5 Ways to Balance Work and Art

Thoreau was lucky with his narrow cabin in the trees.  I’m a full-time author and a full-time teacher. I teach five classes a day and attend grad school at night while still keeping a steady schedule of writing short stories, articles and novels. It isn’t easy but I have a family to help support. I can’t exactly quit the pencil factory as Henry David did in order to write all day. A girl’s got bills.

Full-time work doesn’t have to mean no time for art.  When I attended Squaw Valley Community of Writers several years ago, White Oleander and Paint It Black author Janet Fitch told us that life is supposed to support art, not the other way around.  Here are 5 ways to make that happen:

1. Do just a little bit of work.  Small bits of work are better than none. During a particularly hectic year, I wrote an entire novel by squeezing as many words as I could in the thirty early morning minutes before I went to the gym. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the only way I could get the story that I was burning to tell into the world. After six months, I had over ninety thousand words and a draft I could work with. Commit to just a little bit of the work today. Going for all or nothing usually gets you nothing.

2.  Hold out rewards. I binge watch Netflix the same as everybody else. The way I keep my writing life active is that I won’t watch my shows until I’m done with the novel draft, article, or story.  I also hoard gift cards for shopping, coffee, and massage treatments for writing goal treats. When I’m slogging through a rough patch, ten hours straight of Sons of Anarchy and a latte are a shiny, shiny light for me to reach for.

3.  Have artist friends.  Find people who do not care what you do for a living. Find people who ask you how your real work is going, meaning your art.  For them, your identity is not as a teacher or banker or whatever it is you do to make your daily bread.  For your writer/artist/dancer/filmmaker/photographer/actor friends, your art is the most interesting thing about you. These friends will keep you honest. They will keep the flame alive.

4. Give Unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Do your paying job well enough that you are of service to others and a decent employee, but not so well that it takes over your life. Poet Mary Oliver once said, “I was very careful never to take an interesting job.  If you have an interesting job you get interested in it.”

Okay, so I have failed here one hundred percent.  My job is very interesting to me. If you can figure out a way not to get too emotionally involved in what you do for a living please let me know in the comments because I never could. I’m a big hypocrite to even put this as one of the ways. It is still true. Mary Oliver and Jesus know everything.

5. Overthrow balance. When I’m in the last ten thousand words of a novel, or in the throes of a revision, I’ll eat popcorn for dinner and forget to shower. The house deteriorates around my ears.  My students clamor for me to grade their essays.  My children beg me to feed them.

Once in a while, though, I say forget balance. Artist Camille Claudel didn’t make sure she got in her yoga and meditation before digging her own clay out of the ground. Sometimes art takes over.

Give in.

Photo: Bruce Gellerman
Photo: Bruce Gellerman

Thoreau’s cabin.  So little to clean!


  1. Great advice! Points 1 and 3 in particular right now…


    1. Me too. Co-inspiring friends are really important. Community in art is important. You rock.

      Liked by 1 person

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