How much work is enough?

One common thread that runs through stories about really successful people is how hard they work. Now it’s possible to overstate this. There are plenty of successful people who do not work hard. We’ve had at least three presidents in the last thirty years who didn’t seem to work very much at all, and whatever else you might say about these individuals, if you’re President of the United States you are definitely a success.

But I think that really successful people tend, more often than not, to display inhuman levels of effort. Which is something I always knew, but which I didn’t really understand the reality of before I met my wife. She’s a researcher, and she is, like me, in a very self-directed job, and she works ALL THE TIME. It’s so impressive. Nobody works harder than Rachel. If she’s not with me or her friends, she’s working. She just likes to work. It’s often stressful, but for her it’s also fun and exciting.

I, on the other hand, do not have this relationship with my work. For the first five or six years of my attempting to write for publication, I didn’t enjoy it at all—writing was actually painful for me—and although in the last six years I’ve been able to find more joy in it, I’m usually more happy than not to quit writing for the day.

Which leads me to ask myself, “How much work is enough?”

I’m still not entirely sure. On most days, the answer is simple: you can’t force creativity, and if you sit down at the keyboard and stare at it for awhile and nothing is happening, then there’s no point in continuing. Instead I try to figure out ways to get directly at the well-spring, whether it’s through working in other media or through walking in circles and day-dreaming.

But on days like today when I am in the thick of a project—today I’ve worked for three hours and have written 2,500 words—I wonder whether I ought to keep going.

Usually I don’t. Usually when I’m having a hot streak, I’ll leave it until tomorrow. And part of it is just wanting to have a life. I want to read. I want to take walks. I want to see my friends and wife and cat. I want to (nowadays) play on the XBOX. But the other part of it is that in my life I have thrown away so much more writing than I’ve ever used.

On the current project alone—my second YA novel, We Are Totally Normal—I have eight discarded drafts in a folder in Scrivener, and in total those drafts contain 230,000 words. That is years of typing. And there’s two ways to think about this. One is that I needed to type through those words in order to get to the right ones and the other is that I could’ve more easily found the right words if I’d slowed down to think.

The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Writing a novel is a journey without a map. You get there by whatever route you can. Sometimes you follow a river and find that it leads nowhere. Other times you seek high ground and try to survey the surrounding terrain. It all depends on the specifics of where you are in your head with the project right at this moment.

I think too often ‘hard work’ can be a talisman. If you work hard enough, you’re destined to succeed, people think. And it’s a lot easier, in some ways, to work hard than it is to work thoughtfully. Because ultimately the only thing that matters is the outcome. If working hard helps you write the right book, then great, and if it hurts you, then that’s bad.

Generally I’d say “When in doubt, work harder.” Amongst aspiring authors, too many authors don’t seem to be doing much. Like if you’re in an MFA and all you write each year is the three stories per semester you need for class, then…what the heck are you doing? I don’t get it.

My productivity is way beyond many authors I know. Starting with Enter Title Here in 2013, I’ve written eight novels (and sixty-ish short stories) in five years. But only two of those have sold. And most of those novels didn’t really deserve to sell. They didn’t have the thing that Enter Title Here had. They didn’t have the spark, the fire. For the last five years, I’ve been trying to find and bottle the fire, and it hasn’t been an easy or simple process.

I’m proud of the way I work, and I wouldn’t have done anything differently over the last five years (creatively speaking, I mean. On a business level there’s so much I’d have done differently). But in the end I’m still a guy who just knocked off work at 2 PM.

On the other hand, I just realized today is a national holiday. So maybe that says something too, I don’t know.

2 thoughts on “How much work is enough?

  1. ivamariepalmer

    being a parent, I work less than before but harder when I do, and there’s more thinking simply for the fact I can’t be at my keyboard. The thinking is not all useful and often laced with anxiety and panic because I’m not at my desk but instead taking care of kids but I do agree with the work harder mantra. I have friends who’ve been working on the same thing for years in drips and drabs while I meanwhile have a lot of projects going — some of which will go nowhere, publication-wise — and I think as a writer, that practice is useful.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, that’s it exactly. Everybody has to find their own balance, but sometimes you do want to butt in on people and be like, but your balance is wrooooong =] And sometimes their balance actually IS wrong. Vr complicated stuff. Most YA writers have to balance writing with motherhood, and that’s another tough thing too, not least because of the emotional component of ‘this is time away from my kids.’ At least after you’ve sold a book, the market has validated that your writing has _some_ value. I have no idea how aspiring writers who are also mothers make it work, but I guess they do because they must.

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