Using my day job skills to be a better writer
The following is an article originally posted on Minnesota Playlist, written by playwright Gemma Irish, in which she describes how her daily work in marketing at a Fortune 500 company has made her a better artist.
Writers are notorious procrastinators. We would rather do the dishes, read the entire internet, eat a sandwich, or meet friends at the bar than sit down and write. When we finally get down to work (probably because we have a deadline looming, and/or we’re disgusted with ourselves) we drink sherry, we write while reclined, or standing up, or at a café, or in absolute silence. We need just the right conditions, the right pen, the right atmosphere in which to write.
I have to be honest with you: I am guilty of cleaning my entire kitchen instead of re-writing a play, and furthermore I am guilty of getting caught up in the mystique of Being A Writer. “This is how I’m supposed to act! I’m supposed to be a total weirdo and drink too much coffee and put off revising this draft by cleaning my apartment and researching serial killers! It proves that I am a Real Writer!”
But that, my fellow artists, is bullsh*t.
In Dayjob Land, I am an assistant to a Marketing Executive at a Fortune 500 company. I do not have the luxury of procrastinating at my day job (although I certainly try!), because things move too fast. Recently I have challenged myself to apply some of my day-job skills to my writing-job. Here are my top five most useful Dayjob tricks:
1) Make time
At Dayjob, if it isn’t on my boss’s calendar, he doesn’t do it. I literally have to schedule time for him to eat. If he and I need to have a conversation about the budget, I add it to the calendar, even though I sit right outside his door. The calendar is our bible. My boss promises to do every single thing that’s on the calendar; and I promise not to overload it.
I’m trying to keep a writing calendar. Saturday from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM is writing time. I can go to a coffee shop, I can sit in bed, but wherever I am I have to be writing. Sunday from 9:00 – 10:30 AM is playwright email time. I reach out to directors, return emails from collaborators, research space rentals, and send 10-page script samples to regional theaters. This is not a time for long confessional emails to college friends across the country, this is time for the business of playwriting. I can still have a social life, see plays, try that new taco joint, as long as I schedule it outside of Writing Hours.
2) Make a list
Making the list helps me clear my head and organize my thoughts. Following the list keeps me on track and focused. At Dayjob, I receive an average of 100-150 emails a day. It is easy to get sucked into the email vortex, and do nothing else all day. Having a list reminds me what I’m working towards. Creatively, I mostly use lists when I am in Producer mode, but they are also helpful during the re-write process. My lists are extremely detailed – I get overwhelmed by big projects (“Find rehearsal space”), so I try to break them down into smaller steps (“Check spacemART. Call friend with condo community room. Ask parents to use garage.”). Plus, more steps equals more chances to cross things off the list. Yessssss. I make mine the old school way, on a piece of paper, but there are a ton of apps that can help you do the same thing digitally.
3) Set yourself up for success
I know my boss functions best when he has time to hit the gym in the morning, so I don’t schedule his meetings before 9 AM. I know I get cranky when I’m hungry, so I keep a drawer full of Lara bars in my desk. I’m naturally a morning person, so I try not to stay up late on nights before I have to write. I love waking up early and making coffee and writing. These all seem like small things, but taking care of the small things sets me up to take care of the big things.
4) Shut up and do it
Often, in Dayjob Land, as my boss is flying out the door already late to a meeting, he will throw a casual request over his shoulder. “Can you track down those creative files with the dog? Need them before noon to show Adam.” What files? Why is there a dog? Who is Adam? The correct response to this request is “Of course! They’ll be in your hands by noon.” As much as I love to complain about the random, hilarious, bizarre requests I get at work, it turns out that when I take time to complain about these things, I don’t get that time back. And that is time that I later wish I had spent making phone calls to track down some kind of files that apparently feature dogs. Likewise, I love a good bitch session about which writers are getting all the grants, how white and male the Guthrie’s season is AGAIN, and how mind-blowingly awesome my new play idea is. Some of these conversations are totally worth having, but none of these conversations is writing. Only writing is writing. Shut up and do it.
5) Nothing is personal
It’s just not. My boss snapped at me because he misread his calendar and went to the wrong conference room. It’s because he’s having a bad day. He needs a Diet Coke. An actor did something totally weird in rehearsal, and then was a dick about it. It’s not because she thinks I’m stupid and doesn’t want to work with me, it’s because she was stressed out, plus I think she’s going through a breakup or something. My first, and second, and third drafts all suck. This play does not make any sense. It’s not about me being a good or a bad person, being worthy of love, being worthy of success. It’s about what I can do to make the fourth draft suck less. Just write.
These five tips are all very well and good, but I find that I still want my weird writer things. I want my special pen, and my Spotify grime playlist, and my comfy couch. And I think that if you look at every writer’s peculiar, particular routine, you will find it is not a fussy procrastination tactic, but rather a strict routine that ensures a strict outcome: writing. Whether you need to put time on your calendar, or turn off your cell phone, or have a glass of sherry, or write standing up, if it works for you and makes you write, do it. Godspeed.
(This article, originally posted on minnesotaplaylist.com, is one in a weekly series highlighting the pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage. Visit our website to find out how both businesses and local arts agencies can get involved!)