts to get down later.

All that said, I do hit droughts. I am only just coming out of an extended period of time (a couple of years) where I didn’t finish anything and only got a couple of short stories and the first couple chapters of a novel out.

So, that’s some perspective on my writing. Now to the more specific question of how to balance it with programming. The short answer? It’s hard. They do occupy a very similar space in my brain. And no, I’m not intuitive enough in my programming to be able to set aside brain space just for writing.

There are long programming days when I’m definitely not able to do anything of consequence in my writing after, or anything else for that matter. On those days, I give myself permission to just rest my brain. It’s not a failure, it’s just how life went that day.

Tomorrow I get to try again. Instead of feeling guilty about it or feeling like I’ve failed somehow, I’ll just rest, play video games, maybe go to bed early. Writing is not a race. You just keep writing until you have a book or a story.

Honoring the transition in my headspace at the end of day is key. When I get home I’ll take a shower, go for a walk, eat dinner with my family, take care of other tasks, maybe watch a movie. I do other things that are not programming, if at all possible. Then, when all that’s done, I sit down to write. Sometimes the words come easily and I get a thousand down before I get sleepy. Other times I just get a couple notes down on characters. Anything related to moving the story forward or understanding the characters helps.

Because my writing schedule tends to be a little scattershot and uneven, I prefer to write linearly rather than jump around the story. It means that when I sit down after time away, I can read the last chapter or so and know where I’m at.

When I feel like I just want to play with words, I do vignettes and drabbles (100 word stories) and fill writing prompts I find on tumblr. Sometimes I stumble on interesting characters or longer pieces by doing that.

I like programming. It’s my job and I continue to work on it it and enjoy various aspects of it the more I learn. It also does something for me that’s very key: it pays the bills and keeps the pressure off my writing. I have no deadlines, no one telling me I have to write or how many words I have to produce. I get to do something I enjoy doing for a living and do something I absolutely love without it getting mucked up by other people’s expectations of what I should be doing with my writing.

The most important thing is to try stuff when what you’re doing stops working. If getting up early to write before work does it for you, do that until it doesn’t work anymore. If staying up late and writing after everyone goes to bed does it, do that. If lunch hours are too short for you to get anything done, then just eat your lunch and chill out. There is no formula for making it all work, there’s no rule about how much you have to write every day or if you have to write every day at all.

Lots of writers like to go on and on about their process. I used to be one of them. You know what my process is now? Sitting my butt in my seat and getting words down on the page. At the moment, before bed works for me. Scrivener works for me. Getting words down used to mean commuting on the train and writing by hand. It changes as I change and learn and grow.

I have a spiritual teacher who has a great saying about this kind of thing that I try to keep in mind. “Always do your best. Your best will change from day to day”.

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