[Editor's Note: Don't miss Jeff VanderMeer's reading at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing on Saturday, November 7, 2009, at 4 p.m. Click here for more information.
My new writer's manual Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer is a unique blend of advice on sustainable creativity and careers in our new media age. It's perhaps the first book to incorporate the modern paradigm for writers, i.e. the Internet, into a discussion of topics that have interested writers for centuries, like dealing with success, envy, and despair. For this reason, you won't find a section on the Internet in my book — instead, every section integrates that discussion into the text.
Because it's interested in looking at a writer's life from a strategic level, Booklife also doesn't waste time telling you how to set up a Facebook or Twitter account. Those are administrative details that you can find easily on the Internet. Instead, when I engage new media, it's to tell you, for example, where and when using certain tools like Facebook or Twitter may be useful to your career and to your creativity. The truth is, too many writers mistake the tools for a strategy. It is purely tactical, and thus ultimately self-defeating, to go online and think a tool like Facebook will automatically enrich your Public or Private Booklife.
In addition to providing readers with analysis of tools, platforms, and opportunities afforded by new media, I strongly advocate having a balance in your life that skews toward your creativity and puts all of this "other stuff" in its proper, secondary place.
This excerpt from the "Gut-Check" section of Booklife, which acts as a kind of "wait a second, think this through" buffer between the Public (career) and Private (creativity) sections of the book, discusses the issue of balance. For more on these topics, please visit the new website.
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Booklife is as much about balance as anything else. Balance between your Public and Private Booklife — working smarter and more imaginatively for greater creative satisfaction and gain. Losing balance means losing perspective. When you lose perspective you no longer understand the real value of the elements in your Booklife. You distort the importance of promotion weighed against the actual writing. You rationalize web surfing as "research." You tell yourself that all you need is one more push and you'll be over the hill. You respond to email as it appears in your inbox rather than developing a protocol for response.
In all things, you are completely reactive to stimuli. This is one consequence of a modern Booklife that has drifted, because our platforms, opportunities, and tools create a false sense of control. By simply responding to information that comes to you from conduits, you feel you're closer to achieving goals. But there's the nagging sense behind it all that instead all you're doing is treading water. The goal's still on the horizon, and you're expending a lot of useless energy.
Consequently, too, you're probably not spending a lot of time in the physical world. A balance between the physical and electronic worlds is crucial here. My personal sense of balance requires at least a few hours of walking in the woods every week to truly reset my fragmented, over-stimulated mind. As writers, we don't enhance our skills of observation and intuitiveness by sitting in front of a screen 24–7, and so an hour in the woods or out among people is about a hundred times more valuable to me than an extra hour for networking or other work situated on the "intertubes." As the writer Brendan Connell wrote on his blog, "I plan all my writing while walking...usually in some natural setting. I once read that Dickens would plan his novels while walking also. I think movement and seeing things outside is very beneficial for the mind."
However, everyone is different. You might have another approach to achieving balance. Many of my friends find peace by going to church or synagogue, for example. Others prefer meditation. A few hang out in bars or coffee houses just to recharge by soaking up some atmosphere; stimulation of the senses can be a powerful way to regain balance.
The sedentary, insular nature of a writing career is exacerbated because most writers have full or part-time jobs. This means that your average work week, including the writing, might run anywhere from sixty to eighty hours. In this kind of situation, you will quickly lose track of family, friends, and your spirituality. The house will fall into disrepair. At times, I must confess, my office has looked like a storage room, or like a pigsty — even though I work at home and theoretically should have the time to clean up.
So I'm certainly no stranger to a lack of balance — you strive for the ideal and you always fail. Sometimes you must sacrifice balance to achieve your goals, but you have to be aware of that sacrifice and realize that you will need to "reset" at some point. You'll need to do so not just for your sanity but for the sanity of the people around you.