Jillian Medoff: 11 Tips for Balancing Work and Creativity
How to have it all, without going crazy.
Posted Feb 02, 2018
Contributed by Jillian Medoff, author of This Could Hurt
"Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." — Marcelle Proust
I’ve eaten the same breakfast—Cheerios, frozen raspberries, skim milk, and black coffee—every day for the past 35 years. I’ve had the same job—management consulting—for the past 22. I trot on a treadmill three times a week; my clothes are organized by season then type then color; and I have three To Do lists—job, book, life—that I tick off, continually. My daily routine is the same, more or less: I wake up at 6:15am, I commute to work, I write novels, I raise my kids, I love my husband, I read, I watch crime shows, I sleep.
As a result of all this order and regularity, I’ve been able to pursing two distinct, unrelated careers over the past few decades: becoming a solid corporate citizen during the day, while earning an MFA and publishing four novels in the shadows. Dude, Proust would say if he met me. Lighten up.
Working at a corporate job is hard. Writing novels is hard. God knows, being (happily) married and raising (well-adjusted) children is nearly impossible. When people ask how I do all three, sometimes simultaneously, I tell them the truth: I have no idea. Honestly, over the years, I’ve had a lot more losses than wins. Still, I have figured out a few shortcuts to help make my lives—work, writing, and home—a little easier to manage.
Maximize Your Working Life
1. Triage. While at first glance, I appear to be a highly motivated person, I’m actually a highly motivated planner. If I have ten project on my To Do list and am assigned an eleventh, my first response is to step back and assess. If I don’t—if I jump right in—I’ll feel overloaded, and shut down completely, thereby getting nothing done. Having a plan of attack allows me to prioritize my deliverables and focus on one task at a time. Even if I decide two weeks before starting that eleventh project, I’ll get to it eventually, and that knowledge frees me up to stay in the moment and fully concentrate on what’s right in front of me.
2. Organize. The art of highly motivated planning is rooted in lists and calendars. I make lists of all my projects, including even small errands, like a trip to the post office or signing my daughter’s Model UN permission slips. Not only does a comprehensive To Do list give order to my otherwise chaotic day, I get a sense of accomplishment when I tick off less important errands, which in turn energizes me to tackle larger, more daunting projects.
3. Stay in the now. When I’m in the office, I do my job; when I’m writing fiction, I shut off the phone. It’s not always easy to focus all my attention to one subject, but it’s infinitely more efficient and less stressful. Plus, my work product is richer for it. I used to believe I was great at multi-tasking, but came to see that my business writing lacked depth and complexity. Truly great communication requires truly engaged thinking.
4. Read emails (and texts) as they come in, not all at once. Conventional wisdom says to read emails in groups, two or three times a day. I disagree. I prefer to know sooner rather than later if there’s an emergency; even if there’s no emergency, I want to know what’s coming so I can triage. If I have to wait a few hours before checking my emails, I’ll just get anxious. To me, peace of mind is worth a little distraction.
Maximize Your Writing Life
5. Choose one medium. Having a corporate job means I have time for only type of creative pursuit—adult literary fiction. I don’t write book reviews, poetry, short stories, one-act plays, long-form journalism, YA fantasy, adult fantasy, or science fiction. There are downsides to this approach; I worry, for instance, that my myopia is limiting, and that I’m losing a valuable learning experience by not attempting a different art form. On the other hand, over the past three decades, my novels have become more sophisticated, more complex and better controlled, so I guess that’s the tradeoff.
6. Say no. When I was younger, I went to a lot of book parties, readings, and conferences because I thought networking was important to my writing career. While I did meet many talented and inspiring authors, the events themselves did little for my career, and even less for my actual writing. A career as a novelist comes from writing novels, day in and day out, which means spending less time at parties, less time on social media, less time talking about writing novels, and more time at my desk—alone.
7. Say yes. Despite my limited time and obligation to my own writing, I am part of a literary community. I attend book launches when invited, offer blurbs when asked, post glowing reviews on Goodreads, and send lots of fan letters. No matter how many years I’m in this business, I’m still awed and humbled by my fellow authors’ talent, hard work and grit. So I show up, reach out, and say “wow, what an accomplishment.”
Maximize Your Home Life
8. Follow Proust’s advice. I was serious when I said I’ve eaten the same breakfast for the past 35 years; I also really do group my clothes by season and color. True, I’m a creature of habit by nature, but I also purposely limit my choices for meals, outfits, exercise, and basic day-to-day living. Honestly, if I could wear a uniform and eat Soylent three times a day, I absolutely would.
9. Have a hobby. For me, creative writing isn’t a hobby—it’s hard work. Facing a blank page is intimidating, demoralizing, and emotionally exhausting. Plus, the rejections never end. So I find activities to help me blow off steam and reset my focus. As much as I despise exercise, I feel better when I do, so I run slowly three days a week for 40 minutes. I also read a lot (commuting on the train and before bed) and watch crime shows—the more complex and twisted, the better.
10. Play to your strengths. When my husband and I moved in together, we decided that he’d oversee housecleaning and maintenance, and I’d oversee all food-related chores (planning, shopping, cooking, kid lunches, etc.). He’s much cleverer than I am: a month later, he hired a cleaning lady and a handy man whereas seventeen years later, I’m still trudging through the supermarket and overthinking our family’s meal calendar. (I might eat the same thing every day but they refuse.) Thankfully, it finally occurred to me that I can call Fresh Direct, order ready-to-eat meals and hand my kid ten dollars for the food trucks. The moral of the story? No need to be a superhero—hire help when you can.
11. Recite our family’s manta: it’s better to be kind than to be right. A happy family is a supportive family, and if you’re really gonna have a real job and write novels, you’re gonna need all the help you can get. Trust me.
I’ll be completely honest with you. Over the past thirty-odd years, I haven’t thought that much about how to negotiate my job, writing novels and my family; there was so much to do, I mostly kept my head down, and focused on whatever came next. It’s only in retrospect that I’m able to see my systems and shortcuts, all of which are constantly evolving. And I’ll tell you something else: I don’t always get it right. I’ve had more than my share of dissatisfied clients, unwritten chapters, unfinished chores, and annoyed family members (“Hot dogs? Again?”). But tomorrow’s another day, so I press on, push forward and do my best. (“Yes. Hot dogs. Again.”)
Jillian Medoff is the author of four novels: This Could Hurt, I Couldn’t Love You More, Good Girls Gone Bad, and Hunger Point. A former fellow at MacDowell, Blue Mountain Center, VCCA, and Fundación Valparaíso, Medoff has an MFA from NYU. She is a Senior Consultant at the Segal Group.