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Filling Your Writing Life

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photo adapted / Horia Varlan


Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could pick up a manual on “Best Writing Practices” and follow its advice all the way to publishing success? Reality is, though, we writers are each wonderfully and necessarily unique, and how we spend our days will reflect that. Because new opportunities and changing priorities have caused me to revisit the components of my diminished writing life, a recent episode of THE HAPPINESS LAB, a podcast hosted by Dr. Laurie Santos, clarified my issues by offering up a commonsense image of how to envision time in my overfull life. I share it here in case it might help you, too.

A professor placed a big, clear jar on his desk and then filled it with golf balls. When he asked if the jar was full, the students nodded. Then he poured pebbles into the jar, which filtered in between the balls. When he asked if the jar was now full, the students nodded with knowing smiles. Then he poured sand into the jar, which filled in even smaller gaps. When he asked if the jar was now full, the students said yes.

He said, “This jar is your life. The golf balls are the things that really matter to you. The sand is all the thoughtless ways we spend our time. If we put that in first, the important things won’t fit.”

This image wasn’t new to me, as Stephen Covey used a similar rocks-gravel-sand anecdote in his 1994 release, First Things First. With so many of our lives upended during Covid—I’m imagining rocks and golf balls spilled all over the place—it’s now a great time to reassess what we put back into our jars. Ideally, you will fill them with activities that will enrich your writing life and therefore increase your sense of fulfillment.

If you could spend your day exactly how you wanted, what would you do to be happier?

The podcast guest who shared the golf ball story, social psychologist Cassie Holmes of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and author of the forthcoming Happier Hour, had something to say that will be relevant to the writer who has fantasized about clearing eight hours day to finally nail their novel: psychologically, that might not be the best solution.

For an optimal sense of fulfillment, Holmes’ research suggests we seek a sweet spot of 2-5 discretionary hours per day to invest in activities that will make our lives feel fulfilling. So while there is such a thing as having too little discretionary time, there is also such a thing as having too much: on the regular, her data shows that having more than 5 hours per day of discretionary time results in a decreased sense of life satisfaction.

If you were to dump the contents of your jar, which activities would you add back in to foster the most fulfilling creative life?

Our answers will have much in common, since writers have little discretionary time. Writing itself requires a handful of golf balls right off the bat. Publication adds more. Many golf balls may well be devoted to the reliable paycheck that supports our writing habit. We must continue our education, be that reading novels or craft books, researching, or giving/receiving critique.

What many of us may be missing in our jars altogether, though, is enough time to observe and process the life around us—what our teachers and parents might have pejoratively called daydreaming, yet which is an important component of the writing life. Imagine even a half a golf ball for that!

The stories of the great writers of the past—Hemingway, Faulkner, and Vonnegut among them—always sounded so romantic to me because these men wrote in the morning and then walked in the afternoon to allow their ideas further time to cure.

That’s what I’m missing. The cure. Allowing for it and planning to include time for it is, in this era, a mad skill.

Three years ago, while tracking the hours I spent on various endeavors with the goal of freeing up more time to write, I learned that under the guise of promotion, I was spending way too many discretionary hours on social media. I’d gained some visibility as an author, sure, yet gained no visible boost in sales.

Pulling back, I realized that chatting about myself to an invisible audience had long ago lost its allure. My feed was like endless snacking when what I needed was more nourishing meals. It brought distraction, but never happiness. (Hmm, was I just talking about social media in the past tense? Yes, lately, I’ve even toyed with closing all my social media accounts, but that might take bravery I don’t quite yet possess.)

What could make me happier?

Well, I’m not quite done relating that jar demonstration. When we left off, the jar now had the golf balls, the pebbles, and the sand, and the students thought the jar was full. Then, the professor poured in—and the jar accepted—the contents of two bottles of Corona.

So what was the beer about, his students asked.

His answer: “No matter how full your jar is, you always have time for a beer with a friend.”

Whether over coffee, lunch, or a beer, significant interactions with other people always make me happy. When I had to move my Your Novel Year program online, I sorely missed hosting its writers in my living room.

Lack of interpersonal interaction is without question one of our great Covid losses, but even before 2020, I’d often forsaken time with family and friends to chase my writing dreams, thinking that this is simply the tunnel vision/laser focus/sacrifice that the writing life demands.

But what if my writing might actually be better for the interactions I was denying myself? While investing time in my characters, with the hope that further publication would help me leave a legacy, what if I was failing to invest in the real-life relationships that would be guaranteed to keep my memory alive?

These are the golf balls I want to place in my jar: writing, client editing, reading, teaching, daily exercise, and continuing to learn French. All of these things bring me joy. Daydreaming and new experiences in new places will be the pebbles that will fit in around everything else. If I stay on social media, it will be the sand lightly sprinkled in last. And then, I’m going to pour in a healthy dose of meeting up with the family who loves me, the friends who appreciate me, and interesting strangers who will inspire new thoughts.

My final step will be to put a lid on my jar and protect its contents. Its volume is limited, after all, and the life I’ve built to support my writing  is diminished when I allow random golf balls to displace my writing time. Instead of sharing moments of joy, beauty, and sorrow on social media, I long to hoard my life experiences and let them cure without the overwhelming influx of everyone else’s ideas to dilute them. I sense that from this, my best writing ideas will grow.

One thing’s for sure: if it’s possible to create my ideal writing life, I’m the only one who can make it happen. Having written or not, in the end, how I’ve chosen to invest my hours each day will add up to the life I’ve lived.

Please share: Which golf balls do you add to your jar that meaningfully impact your writing life? Is social media in your jar, and if so, is it golf ball, pebble, sand, or a beer with friends? And speaking of beer with friends, I hope to “meet up with you” at the Writer Unboxed OnConference! Meeting up with others in the Writer Unboxed community always enriches my life.


About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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